Laughs on tap as Uecker's statue unveiled
MILWAUKEE -- You expected the ceremony in which Bob Uecker's statue was unveiled to be one of the funniest things that ever happened.
And then it was.
Life is not like this often enough. But this event, so unlikely on one level, so perfect on another, was every bit as wacky, witty, warm and wonderful as it should have been.
On the one hand, Uecker is a member of 10 Halls of Fame, including the broadcaster's wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was "Mr. Baseball" to a generation of late-night TV viewers who watched him make a career out of deprecating his own baseball career on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." For 42 seasons, Uecker has broadcast Milwaukee Brewers games with a unique blend of humor and insight.
And he is the only man known to get away with publicly referring to the Commissioner of Baseball, Allan H. (Bud) Selig, as "Al."
On the other hand, here was Uecker, a man with a lifetime batting average of .200. His statue would be placed outside Miller Park, next to statues of the icons of Milwaukee Baseball -- Henry Aaron, Robin Yount and Selig.
Friday, the master of ceremonies at this event, Bob Costas, by now an iconic broadcast figure himself, reported that, if you were to walk past the statues and listen very carefully, you could hear Henry Aaron's statue "begging to be relocated."
Aaron himself told Uecker that he recalled a time playing with the Braves when "I was in a semi-slump and you were always in a slump." Uecker volunteered to give Aaron some pointers in the batting cage, telling him if he ever learned to hit the curveball he might be pretty good. Aaron -- and this is a tribute to his unfailing common sense -- completely ignored Uecker's advice.
Yount, the other Hall of Famer with a statue, could not be present because he was in Italy attending the wedding of a nephew. But Yount sent a video in which he was searching throughout Rome for Uecker's statue dedication, but could find no one who had heard of Uecker.
With the Roman Coliseum as a backdrop, an increasingly anguished Yount protests: "Come on, he's in the Hall of Fame, he's huge in Milwaukee, he's an icon, he's been there forever. He's been around so long I'll bet he played here."
Yount finds a statue, but it is of Julius Caesar, not Uecker. Finally Yount gets a call, telling him that the statue ceremony is at Miller Park.
"Hey, Bob, I guess I screwed up again," Yount says. "Anyhow, if it was up to me, I'd put your statue right here, next to Julius Caesar."
"I can't believe his National Guard unit is in Italy," Uecker said of Yount. "That was great. That was funny, real funny."
Uecker's playing career highlights amount to a long, long list -- of one-liners. Costas recalled broadcasting a World Series game with Uecker and asking for Uecker's World Series recollections as a member of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals. Uecker replied that he was on the disabled list at the time. What was wrong with him? Hepatitis, Uecker responded: How did he get hepatitis? "The trainer injected me with it," Uecker said.
"That hepatitis thing," Uecker explained when it was his turn to speak, "the Cardinals asked me, they didn't just inject me. They told me they had a chance to bring up [shortstop] Dal Maxvill. They said: 'Will you take this injection?' I said: 'Will I able to watch?' They said: 'Down at the end of the bench. You can't sit next to anybody because you've got an infectious disease.' But I turned such a beautiful shade of yellow. With the Cardinal white, it was really good."
Uecker's humble baseball origins remained an endless treasure trove for his humor. "You didn't have an agent, so you went in and negotiated for yourself," he recalled. "The first year, I played for $7,000. And the minimum was $7,500."
It was Selig who, as president of the Brewers, gave Uecker his first broadcasting job. This turned out to be a brilliant move. The Brewers' brand has been immeasurably strengthened by the affection that Wisconsin listeners have demonstrated for Uecker.
As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio put it: "The wit and wisdom of Bob Uecker is part of our community's collective psyche."
"A baseball announcer becomes a link to the fans," Selig said. "So you go to Harry Caray, or Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Mel Allen in New York, Vin Scully is legendary with the Dodgers. That's Bob Uecker here. The love, the affection, the feeling is just remarkable. The great relationship he has with fans here -- he's them, they're him. Simple as that."
Selig, like Uecker, a Milwaukee native, spoke of Uecker's loyalty to the city and the franchise, saying that Uecker once rejected an offer from George Steinbrenner to broadcast for the New York Yankees.
` But the prevailing humor of the day always managed to take over. Asked in a question-and-answer session after the statue unveiling, why he never left Milwaukee, Uecker responded: "It was a parole thing. ... This place is a good place to be, that's all I know."
"In truth, I might have saved him from prison," Selig said of hiring Uecker as a broadcaster. "He was a legitimate juvenile delinquent. There was no doubt about it. You can't deny that."
"No," Uecker replied. "I spent three of the best years of my life in 10th grade."
"No one else has called me 'Al,' since my fourth-grade teacher at Sherman School," Selig said. "He's the only one.
"He lives near me in Scottsdale," Selig said of his Arizona residence. "And that's another problem."
"He moved," Uecker said of Selig. "He said I was destroying his property value."
Doc Severinsen and his Big Band provided the music for this event, providing an echo of the era in which Severinsen conducted the house band for Carson's show. Uecker became a staple on the show, a favorite of both the host and the audience.
Dick Ebersol, the television executive who correctly judged Uecker's comedic talent and found a way to use it in a broad range of successful TV ventures, said that Johnny Carson told him that Uecker was "the most original humorist that he had ever known." There was no team of writers behind Uecker, Ebersol noted, just Uecker's own unstoppable wit.
That was always more than enough. Friday, with one of the finest supporting casts ever assembled for a statue unveiling, it was a once-in-lifetime source of joy and laughter.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.