Uecker set for 50th year at mic: 'I'm happy'

June 24th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- This is not the way Bob Uecker drew up his 50th season calling games for his hometown team.

But if Major League Baseball succeeds in resuming play in late July, Uecker intends to be at Miller Park for the Brewers’ first home game, calling the live action on radio, as he has been doing since 1971.

“I’m going to do it from Miller Park,” said Uecker, 86. “I’ll do it in the booth with Jeff [Levering], and then road games, Jeff and Lane Grindle will do that. I’m going to be there and get tested just like everyone else. I wanted to go back to work. I’m glad to be going back to work.”

Uecker is at increased risk for COVID-19 because of his age and health history, including surgery in 1991 for an aortal aneurysm in his abdomen and multiple surgeries in 2010 for pancreatic cancer, a leaky heart valve and later for an infection. By his count, Uecker has had 11 major surgeries.

Uecker said he made the decision to return to the booth this season after extensive conversations with Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and other club officials, including medical officials. He knows that it will be challenging to produce the proper emotion in a mostly empty ballpark, and he anticipates missing dearly the interaction with players. Like others in the press box, Uecker is likely to come and go from a separate entrance.

“I’m on the shortstop side of second base right now. I’m coming down the home stretch,” Uecker said. “And I still want to work. I still feel like working, and I don’t think that will change until I make the call that I think enough is enough and move on. We all know down the road is the bottom of the ninth, man. No matter what we do, no matter how we try to take care of ourselves, sooner or later, the time comes.

“But for me, right now, I’m feeling good. I’m happy. I’m glad I’m going back to work. I’ll know when to stop. I’m not going to embarrass myself or embarrass the team. I would never do that. When I don’t feel I’m capable of working anymore, whether it’s 50 years or 51 years or 52 years, I don’t know, but I’ll be the first one to know.”

Was it a difficult decision to go to work during the pandemic?

“No, it wasn’t,” Uecker said. “I thought about that, and so did the ballclub. I talked with Mark about it, who is looking out for me. … I know I am one of the older people out there at the ballpark, but I didn’t want to do anything from my house. … At least you can feed off the ballpark. There are things to talk about.”

Uecker has plenty to talk about. This is his 65th season in pro baseball, beginning with the day he signed with his hometown Milwaukee Braves in 1956. He signed for $3,000 -- “That bothered my dad at the time because he didn’t have that kind of dough. But he eventually scraped it up,” Uecker has joked ever since -- and spent six seasons in the Majors from 1962-67. In retirement, Uecker dabbled in TV with the Braves and gained fame after tickling the funny bone of legendary comedian Don Rickles. That led to an introduction to Johnny Carson and more than 100 appearances on “The Tonight Show” beginning in 1970.

In 1971, Uecker began the baseball season as a scout for Brewers founder Bud Selig, who -- Uecker and Selig both swear this is true -- sent Uecker up to the radio booth after receiving scouting reports smeared with mashed potatoes and gravy. On radio, Uecker told stories alongside Merle Harmon and Tom Collins and eventually called play-by-play in the fifth inning. One day at Yankee Stadium, Harmon and Collins abruptly stood and left the booth, urging Uecker to call the game on his own. After pleading with them to stay, Uecker turned to the engineer and asked what he should do.

“I don’t know,” came the answer, “but you’d better start talking. There’s one out.”

So Uecker started talking. It began a play-by-play career that took him to Cooperstown as the 2003 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting.

How beloved is he at the ballpark? The Brewers’ recent postseason teams have voted him a playoff share, which is not typical for a broadcaster. Uecker donated the money to some of his favorite charities.

Now he’s eager for the game to return. When the temperature got too hot in Phoenix in April, Uecker came home to Milwaukee, where his yard, he said, is looking better than ever. He’s been out fishing on Lake Michigan a handful of times but has mostly stayed home with his wife, Judy.

He joked that his neighbors are sick of seeing him.

“I’m glad we’re going back to do some sort of a season,” Uecker said. “It’s not what I was hoping for. We did 12 games in Spring Training, the ones I worked, and everything was looking good until then. But it happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it, nothing I can do about it.

“I’m doing what everybody else is doing, and that’s stay locked down, shut down and wear a mask if I do need one. I went in the store a couple of weeks ago with a catcher’s mask, and they told me it was the wrong one. It helps when you get punched in the face, but that’s about it.”

That happens to him a lot at the grocery store, does it?

“Yeah,” Uecker said. “A lot of people are still living that saw me play.”