In the booth with Uke

Once the baseball postseason begins, Bob Uecker will be announcing the Brewers in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, but only the seventh time since he’s been a Brewers announcer.

Uecker started with the Brewers in 1971 with Merle Harmon. After Harmon left for NBC to announce the Moscow Olympics, Uecker became the Brewers’ number one announcer.

Will Sammon took time to interview a few of Uecker’s on-air partners, including his current partners:

Listening to Bob Uecker call Brewers games on the radio is like hearing the soundtrack of baseball — with unrehearsed and outlandish outtakes included. So just imagine the hilarity that takes place when the mic is off. As the Brewers celebrate the 50th anniversary of Uecker in the booth, The Athletic asked his former and current radio partners in Milwaukee to describe working alongside Mr. Baseball. They shared their behind-the-scenes moments, from the hilarious to the profound to the time they ate a brat covered with raspberry sherbet.

What’s it like having this 87-year-old Hall of Famer as a co-worker? Only this special club truly knows.

The Scottsdale Test

Those who were hired to work with Uecker first had to pass a nerve-wracking final hurdle of meeting Uecker himself, usually at Don & Charlie’s, which was once a popular Scottsdale restaurant and hangout. This was their first glimpse of what working alongside a legend would look like.

Jeff Levering (2015-present): The first time I ever met him was the day before Christmas Eve 2014. He was my last interview. The Brewers sent me down to Arizona. We had dinner at Don & Charlie’s.

Cory Provus (2009-11): You’re sitting in that booth. Bob’s there. And right above Bob, it’s his picture with his shirt off.

Joe Block (2012-15): He would dine there all the time. It was a cool place. It had sports memorabilia from the previous three decades on the wall. A lot of baseball people would go through there. Ueck kind of had his own seat because he’d go in there all the time, knew the owner, that kind of thing.

Provus: We had the same dinner. We had Miller Lites and we had shrimp scampi and I think we had salad.

Block: I’m at the bar because I’m there a little early. I’m nervous. And so, of course, what do I order? A Miller Lite. He had one with me and then we went over to the seat and we just started talking.

Provus: We were already probably two or three beers in before we even got food.

Levering: Within five minutes, he’s making me laugh.

Block: I’m nervous but things are going all right. He’s making me feel more at ease. Fergie Jenkins comes over, sends us each a round first and then comes on over to say hi to us. Ueck says, “Hey, Fergie, meet my new partner Joe Block.” I think to myself, I just got the job, this is great.

Levering: Within another five minutes of our conversation, Bud Selig walks around the corner and Ueck stands up and says, “Hey, Al, how are you?” He’s the only guy in the world who could get away with calling him Al. He said, “Al, I want to introduce you to Jeff Levering; he’s going to be working with us next year.” I didn’t have a job yet. Throughout the course of the rest of the dinner you’re sitting there and you’re going, “Oh my God, did he really just say that?”

Provus: In every story, someone incredible was there. Joe Torre was there that night.

Levering: Your mind is blown. He’s telling me stories about the Miller Lite ads and everything else about baseball and how he spent time with Mickey Mantle and when he was writing skits with Billy Crystal for “SNL.”

Block: I think the restaurant closed at 9. But it was pushing 10 o’clock by the time I realized the restaurant had closed. There was no one else in it. I started to hear “What’s My Name” by Snoop Dogg blasting out of the kitchen. They were cleaning up for the night, and that’s when we decided to call it. Three and a half hours passed. It felt like it was 10 minutes.

Favorite day at work

Anyone who has shared a booth with Uecker is armed with a favorite story. The problem for them is limiting themselves to just one. So we let a couple of them share more. It was worth it. 

Block: We were at Wrigley. Somehow in the first inning — sometimes he’s just observing things — he picked out the rooftop seats. And he mentioned, as an aside, it would be funny if there were some behind the ballpark, where you couldn’t see anything and then they sell it to you for all this money and you get up there and you’re all excited that you have this rooftop seat but you can’t see into the ballpark. So it just started with just a stray comment like that. Then it kind of went away and it kind of came back. In the early innings, it started to develop some legs and certainly by the later innings, it was full bore.

He said we could make this into a sitcom, you know, like the people, they get hoodwinked and they go up there and it’s like this landlord, who is trying to take advantage of people. … And then it just kept expanding and we got to one point where the residents of these buildings would rent out their place to just random fans, maybe even allow them to take a shower on a hot day at Wrigley or whatever. They’d knock on the door, “Hey, can I get into your shower?” And he’d say, “Honey, who’s in the shower right now?” Then another one would have people teaching the kids, do their kids’ homework for them. Just random fans coming into these people’s houses and stuff, because they don’t ever make it up to the top of the rooftop.

I mean, this is the stuff that’s coming off the top of his head. “We’re writing a sitcom, Joe,” he’d say. “We’re writing a sitcom.” And then Cubs pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa came in, and we decided he was going to be a restaurateur at the bottom floor of the building, and he was gonna sell pizza. But the pizza made everybody sick. He sold bad pizza to everybody. We just couldn’t stop laughing, and I’m looking at social media and people are just from all over the world chiming in with some ideas. I’d tell him, “Ueck, someone has another idea.” And then that would just spur his mind. There were probably 12 different storylines that got revealed throughout this game, in which Mike Fiers ended up striking out like 13 or 14 guys. He was just motivated to create this whole story arc of the first season of a sitcom based on the rooftop seats and those buildings around Wrigley Field.

Pat Hughes (1984-95): After each game, I would be doing the postgame show on radio. He would be packing up his suitcase and preparing to leave the booth. His big goal was to try to get me to laugh out loud, on the air, while I am doing out-of-town scores or recapping, playing highlights from the Brewers game we just did. And it was absolutely hysterical the things he would do. He would, for example, stand right behind me, and make a sound. Like a wounded seal or a wounded dog. He would bark. Ar roof. Ar roof. Ar roof. 

Sometimes he would use props. I’m live on the air broadcasting, and I’m trying to maintain my composure and be a professional. One time, he said, “Hey, Pat, look over here.” And I knew it was going to be something bizarre. I turned around and there’s pretzels sticking out of both of his ears.

That was his big goal, to try to get me to laugh out loud. Once I laughed, then he’d say, “OK, see you tomorrow.”

Provus: When I got the job, Pat Hughes told me, he said, “Hey, you’ll know when Bob likes you the moment that he makes you laugh on the air and you have to continue. So when that moment happens, pinch yourself and tell yourself you’re in.” And that happened midway through the 2009 season.

We were in Cincinnati. There was some kind of on-field event going on before the game. And there was music. There was dancing. It was a very festive environment. And there was this one woman. Imagine Marge Simpson. She had this towering tower of produce. I mean, every piece of produce you can imagine. It was like 2 feet in the air, and it was on her head, and it was quite the scene. So the way that the pregame format was done is that Bob would take it out of the anthem, and then throw it to me for the lineups. So we caught the last few bars and this woman that had the produce sang the anthem. So we’re coming out of the anthem, and Bob would normally say this person’s name and then throw it to me for the lineups. And at this particular moment, the last bars of the anthem are done and he goes, “The Chiquita banana, with our national anthem. The lineups, here’s Cory …”  And I just lost it. I just lost it. I had to read a bank-sponsored starting lineup card, and I had nowhere to go. Zero. And he said, “You OK?” And I’m like, “No, I am not.” And he says, “You sure? OK, we’ll just hang out. No problem.” And I am laughing. And I have to get through this because we’re getting close to game time. So when that happened, I thought about what Pat said, and I said, he’s right.

Lane Grindle (2016-present): It was this past spring training. We mentioned on the air that it had snowed back home. I mentioned something on the air about the piles on both sides of my driveway. He said, “Piles, you used to have to get a prescription for those.” Well, an alternative term for hemorrhoids is piles, which was kind of over my head, to be honest with you. So we have a chuckle about it. I say to him, “You’re kind of like an astronaut because you can go places the rest of us can’t go.” Without hesitation or taking a breath, he says, “I’m just glad you put the -tronaut at the end.”

Levering: On the air a couple of years ago, he was talking about an exhibition game that they played in El Paso where he dyed his hair, and they put eye black in his hair. He started sweating so bad that it started coming down his face, and then he got blown up at home plate by somebody. And that story somehow morphs into him singing the song, “El Paso,” and singing the lyrics about a gal named Felina in a cantina. You can’t make this stuff up.

Provus: It’s 2010. We’re playing Washington. It’s a day game. Adam Dunn was an active player but not playing that particular game. So Ueck started talking about Adam Dunn, how much he likes Adam Dunn. Phil Rozewicz was the visiting clubhouse guy. It’s during the game. He brings up Adam Dunn in full uniform, sneakers on, and he just kind of hunkers down. Massive dude. Right between Ueck and I during a game, in full uniform, just hanging out. Jim Riggleman was pissed. He was the manager and he thought about, you know, fining him because he left the dugout during the game. He just wanted to see him. This was after Bob had the two open-heart surgeries in 2010 so I think Adam just wanted to see him and see how he was feeling. But it was like, how many guys can get an active player to just come up to the booth during a game?

Grindle: Usinger’s Famous Sausage is a big sponsor on the radio and another sponsor is Cedar Crest Ice Cream. A lot of our messaging combines the two of them. They deliver a lot of their products to the booth. One night on the air, Ueck was talking about how we had some sherbet that we had had out, and we were trying it earlier in the day. And then he says, “You know, as a matter of fact, I think it’s so good you could put it on a sausage and it would be good.” It kind of devolved into, like, well, let’s all try this … Let’s actually put sherbet on a brat and eat it tonight, taste-test it and then report on air how it is. It was raspberry sherbet, and we used it like it was mustard or ketchup. Honestly, it wasn’t bad. We all kind of liked it.

Jim Powell (1996-2008): This would never happen with any other partner that I would ever have.

We would just get on the bus to go to the stadium, you know, 3:30 in the afternoon, for a 7 o’clock game. We were in Montreal to play the Expos. I don’t know why he saw that as like a clean palette on which he could go to town, but he did. So on the bus ride, he would start reading the billboards, you know as the bus was passing along, and he sort of developed a character, just goofing off on the bus rides. This happened over multiple years. After a while, it became pretty refined. Like, he was really funny with this character. So I had to do a pregame interview for every game. And I asked him, “Hey, what do you think about if I interview you on the pregame show, and you’re in that character?” And he’s like, “No, no, no, I’m not doing it for that.” I said, “That’s fine; it doesn’t have to go on the air. What if we just do an interview just for us to laugh at?” Under that circumstance, he was fine with it.

So we did this interview, and out of nowhere, I just plucked what I thought was a French Canadian type of name, Jean Jacques Smythe. So I do this interview with Jean Jacques Smythe, who was, as I labeled him in the interview, a renowned French Canadian journalist, highly esteemed, blah, blah, blah. When we start, he did something he had never done on the bus. He became completely hostile. He started ripping me. He was ripping the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig. Anybody he could think of. He was anti-everything. For whatever reason, that’s the way he took the character in this interview. Of course, the best part was he began to rip himself. And it was absolutely hysterical.

This tells you just what a genius he is. He would be doing this interview in the radio booth inside the stadium. And Bob would be looking around, while he’s talking, and he would take a word off one of the billboards that he had no idea what it meant and then he would use the word in a sentence in his stuttering French Canadian accent, and then he would give a definition of what it was, which, of course, had no relation to what the word actually meant. But that was just part of his shtick. You would think that this guy had rehearsed the Jean Jacques Smythe character for 25 years.

So we finished the interview, and we all thought it was hilarious. And Bob, after some cajoling, Bob reluctantly allowed us to air it as the pregame interview. And what I had not anticipated was that he was so good in this character that nobody back in Milwaukee or on the Brewers Radio Network, recognized that that was actually Bob Uecker doing this interview. So, when he’s ripping Bud Selig, he’s ripping the Brewers and then he starts ripping Bob Uecker, I mean, the phones light up at WTMJ because it’s, like, who is this guy and why are they even talking? I mean, there was an uproar.

I’m not aware of us hearing from a single person who said that that was Bob doing a bad imitation of someone. It aired, and we made no comment. It was just up there. WTMJ heard from a ton of people.

Every time we went back to Montreal as long as they had baseball and we were going there, we would have Jean Jacques Smythe on our pregame show.

The idea that anybody else in baseball would actually attempt something like that is preposterous.

Uecker lessons

Uecker received no formal broadcasting education or training. Soon after his playing days — he was a catcher in the big leagues, and his career is the butt of his longest, self-deprecating joke — he began calling play-by-play for the Brewers’ radio broadcasts. Despite that, he has mentored every announcer who has come through Milwaukee’s booth. With his distinct, grandfatherly voice, unmistakable home run call — “Get up! Get up! Get outta here! Gone!” — and gift for painting a scene, it’s no wonder his former partners picked up so much through working with him. 

Provus: I learned this from him, because it’s the opposite of what you learn in school: You don’t have to fill every moment with air … you can stop and let the game and broadcast breathe because the sounds of baseball help tell the story. So that’s what I’ve done here. There’s a lot of time where I just will stay silent. And it’s a few seconds. It’s not for a minute, but I’ll stay silent for a few seconds because on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, that’s the part of the story to me that’s part of the game that people can hear. And when you have the technology, the equipment that we have, let the audience hear that. So that’s something that I learned from Bob. You don’t have to talk every minute, and he’s right.

Hughes: I really noticed the way he would listen to people say anything or do anything, and immediately have his own fresh take on what he just heard or what he just saw, and it’s just a gift that he has that I’ve never seen anyone else really possess the way he has it.

Grindle: I learned how to keep your energy at a good level throughout the broadcast, how to handle a game that’s lopsided in the wrong direction for your team, how to thread that delicate needle of putting it in perspective in 162 and still enjoying yourself. You don’t want to be totally goofy and crazy, but you can strike a balance with that, and I think he’s as good at that as anybody.

He is a genius in the big moments. We learned that on Sunday when Daniel Vogelbach hit the grand slam. He’s 87 and he nailed that call. I was sitting next to him in the booth because I was on the air with him, and I was in awe. Once Vogey made contact, I knew it was gone. So I kind of slowly turned and just watched Ueck because it was such a big moment and I just wanted to take that in, see him do it because he’s a legend.

Uecker’s coaching tree

The small list of Uecker’s former partners runs like a who’s who of baseball radio. Hughes has served as the Cubs’ lead play-by-play announcer since 1996. Powell has been with the Braves since 2009. Provus left Milwaukee for the Twins after the 2011 season and has stayed in Minnesota. Block has been the voice of the Pirates since 2016. Levering and Grindle are destined for big things.

Powell: We all are close. We’re our own little fraternity. The Uecker Partner Mafia. We all look out for each other. We all have a shared experience that nobody else has. We know it. We appreciate it. And we talk about it.

Levering: He might be my partner, but he’s more my friend, and he treats us that way. He treats my kids like they’re grandkids. When my son — he’s 6 years old, he’s been doing this since he was 2 — goes up and says, “Hi, Bob,” and Bob will have gumballs in his briefcase and Brock will go grab those gumballs. That’s their thing.

There have been other opportunities that I’ve had, that have been presented to me to move on from the Brewers. And the first person I call is Bob. And he’ll shoot me straight. And then he’ll tell me, “You’re in a great place here. And I like working with you.” And that weighs really heavily in all those decisions that I’ve made in the past.

Hughes: I learned so much from Uecker. So it was not just comedy and laughter but it was an intelligence that he has regarding baseball, and, frankly, in life as well.

Provus: He’s the best remedy for a bad day.

Hughes: I laughed every day working with Uecker.

Block: Madness and good fun is always right around the corner.

Provus: This is my 10th season doing the Twins. My favorite compliment that we get as a crew is, “It sounds like you guys are having fun.” And the Twins — outside the last two seasons — have had a lot more losing seasons than winning seasons since I have been here. And so when I hear that, it’s my favorite compliment because that comes from Bob, because Bob was — and still is — a champion of having fun.

Broadcaster, not a character

To those outside of Milwaukee, Uecker is known for so many things. Maybe it’s the movie “Major League.” Or his appearances on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Perhaps it could be that WrestleMania segment when André the Giant pretended to choke him. But throughout it all, Uecker has remained synonymous with the Brewers. For good reason.

Levering: With everything he has done in his life — the movies, the stand-up, the commercials — everything was around the Brewers. He made sure of it. Nobody will ever be like him ever again.

Powell: His personality is unmatched by anything I’ve come across in my entire career or entire life.

Provus: Bob, he’s an amazing comedian. That we all know. But, man, he calls a great game.

Grindle: He’s unbelievably gifted as a play-by-play guy. I do think that a lot of the attention gets focused on, he’s funny, he’s a great entertainer, and he played the game, and he has a fun time making fun of himself. But at the same time, the reason he’s done this for so long and the reason he’s in the Hall of Fame is because he can call a damn good game. And that should never get lost in the translation because he is one of the best that’s ever called the game.

Hughes: He is still darn good at what he does. He’s detailed. He’s accurate. He’s got the good pace. He has unbelievable knowledge of the game. He’s still fun. There’s an old song by Neil Young, “Long May You Run.” Long may you run, Bob Uecker.

Why do I want the Brewers to win the World Series? For Uke.

 

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