Uecker, Bob (1935—)

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Uecker, Bob (1935—)

No baseball player ever built more around a lifetime batting average of.200 than sportscaster/humorist Bob Uecker. The former catcher for three National League teams parlayed his limited on-field abilities into a lucrative second career, becoming visible through his play-by-play commentary, roles in sitcoms and movies, and a series of commercial endorsements. "Anybody with ability can play in the big leagues," he once remarked. "But to be able to trick people year in and year out the way I did, I think that's a much greater feat."

A Milwaukee native, Uecker was signed by the hometown Braves (National League pennant winners in 1957 and 1958) for $3,000. "That bothered my dad at the time," Uecker later joked, "because he didn't have that kind of money to pay out." Contrary to his public persona, Uecker actually hit very well in the Braves' minor league system, batting over.300 in three different seasons. He eventually joined the parent Braves in 1962, where he was used for his defensive skills.

During the 1964 season Uecker was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, and was part of a World Series team. "I made a major contribution to the Cardinals' pennant drive," he told Johnny Carson. "I came down with hepatitis. The trainer injected me with it." Before the first game of the World Series, Uecker stole a tuba from a Dixieland band and caught outfield flies with it during batting practice. Teammate Tim McCarver later credited Uecker's infectious humor with the Cardinals' upset win over the Yankees in the Series: "If Bob Uecker had not been on the Cardinals, then it's questionable whether we could have beaten the Yankees." He practiced doing play-by-play by broadcasting into beer cups in the Cardinals' bullpen ("Beer cups don't criticize," he later observed). While Uecker's offensive skills were weak, he had his greatest batting success, ironically, off the top pitcher of his generation, Sandy Koufax. Uecker was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1966, retiring a year later.

In 1971 Uecker was hired to do play-by-play for the new Milwaukee Brewers team in the American League, and quickly became a fan favorite for his self-deprecating humor as well as his observant commentary. In 1976 he was picked to announce games for ABC's Monday Night Baseball program, where he was paired with the ubiquitous Howard Cosell. Cosell, who possessed a large vocabulary and a thinly-veiled contempt for baseball, was a worthy companion for the unpretentious Uecker. When Cosell asked Uecker to use the word "truculent" in a sentence, Uecker quickly replied, "If you had a truck and I borrowed it, that would be a truck-you-lent." Uecker also became a favorite guest on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.

Uecker enjoyed popularity as a commercial spokesman for Miller Lite beer in the 1970s and 1980s, poking fun at his athletic inability. In the most famous spot, Uecker was shown in the stands touting Miller Lite while waiting for his complimentary tickets from the team management ("I must be in the front row!"). As the commercial faded to black, Uecker was seen in his free seats—in the uppermost part of the upper deck.

Uecker wrote a bestselling autobiography in 1982 titled Catcher in the Wry. From 1985 to 1990 he costarred on the popular ABC situation comedy Mr. Belvedere, where his irreverent sportswriter character proved a perfect foil for Christopher Hewitt's title role of a stuffy, English-born butler. In 1989 he enjoyed his greatest success as Harry Doyle, the comical announcer for the woebegone Cleveland Indians in Major League, a surprise movie comedy hit. Uecker's ironic play-by-play—when Charlie Sheen's pitches land ten rows up in the grandstand, Uecker remarks, "Jusssst a bit outside"—chronicled the Indians' improbable rise to clinch the American League pennant.

Uecker returned to network baseball coverage in 1997, joining Bob Costas and Joe Morgan on NBC's broadcasts of playoff and World Series games. Again, Uecker's self-effacement played well off the erudition of both his colleagues. When asked to describe his greatest moment as a player, Uecker said with pride, "Driving home the winning run by walking with the bases loaded."

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Green, Lee. Sportswit. New York, Harper and Row, 1984.

Shatzkin, Mike. The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York, William Morrow, 1990.

Smith, Curt. The Storytellers. New York, Macmillan, 1995.

Uecker, Bob, with Mickey Herskowitz. Catcher in the Wry. New York, Putnam, 1982.