Legendary Uecker forges ahead after offseason of tribulation

June 2nd, 2022

This story was originally published in March 2022.

PHOENIX -- Bob Uecker has always loved Spring Training, but following two offseason surgeries, a bout of COVID-19 and losing his daughter to a heartbreaking battle with ALS, the sunshine and the laughs feel better than ever this year.

“To work and be around the guys, just to be in the clubhouse again,” Uecker said, “is huge.”

Uecker, 88, is heading towards his 52nd season calling Brewers games on radio, a job he plans to continue until he cannot do it anymore. He insists he will know when the time is right, and this is not the time, even on the heels of one of his most trying winters.

It started back in October, when Uecker underwent a third knee surgery -- a replacement of a previous replacement of his right knee. That temporarily denied Uecker his favorite activity, swimming, but after rehab he was back in the pool and feeling great until he discovered two troublesome spots on his back. It was cancer.

Uecker traveled with former Brewers owner and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig back to Milwaukee in January to remove two melanomas. It was during his pre-op procedure that Brewers medical director Roger Caplinger delivered more bad news: Uecker and his wife, Judy, had both tested positive for COVID-19. That hit him “hard,” Uecker said, but not because he was seriously ill.

“It was more of a shock,” said Uecker, who was vaccinated and twice boosted before testing positive. “I had all the shots. I did everything. I was swimming every day and doing everything. … I was more worried about flying home with Bud. That we got on the airplane. So, Buddy got checked out and said, ‘No, everything’s OK. We’re all good.’”

Uecker said he and Judy both received monoclonal antibody treatments and felt almost immediate improvement. After testing negative for the virus, his cancer surgery was back on, and Uecker underwent a procedure to remove the two spots on his back.

All the while, he and Judy had been helping to care for Uecker’s daughter, Leann "Lee" Uecker Ziemer. Bob Uecker had been familiar with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, for many years, since the Brewers hosted awareness events at County Stadium. But the disease hit home about three years ago when his daughter was diagnosed with ALS and began a long battle that took her life on March 11, the same day that Brewers players reported to camp following the end of the lockout. Her funeral was March 19.

“I talked to [Cubs broadcaster] Jon Sciambi, who’s a big guy with ALS, we talked last year about it and how ugly a disease it is,” Uecker said. “There’s no cure. There’s nothing. When you think about Lou Gehrig -- that was 1939 when he was diagnosed, and here’s a major figure, right? Still, all that time, they haven’t found anything for it. And I don’t know if they ever will. It’s a debilitating disease that slowly eats away at you.”

Uecker moved his daughter home and she lived the rest of her life there, using texts and other technology to communicate. He was thrilled last September when she was able to be in attendance for the Brewers’ celebration of Uecker’s 50th anniversary in the radio booth, but as the baseball offseason progressed, she continued to decline.

“The really sad part of that whole thing as it got closer was she kept talking about dying,” Uecker said. “She’d send me texts about dying. How do you answer those? You don’t. Even last year, doing the game, she’d have a bad day and I’d find out about it. It was a blessing to come here and do the game and be around you guys and everybody.

“It was hard. I’ve lost two kids. My son [Steve] died nine years ago on Opening Day. I went to him at the hospital, then drove down to Chicago to do the game. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Then, as now, baseball was Uecker’s refuge.

“I think the best therapy for Bob is to come in here and do a game,” said Tony Migliaccio, the Brewers’ longtime clubhouse manager and a friend of Uecker’s since Migliaccio started as a batboy in 1978. “Being around the guys keeps you youthful. He’s a player at heart.”

To illustrate that sentiment, Uecker points to his feet. For Thursday’s game against the Angels, he happened to wear the custom “Air Uecker” Nike sneakers that were a gift from the players last fall. He fondly remembers the laughs they all had when he opened the box.

“The T-shirts they made and these shoes, and it says ‘one of us’ on it,” Uecker said. “Just to be in there and screwing around with those guys. I wish I could still throw BP. I was out with Robin [Yount] last night and we were talking about it. I threw to the first three guys. I did that for, like, 25 years and never missed it.”

It was through batting practice in the 1990s that Uecker caught his first significant health scare: Two aneurisms pressing against his spine that required surgery. There’s also been rotator cuff surgery and the multiple knee replacements, a pancreatic cancer scare and two heart surgeries in 2010 which forced him to miss a chunk of that season. The second surgery was necessary after Uecker developed a major staph infection from the first.

But Uecker said he feels in good health as the 2022 season dawns, and he’s thrilled to be one of the guys again.

“The valve they put in from my heart surgery -- I just had a checkup when I was home -- is working as good as the first day it was put in,” Uecker said. “Through all that stuff, I met a lot of good friends. The doctors aren’t doctors anymore -- they’re friends. The heart guy, [Brewers television broadcaster Bill] Schroeder called me when he had his. I told them to call my friend Dr. [Jim] Kleczka. The cancer guy, Doug Evans, is one of the biggest in the country. The head guy out here [in Phoenix], and he’s one of the top guys in the world, is a guy named Daniel D. Von Hoff.”

Uecker is thankful for all of them. When he underwent surgery for the cancerous spots on his back, he says the room was full of doctors. He signed a dozen baseballs for them.

“The boss was calling all the time,” Uecker said, referring to another friend, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio. “I said, ‘Hey, Mark, I’m fine.’ I’m not going to go on the air and embarrass myself, or embarrass the team or embarrass you guys. If I didn’t feel OK, I would take a hike.”

That day isn’t here yet.

“He’s going to do home games. Will he do them all? Will he taper off? We don’t know,” Migliaccio said. “I think everybody just values the time with him. Bob was an athlete, an actor, a comedian. But his biggest gift is his gift to connect with people.”