Grateful Uecker back in booth for Crew

March 2nd, 2021

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- It might be one of the biggest signings in Brewers history, and it happened with no fanfare at all.

Bob Uecker finally has a contract.

Uecker stopped by the ballpark right around Thanksgiving to sign the deal, ending a streak of handshake agreements with Brewers owners Bud Selig and Mark Attanasio that stretched all the way back to 1971. Like so many things over the past year, you can pin it on the coronavirus. Uecker had long received health benefits via the Screen Actors Guild, but they discontinued coverage at the end of 2020, so Uecker signed a contract with the Brewers in order to join their insurance plan.

On Tuesday, "Mr. Baseball" started earning his keep. Uecker joined radio broadcast partner Jeff Levering and longtime engineer Kent Sommerfeld for the call of the Brewers’ exhibition home opener against the A’s at American Family Fields of Phoenix.

It was good to be back at the ballpark.

“It’s amazing how you take everything for granted,” said Uecker, 87. “Being down there on the field, shooting the bull. Then when you can’t do it, it’s bad. You really lose that.”

Uecker lost that in 2020, his 50th season on the mic for his hometown team. A Milwaukee native who played for the Braves -- seriously, Uecker was a bona fide big leaguer, no matter what he’s told you over the years. He joined the fledgling Brewers as a scout, but soon fell out of favor with GM Frank Lane when reports arrived smothered in mashed potatoes and gravy. That’s a true story.

He began stopping by the radio booth that summer of ’71 to provide some color for broadcasters Merle Harmon and Tom Collins, meaning that sometime this year -- Uecker and the club aren’t exactly sure of the precise date -- Uecker will celebrate his 50th anniversary on the air for the Brewers.

By ’72 it was a regular gig, and Uecker called play-by-play in the fifth inning. One day at Yankee Stadium, Harmon and Collins abruptly stood up and left the booth. Uecker held down the cough button and begged them to come back. Eventually, he was forced to start talking.

He never stopped.

“It's another year of baseball, another year on the air for him, which is incredible,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It really is. And as good as ever, and as funny as ever, and I hope we get to -- I haven't even thought about that yet, but there should be a way that we're at some point allowed to do those [pregame] shows in person again. I look forward to it.”

Last year, Uecker worked from a distance, denied access to the field level at the ballpark just like everyone else who didn’t have Tier 1 or Tier 2 status under the health and safety protocols put in place to keep the coronavirus at bay. Uecker and Counsell did their pregame radio show remotely, with Counsell walking to a booth near the clubhouse.

“It was awful,” Uecker said. “How do you do that for 50 years and then one day they tell you, ‘You can’t go in there anymore.’ That’s what was bad. And I understand. You don’t want to infect one of the players, that would be the last thing you want to do.”

But after decades of being more part of the team than just about any other broadcaster in history, Uecker couldn’t stand the thought of staying away from the ballpark entirely, so he continued to call home games from the booth. How close is he to this club? The Brewers have made the postseason each of the past three years, and every year they have blown their longtime broadcaster away by voting him a playoff share. Uecker donated the money to the Wounded Warrior Project and Make-A-Wish Foundation, and in 2020, he also donated to a fund for seasonal stadium workers who were out of a job because there were no fans in the stands at the stadium.

Uecker turned 87 in January. He, his wife Judy and Brewers Hall of Famer Robin Yount got their first shot of the coronavirus vaccine at the Arizona Cardinals football stadium in January, and they all received the second shot a few weeks later. It was one of the moments that gave Uecker a sense of perspective during the offseason. Another came in the form of a call from the folks at Make-A-Wish, who told Uecker of a 14-year-old boy from Sheboygan, Silas, whose one wish was to record a sports talk show with Uecker. They were working to set that up as of this week. Other moments came in the form of baseball’s losses over the winter. While baseball fans mourned the loss of so many Hall of Famers, Uecker was mourning some of his best friends.

Uecker was heartbroken when doctors declined his wishes to attend Henry Aaron’s funeral in Atlanta in late January. About a month earlier, just after Christmas, Uecker received a call from Phil Niekro, his old batterymate in Atlanta. He called Niekro, “Thrower.” Niekro, the legendary knuckleballer, called Uecker, “Chaser.”

“He was talking a little slow and raspy, so after I while I said, ‘Where are you?’” Uecker said.

Niekro told Uecker he was in hospice.

“I said, ‘Hospice?’ He said yeah, ‘I wanted to call and say goodbye to you,’” Uecker said. “So, we talked for about 10 minutes, and he started to get tired, I could tell. I said, ‘You know what, why don’t you go lay down and sleep and I’ll holler at you later on.’

“I’m telling you, that was one of the toughest calls. And eight hours later, he died.”

Uecker goes on. He has Tier 2 access this year, offering clearance to be a bit closer to the players and coaches who have missed him. The feeling was mutual. Last week, Uecker was on hand for the Brewers’ first full-squad workout and got to go back into the clubhouse. The ribbing resumed as if he had not been away at all.

“Bob really had a hard time with last year because his lifeblood is being part of the team,” Levering said. “Being with the guys, shaking hands, getting to know about these players and their families. That’s who he is. He really struggled with not being a part of that. It ate at him. He liked being at the ballpark, but not being able to go down there and swim and be with the guys, that ate at him.”

Downstairs, he was missed. Counsell has known Uecker since Counsell was in grade school and tagged along with his dad to County Stadium when John Counsell worked for the club.

“Last year, I didn't see Uke in person,” Counsell said. “I guess we'd see him from the field to the press box at home games, but that was the only time I saw him. I have seen him this spring. It's great to see him. I know he's excited to be back at the field and being able to interact a little bit more.

“What’s remarkable is how good he is at his age. Everything is good with him, his physical condition. Everything is just so good. It’s incredible. It doesn’t feel like he’s aging. That’s the best way to say it. That’s awesome. He’s living the right life.”

Uecker still swims every day. Just the other day he played a round of golf with Hall of Famers Yount, Goose Gossage, George Brett and pro golfer Tom Purtzer. After enduring some serious health scares in recent years, Uecker went into 2021 with a clean bill of health.

“He’s got the secrets, man,” Counsell said. “I’m starting to get interested in those secrets.”