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PHOENIX — One of the factors that has kept Bob Uecker in the radio booth for the Milwaukee Brewers well into his 80s is the manner in which players have treated him as one of their own.
But, when the players put their money where their mouths were last November, it stunned Uecker, moving him to the brink of tears.
When deciding who would get full playoff shares after the Brewers advanced within one game of the World Series, the players voted to give one to Uecker, which was worth $123,000. Giving a full share to a team broadcaster, even a Hall of Famer, is basically unheard-of in baseball but showed once again that “Ueck” is considered one of the boys.
“To include me in that, I couldn’t believe it,” said Uecker, 85, who became emotional when team director of travel Dan Larrea called him with the news. “I said, ‘I don’t believe it. Really?’ I’ve tried to make sure I thanked every one of them.”
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In true Uecker fashion, he never thought of pocketing even a dime of the money. Instead, he divided it among some of his favorite charities – the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, Wounded Warriors and the Froedtert Cancer Center.
It wasn’t the monetary amount that made Uecker so proud of his ball club. It was the symbolic gesture that the players considered him a vital part of their success, deserving of the same payout the players received.
“I would never keep the money, but I sure appreciated what they did,” Uecker said. “I’m proud of that. When I talked to them about it, they said, ‘Ueck, that was no big deal. You were part of that.’ Still, I was shocked when they did it.”
There could be no doubt that Uecker was considered one of the boys last Sept. 26 in St. Louis, after the Brewers clinched their first playoff berth in seven years with a 2-1 victory over the Cardinals. A video went viral of players dumping champagne and beer on a grinning Uecker in the clubhouse celebration as he wildly pumped his arms back and forth.
Funny thing is, Uecker didn’t plan on joining the celebration in the clubhouse, feeling that was for the players, not him. But he conceded to join the party under “threat” from the players.
“The players told me if I didn’t come downstairs, they’d be coming up to the booth with champagne,” Uecker said. “I didn’t want them dumping stuff all over our equipment, so I had to go. I didn’t want somebody to get electrocuted.”
The next day, Uecker was a guest on the Dan Patrick Show, with the national radio host asking about the fist-pumping scene during the celebration.
“He had seen the video,” Uecker said “He asked me what the arm-pumping stuff was all about. I said they dumped so much champagne on me, my pacemaker shorted out and my arm started jerking violently, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Typical Uecker, the king of self-deprecating sports humor. The Brewers would go on to hold two more clubhouse celebrations, one after beating the Cubs in a Game No. 163 showdown for the NL Central crown, and again after sweeping Colorado in the NLDS. They were one victory shy of a fourth party, losing in Game 7 of the NLCS to the Dodgers.
“That was fun,” Uecker said. “It was everybody. Not just the players. It was (principal owner) Mark Attanasio and (general manager) David Stearns, and everybody. There was so much happiness for the players.
“A lot of really good players never got that chance to be in the postseason. Ernie Banks was one. He was one of the greatest players we ever had and never got to spray champagne.
“To be treated like one of the guys is so nice. They treat me like I’m still a player, and I’m so honored that they do that.”
So, here Uecker is, preparing for his 49th season as the Brewers’ radio voice and his 64th in baseball, including his modest yet fruitful playing career. The Milwaukee native has seen another of his peers, Cincinnati’s Marty Brennaman, announce his retirement as that team’s radio voice, effective after the 2019 season, but Uecker still has no plans to call it a career.
“I’m comfortable but I also still feel good doing this,” he said. “If I get to the point where I’m an embarrassment on the air, not only to myself but the team, I would never continue.
“As long as I can do what I’m doing at this level and I don’t get criticized, I’ll keep doing it. I’ll know myself when it’s time (to quit). You’re not going to have to tell me. I’ll know.”
Then, more Uecker humor.
“I can see myself still doing it at 104: ‘Swing and a miss,’” Uecker said in a mock frail voice. “Then I lay down for the seventh-inning stretch.”
“I talked to Marty about it,” he added. “I can see why he’s doing it. He wants to travel and do other things. He was very emotional, which is understandable. It’s tough to tell the fans you’re leaving.
“What would I do if I quit, go fishing? I fish all the time, as it is. That’s what I do – call baseball games and fish. If I’m not out here (at the ballpark), I’m out on Lake Michigan fishing. I don’t know how many fish I’ve caught. Maybe two.”
Pretty nice life, huh? That’s the way Uecker sees it. He has done so much beyond baseball – movies, including the cult favorite “Major League; the television show “Mr. Belvedere;” 100 or so guest appearances on the Johnny Carson Show; Miller Lite commercials, etc. He recently filmed a scene for a new “Monsters, Inc.” movie to be released soon.
But Uecker always comes back to his first love, baseball. And while he remains golden behind the microphone, what he loves most is the daily interaction with the folks at the ballpark – players, staff, media members, manager Craig Counsell, everybody he meets.
“I loved doing all that other stuff but baseball is No. 1,” he said. “Always has been and always will be.”
Uecker cut back his road schedule dramatically in recent years but continues to call all the home games. He figures he’ll do about 100 games again this year, leaving the others to sidekick Jeff Levering and the team’s third radio voice, Lane Grindle.
“There comes a time where you have to cut back,” Uecker said. “To be honest with you, it feels good to miss a game every now and then. And why not? We have Jeff and Lane, who are both really good and are going to be here for a long time. I helped pick them, and they’re good. I’m happy when they’re working together.”
Away from the radio booth, Uecker prefers to stay in the background but has agreed to allow his name to be placed on a new wing at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa. The Department of Surgery and the Cancer Center will launch the Bob Uecker Center for Translational Therapeutics within the next year, bringing treatments quickly from the laboratory to the patient and stimulating groundbreaking clinical trials.
A pancreatic cancer survivor, Uecker has been both patient and philanthropist for Froedtert, and the folks there want to honor his devotion to the hospital.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to do it,” he said. “It’s not for the attention or bragging about it. But it’s a good thing. I’d do anything for those guys. Dr. Doug Evans and his ‘We Care Fund,’ it makes you feel good to help people like that. The work all those doctors and nurses are doing is something.”
Philanthropy is the part of Uecker’s life that doesn’t get enough attention, primarily because he prefers to do it behind the scenes. What he has done for children with terminal illnesses through the Make-A-Wish foundation is legendary within that organization, something that never can be repaid.
“I’ve had a chance to see these kids and what it means for them,” Uecker said. “They’re going through tough times. Some of them have cancer. I meet them and their families. I even went to a funeral of one of the kids I got close to.
“You don’t know if you’ll see these kids again. Sometimes, they say the cancer is gone but it comes back. That’s when it’s tough. I’d do anything for those kids. It’s hard on them. And you don’t feel the physical pain they’re feeling.”
Uecker admitted to thinking about his own mortality, an inevitable consequence of being his age and seeing peers pass away or fade into retirement. But he refuses to pick an age that will be the end for him as the Brewers’ iconic broadcaster.
“I don’t know anybody who was a major-league player, and then has done this as long as I have,” he said. “We all know what the reality of this life is. It ends for everybody. But, right now, this is what I want to do. If I didn’t feel good, I wouldn’t hang around here.”
And it doesn’t hurt to be treated like one of the boys. After all, that’s what Uecker always has wanted to be. Just one of the boys.