In one of his last times at bat in the big leagues, Bob Uecker, one of the most feared hitters in major-league history, made a terrible mistake. He wasn't fooled on the pitch for a change. He knew it was a strike. But he should have let it go by.
Instead, he reached out and tapped it into center field. A clean hit.
No one knows how many times Uecker has gone over that awful moment in his head. How many times, in his mind, he has dreamed of swinging and missing it, as usual.
"I just lost my head and hit it," he moans today. "You know how kids are. No thought to the future."
That hit gave Uecker a lifetime batting average of .200. If he had hit his customary popup, if he had even taken the pitch, he would have ended his career with a .198 average.
Bob Uecker was born to bat .198. He had the build for it, the swing for it, the temperament for it, the eyesight for it and the hand-eye coordination for it. He had just the right amount of confidence--none. He was slow enough for it. He had the concentration for it.
If you had a license from God to build yourself a .198 hitter, Bob Uecker would be it.
He was the most feared hitter in the big leagues--by his own team.
"My manager used to tell me, 'Go on up there and kill the rally,' " Uecker recalls today. "I was the best in the league at rally-killing. My nickname back at the firehouse was Double Play Uecker. Pitchers used to walk the guy in front of me to speed up the game. You heard of guys who were known as out men? I was a two-out man."
Anyway, that's the image Uecker was toying with in one of his last at-bats. Fortunately for him, they got him out of baseball before he could do any permanent damage to his reputation.
In point of fact, Uecker did bat only .1997 in his career, even with that late-life hit. But in baseball, they round your average off to the nearest whole number. Uecker is stuck with .200. Uecker wishes they weren't so finicky, didn't try to be so nice to him, thank you.
Nobody has made more money out of ineptitude than Bob Uecker. Unless you count Stan Laurel.
He is baseball's schnook. But if you put all the famous catchers in the Hall of Fame in a group photograph with Bob Uecker, the .1997 hitter, most fans would ask, "Who are all those guys in the picture with Bob Uecker?"
He has made more money out of strikeouts than Walter Johnson ever did. Uecker still shudders when he recalls the minor-league season he hit 24 home runs and batted .309. "Impetuous youth!" Uecker sighs. "I was ruining myself!"
Luckily for him, major-league pitching restored his luster. "The curveball made me famous," he says. "I couldn't hit it. I was born not to hit the curveball."
If Bob Uecker could have hit the curveball, the net catastrophe to the world would have been the same as if Churchill had stuttered.
"The Tonight Show" would have been affected. Rotary would never have been the same. Uecker might have been scouting high school prospects in Oshkosh. And Miller might have been trying to sell Lite beer with dancing bears.
"I think the most money I ever made in one year was $13,000. At that, I was the highest-paid home run hitter who ever lived. I hit one home run. You ever stop to think what Henry Aaron would have made if he got $13,000 for every home run?"
Uecker has made a lot more than $13,000 out of that inability to hit home runs. He has become the surrogate major-leaguer for every guy in a 9-to-5 job who couldn't hit--or catch--the curveball, either. People probably secretly envy Reggie Jackson or Nolan Ryan. Bob Uecker gives them something better: someone to look down on. Someone to be patronizingly amused at.
Robert George Uecker plays the role to perfection. The dead-pan screw-up. The guy who tells you with a perfectly straight face that the way to catch a knuckleball is to wait till it stops rolling, then pick it up. The one who tells you they held Don Drysdale out of the Hall of Fame for four years because they found out Uecker once got a hit off him. The one who will tell you the only way to catch Bob Gibson's curveball was to hope it would hit you.
Uecker went from a backup catcher to a standup comic one night when he was at an Al Hirt concert and the great jazz trumpeter invited him on stage to tell a few baseball stories. Nobody had ever heard the baseball stories Uecker spun. Soon he was a staple on "The Tonight Show" and he was a broadcaster for the Milwaukee Brewers in the days when the club was even funnier than he was.
But Uecker became a Star with a capital S when he made himself the butt of jokes in the Lite beer commercials, posing as the lovable has-been who thinks of himself as having the public esteem of Stan the Man or Babe. "These fans love me," he tells the audience as he gets locked out of the friendly saloon or banished to the upper reaches of the stadium.
"I stayed in the big leagues six years, and the managers thought I had a limp till they found out that was my normal gait," he says. "Guys used to practice their double plays on me even when I was the leadoff batter. I'm the only guy in the game who got thrown out at first, 6-4-3, even with nobody on."
The game didn't fire him, it just didn't notice him. "But they let me down easy," he says. "The day I got released, I came in to dress for the game and the manager, Lum Harris, said, 'No visitors allowed in the clubhouse before the game.' "
It was inevitable that Hollywood would try to get in on this popular American character. "No, they're not going to make a movie of my life and call it 'Strike Three,' " Uecker says. "We're doing a television series at Twentieth Century-Fox, based on the old Clifton Webb 'Belvedere' movies. As usual, I'm lucky I'm surrounded with some real pros, Ilene Graff and Christopher Hewett."
But Uecker really wishes they could go back and extract a few handle hits from his record.
"Didn't they do that to Ty Cobb? Find out he got credited with one more hit or so than he made?"
If they could do that to him, Uecker figures it might vault him right into some old Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy roles, or co-stardom with Redford.
As it is, when some old ballplayer is trying to impress his grandkids, telling them he played with Bob Gibson or Lou Brock, the kids might yawn. But if he tells them he played with the great Bob Uecker, the kids will be electrified. "Bob Uecker! What was he really like, Granddad?"
In baseball, managers sometimes caution overeager players: "Don't try to be a hero."
Uecker really didn't. And it made him one anyway.