Sixty years ago, the Milwaukee Braves signed a local kid who'd grown up watching ballgames through cracks in the fence at old Borchert Field. Bob Uecker wasn't good enough to make it as a pitcher, so he converted to catcher and gained fame by embracing the premise that he wasn't any good at that position, either.
"The thing that comes to mind for anybody like myself who's been around that long is, 'Where did that time go?'" Uecker said. "All of a sudden, your time is coming to a close, which is inevitable for all of us. But the thing you ask yourself is, 'How did that time go by so fast?'"
Here's another question: How did this once promising pitcher settle behind the plate?
It's worth asking all these decades later because none of this would have happened -- the World Series ring, the hundred or so appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," the commercials and television shows and films, maybe not even the 45 years and counting as the radio voice of his hometown Brewers, the two statues at Miller Park, and the plaque in the broadcasters' wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum -- had Uecker not abandoned the mound and found a calling as a catcher.
How did he make the switch?
Uecker answers like he always does. He tells a story.
"I was a pretty good pitcher, you know. I threw a no-hitter. I threw pretty hard, actually. I had a workout with the Braves. I was, like, 16 years old, and they invited me down there during the afternoon. The catcher was a guy named Bob Keely. The pitching coach was a guy named Johnny Cooney.
"I'm on the sidelines throwing down at County Stadium. And like I said, I was a pretty good pitcher, and I'm down there humping pretty good. I threw upper 80s, low 90s, maybe. I'd been playing sandlot baseball, and we won a city championship a couple years in a row with Rohr Jewelers downtown. We were good. So I'm humping for about 15 minutes. All of a sudden Cooney says, 'All right, now let me see your good fastball.' I said, 'I have been throwing my good fastball!' And he says, 'Well, then I recommend you get a job.'
"Years later, I ran into him when I was a catcher with the Braves, and I asked if he remembered me. He looked at me and said no.
"That's a true story. It was pretty much a destroyer."
No matter what other sources tell you, Robert George Uecker was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 26, 1934. Throughout his playing career and beyond, the back of Uecker's baseball cards said he was born in 1935, but Uecker calls it a mistake he never cared enough to fix. When he turned 80 last year, he finally set the record straight.
Uecker's father, August, was a Swiss immigrant who worked as a tool and die maker and mechanic. His mother, Mary Schultz, was born in Michigan and had a brother, Bernard, who played professional baseball in the Tigers organization. Mary and August settled on Milwaukee's near north side at 10th Street and Meinecke Avenue, and they had three children -- two daughters and Bob, who grew up surrounded by baseball.
At St. Boniface grade school, Uecker and his buddies were within walking distance of Borchert Field, home to the original iteration of the Milwaukee Brewers. A Minor League team that played from 1902-53. Just as Uecker was beginning primary school, the Brewers were purchased in 1941 by the eccentric Bill Veeck, who was beginning his own colorful climb to the Major Leagues. For Uecker, there was never any debate about after-school plans.
"I mean, we were up there all the time," Uecker said. "After the fifth inning, they'd let you in for nothing. Or we would just climb over the fence. It was a real neighborhood ballpark. The houses on 7th Street and 8th Street, my gosh, they used to all have broken windows. I only played one game there, a north-south high school all-star game.
"Stepping on the field, it was the big leagues. That's what you think, anyway."
"I'll tell you the day I quit pitching. We were playing at Wick Field, up on 47th and Vliet Street, and I'm 16 or 17 years old now playing in the County Major League. That was a big league back then.
"And I'm getting killed. I'm throwing pitches all over. It was a bad day. And the catcher, a guy who has since passed, isn't doing much better. He isn't helping me out at all. So we get on the bench, and I jump all over him. I say, 'If I couldn't catch any better than that, I'd quit.' He says, 'If you think you're so damn good, you put this crap on and do it.'
"So I did. I put on the catcher's gear and I went back and I caught in that game. And I liked it."
Never a fan of the classroom, Uecker worked and played baseball. As a boy, he worked a series of engineering jobs with his dad, drove a truck for an uncle in Eagle River, Wis., and cut Christmas trees. More and more, baseball was a calling. Nearly 70 years later, Uecker can tick off the names of his teammates in a youth league called The Stars of Yesterday, and marvels at the talent on Milwaukee's slew of semi-pro teams.
"Back then, there were teams everywhere," Uecker said. "Every filling station had a team. Rohr Jewelers had a heck of a team. Some of those guys weren't amateur at all -- they got paid to play baseball."
Uecker was not the only kid from that era to make it to the Major Leagues. At 14 or 15, he was an alternate on a team that traveled for a tournament at Yankee Stadium, but missed the trip because the player ahead of him on the depth chart was pretty good. Tony Kubek would grow up to play for the Yankees and win the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1957.
One last story:
"I played baseball in the Army. I joined when I was 18, and we went to Fort Leonard Wood, N.J., and I'm catching now. So I go in with a group of guys from Milwaukee, and at the end of the orientation, some lieutenant got up and said, 'Anybody who played professional or college baseball, stick around after.' It turns out that the team had a guy named Bob Schmidt who was a big league catcher, and he was getting discharged. I knew that beforehand.
"So I tell this friend of mine, who has since passed, 'Let's put our hands up.' He says, 'They'll find out!' And I said, 'What are they going to do? We're already going to basic training. What else can they do?'
"When I get up on stage to talk to this lieutenant, he asks me where I played. The only thing I could think of was Marquette University. They didn't even have a team, but what does he know? I'll take a chance. He says, 'What do you do?' and I told him I'm a catcher.
"So I'm two weeks into basic training, and I'm out in the woods killing spiders or something, and I get a call to get in a truck and go back into camp. They put me in special services, I joined the team, and I played baseball all over the country. Dick Groat was on our team, played shortstop.
"That's a true story."
He laughs. In the past 60 years, Uecker has done a lot of that.
"Crazy things happen to me, I'm telling you," he said. "You've gotta just sit back and enjoy it."