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Brewers celebrate Uecker's legendary career

MIL View Full Game Coverage WAUKEE -- Veteran broadcaster Bob Costas, who has made a career providing perspective, began Friday seeking it. How did a backup catcher who batted .200 during a famously forgettable Major League career wind up immortalized with a bronze statue outside Miller Park, standing alongside two Hall of Famers and the Commissioner of Major League Baseball?

How did we get here? Bob Uecker swears it's all because of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Uecker found fame because of his failure as a Major League scout. Fiery former Brewers general manager Frank Lane had sent Uecker to grade prospects in the Northern League in 1970, and was horrified when the first batch of reports returned all but unreadable, slathered in the remains of a meal Uecker had enjoyed at an American Legion Post in Fargo, N.D.

Lane demanded a change.

"That was it," Uecker said.

True story.

"That is absolutely true," said MLB Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig, who was the Brewers' owner back then. "He was the worst scout in baseball history. Fortunately, it only lasted a few months."

Fortunately, Selig moved Uecker to the broadcast booth in 1971.

Fortunately, Uecker's natural gift for comedy led him to Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show, which led to a starring role in commercials, television and films, which led to fame.

Fortunately, Uecker never left the Brewers' broadcast booth.

For that longevity, and for entertaining Brewers fans for 42 seasons and counting, whether spent at the top of the standings or the bottom, the Brewers made Uecker a permanent fixture outside Miller Park on Friday afternoon. His seven foot statue joined similar tributes to Selig, who brought the Brewers to Milwaukee, and Hall of Fame players Henry Aaron and Robin Yount.

"The baseball announcer becomes a link to their fans," Selig said. "You go to Harry Caray, or Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Mel Allen in New York, Vin Scully is legendary, a classic.

"That's Bob Uecker here."

That was a rare moment of sincerity on a laughter-filled afternoon spent celebrating one of baseball's great characters.

Some highlights:

-- Uecker, on why he stayed in Milwaukee all these years: "It was a parole thing."

-- Costas, on the statue's company: "If you walk on the plaza and listen closely, you can hear Henry's statue begging to be relocated to Lambeau [Field]. When word of this got out, pigeons all over the Midwest relocated to Milwaukee to pay their respects."

-- Yount, via video message, standing in front of the Colosseum in Rome: "He's been around so long, I think he played here."

-- NBC executive Dick Ebersol: "One thing I want to set straight right now -- Bob did not have to pay for the statue. I know that's been going around."

-- Aaron: "I want to go back to the time when we were playing in Atlanta, and I was in a semi slump. You were always in a slump."

"And yet we proceed," Costas said, "and dedicate a statue to a man who couldn't hit the curveball, the fastball, or even successfully execute his end of an intentional walk."

Uecker, 77, was born in Milwaukee and, contrary to the stories he has told over the years, was a terrific high school baseball player at Boys Tech who signed with his hometown Braves in 1956 and made it to the Majors as a 27-year-old backup catcher in 1962.

He was traded to the Cardinals in 1964, just in time to win a World Series ring, and went on to play for the Phillies and the Braves again, this time in Atlanta, before branching into other interests.

A talent scout for the Tonight Show discovered him at a nightclub owned by jazz trumpeter Al Hirt in 1969, opening the door to more than 100 appearances with Carson, followed by his popular Miller Lite commercials, a starring role on the ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere and the Major League series of films.

"One of the great privileges of my life, and of Bob's life, was to really know Johnny Carson well," Ebersol, who was head of the network's Late Night division when Uecker debuted. "And Johnny told me on more than one occasion, including about two months before he died, in a very raspy phone call [because] he had a form of emphysema ... that Bob Uecker was the most original humorist he had ever known, that it all came from Bob's gut, from Bob's soul. He was not surrounded by an army of writers. He was, legitimately, in Johnny's mind, the funniest man he ever knew."

Ebersol employed Uecker on a series of other shows, including three Wrestlemania broadcasts.

But Uecker never left his spot in the Brewers' broadcast booth, though there were opportunities. Selig on Friday revealed that the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner tried to secretly lure Uecker away.

"We found Bob the spot he was destined for, sitting behind a microphone, bringing the Brewers to their fans day in and day out," Selig said, "and becoming, as it turned out, the best ambassador that this franchise could have ever hoped for. He's been the voice and face of this franchise -- think about this -- for four decades."

Other attendees to Friday's ceremony included former Tonight Show band director Doc Severinsen, looking sharp in pink leather pants while playing before and during the proceedings. Aaron's wife, Billye, was coaxed onstage by Uecker for an impromptu performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Uecker's castmates from Mr. Belvedere sat in the front row, and former Braves teammates Joe Torre, Johnny Logan and Felix Mantilla sat near former Brewers Rollie Fingers, Jim Gantner and Gorman Thomas. Nearly 20 current Brewers including Ryan Braun broke their usual pregame routine to attend.

"We have a rich tradition in Milwaukee here, and we can't celebrate it enough," Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said. "Today is really a blessing, and really, one of the nicest days in my years of ownership."

Uecker spoke after the big reveal of his statue, which depicts him standing casually with his hands in his pockets. After pulling the curtain away, Uecker turned to emcee Costas and asked, "What do you want me to do?"

Costas: "What do you want to do?"

Uecker: "I want to get my money back."

But he choked up at the end of his remarks, explaining later he was thinking of his son, Steve, who passed away the day of the Brewers' season opener.

Most of the day was spent smiling and saying, "That reminds me of a story..."

"I tell you what, I laughed today really bad," Uecker said. "It was really funny stuff."

Milwaukee Brewers