A funny thing happened to Bob Uecker on the way to the Milwaukee Brewers' broadcast booth at Anaheim Stadium the other night. Four fans isolated in the outer limits of the upper deck unfurled a banner reading, HEY BOB, THANKS FOR THE GREAT SEATS. On another occasion, Uecker was announcing a game from the Metrodome when the house cameras zoomed in on a solitary spectator up near the roof, 50 feet away from anyone, is THIS REALLY BOB UECKER? the message board inquired.
Uecker, the man who made mediocrity famous, has always worn two faces. The one less known is that of the real Bob Uecker, 49, the catcher-turned-broadcaster who has been the very competent but comparatively subdued voice of the Brewers for 13 years. The other is the make-believe Bob Uecker, the poor knucklehead who keeps getting locked out of bars and dumped on by fans in the Lite Beer from Miller commercials. But, as he himself would say, bingo! In what can only be viewed as testimony to the clout of Madison Avenue, his latest Lite commercial, in which he thinks his great fame has earned him the best seat in the ball park only to discover his tickets are for the nosebleed seats, is being mimicked around the league.
Opening his mail during a double-header with the Twins last week, Uecker came across a letter from some Michigan State students who had formed their own intramural league because they were too mediocre to make their dorm teams. "You are cordially invited to attend one of our games at MSU," they wrote. "We'll make sure you get a seat in the front roooow."
What with the TV ads and a series of Lite radio commercials that have given him something of a cult following on campuses, the real Bob Uecker, who was a regular on ABC's Monday Night Baseball from 1976 to '82 in addition to working for the Brewers, may bid farewell to the booth. "This has been a hard year," Uecker says about broadcasting for a team that last Sunday was 30½ games out of first. "I'd rather have booked passage on the Lusitania." He says he's thinking about leaving the Brewers at the end of the year and devoting full time to making movies, sitcoms and more commercials with those fans in the bar who didn't recognize him at first.
If Uecker does leave the booth, he'll go out as the funniest man—Joe Garagiola included—in sports announcing. On one Monday-night broadcast, Howard Cosell (whom Uecker calls "Howie") used the word "truculent." Considering him just another ex-jock, Howie allowed that Uecker couldn't possibly know what it meant. "Sure I do," Uecker said. "If you had a truck and I borrowed it, that would be a truck-you-lent."
Outside the booth, which is to say in his ads or on The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman, Uecker's shtick is basically this: He's so dense and such a blowhard, yet so completely out of it—after all, he doesn't even know that people are on to him—that he's lovable. He's self-effacing and eternally optimistic. When the usher throws him out of the lower-level box at the ball park, he's still excited and yelling away in the upper deck. What a wonderful jerk!
Another characteristic of Uecker's act is that Everyman can identify with it. Says talent coordinator Marty Blackman, who represents the Miller Lite All-Stars, "He comes across like we all have sometimes in our lives, as a poor shnook. We all have memories of being rejected, of someone stomping on us."
The stomp factor no doubt explains the surprising success of Uecker's Lite radio spots. During a break in the Brewers' schedule last week, the undaunted .200 career hitter in six seasons with four teams did five new ads. In one of them Uecker, who plays the host of a radio sports talk show, calls up his old high school coach.
"Coach? Recognize my voice?" he asks with great anticipation.
"No," comes the answer.
Finally, the coach figures out it's Uecker—and hangs up. "Guess he was too moved to speak," Uecker says, recovering his aplomb. Clearly, in commercials, if not in the booth, a good man can make a hit while striking out.