My day as Bob Uecker's teammate
The legendary Bob Uecker turned 85 years old on Saturday. We were teammates once. Yes, THAT Bob Uecker – the voice of the Brewers, Mr. Belvedere, the Miller Lite front row spokesperson, author, "Tonight Show" guest, Harry Doyle in "Major League," "SNL" host and World Series champion.
We were teammates for one day on Aug. 18, 1979. I was a member of Bob Uecker's All Stars, the softball team that took on the cast of "Happy Days" at County Stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
I've actually only talked to Bob once. And it wasn't even that day. Decades later, we were at an event and bonded as ex-ball players reminiscing about the old day(s). He couldn't have been any nicer and humored me and my hyperbolical recollection of one event, given his many accomplishments. The fact is I'll never forget that day in 1979, much less the time in the 21st century I actually talked to Ueck.
Still not yet even a full-time broadcaster, I was a part-time sportscaster at WAUK back then and finagled my way onto the team. My roommate at the time was WQFM newscaster Ric Schroeder who went on to a long stint in Los Angeles. Prior to the game, he interviewed Uecker and asked about me. Bob, who didn't know me, said, "I'm not sure how he'll play, but he looks good in the uniform."
At that time, "Happy Days" was in the apex of its 10-year run on TV. Not only did they play softball regularly as a group that genuinely liked each other, they were good! And, of course, as witnessed by playing at Wrigley the day before, major league teams across the country were happy to have them visit. And a huge crowd at County Stadium didn't hurt Brewer attendance numbers. True to form, the superstar cast of the show was just as enamored as folks are today to spend time with Mr. Baseball.
While I didn't actually speak to Uecker that afternoon, he did motion for me to enter the game as a batter after a few innings – a tight game I may add.
There were 49,172 people there that day, some of whom were there to see Texas Rangers pitcher Fergie Jenkins face off against the Brewers' Jim Slaton at some point in the proceedings.
But first, I had to face The Fonz.
Henry Winkler was the pitcher for the "Happy Days" cast, and he had struck out Mike Hegan, who just three years earlier had become the first Brewer to hit for the cycle.
Winkler was throwing heat. I swung and missed at the first pitch. Two strikes and you're out. I did not want to strike out so I stepped out of the box, gave myself a pep talk and looked at The Fonz with determination in my eyes. I was going to jump at the next pitch. He must have felt sorry for me. He lobbed a ball in ... unfortunately AFTER I had already begun my swing in anticipation of his blazing speed. I might have been able to hit it if I had the foresight to swing again on the same pitch. But I struck out.
As embarrassed as I was, it was easy to be distracted by a dugout full of amazing teammates that included Fuzzy Thurston, Bob Reitman, Larry the Legend, Robb Edwards and Jonathan Green. It was easy to be blown away by playing against Ron Howard, Anson Williams, Donny Most, Tom Bosley and Al Molinaro. And as I entered the game in right center field, I ran past who I thought looked like Mike Stivic from "All in the Family." I wasn't wrong. Rob Reiner was playing for the "Happy Days" cast.
Uecker had enough misplaced confidence in me to put me in the outfield without knowing that I always played first base given my depth perception was compromised by having no depth perception, So, of course, with two outs in a close game, a fly ball came my way. Already intimidated and awed by my surroundings, I immediately began to regret my birth. But while the ball made its way down, our right fielder Ron Swoboda, who aside from being a Milwaukee TV sports anchor at the time was also previously a hero for the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series, effortlessly drifted next to me and made the catch. Beaming with a giant smile, I trotted into the dugout from the outfield with him side by side.
The seven inning game ended in a 2-2 tie. While the somewhat incrementally better major leaguers played their game, Uecker's All Stars and the cast of "Happy Days" mingled in a makeshift clubhouse and enjoyed dinner. I sat with Marion Ross. If you're gonna sit down for a meal, it might as well be with Mrs. C, right? She was wonderful.
Just a few years ago, I shared Sporkies judging duties with Anson Williams and Donny Most at the Wisconsin State Fair. I reminded them of that other time we ate together. Most, who you'll remember as Ralph Malph, immediately recalled his triple in the second inning that he tried to stretch into a run. He was thrown out at the plate and tagged out by none other than our catcher, Bob Uecker.
Looking back, that was an amazing day. In all the years since, I've never taken for granted the chance I had to be in the presence of that group, especially Bob Uecker. For in all those years, like you, I've seen him, heard him and marveled in how lucky we are to have him.
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