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The Day Uecker Took Koufax Deep

Jul. 24, 2017
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No one shuns praise quite like Bob Uecker. Praise is no joke, and whether the subject is baseball, life or the self, Uke is disinclined to take these things seriously. He has more fun that way.

His six seasons in the Majors as a subpar backup catcher helped him polish his self-effaced wit, and from a lowly career batting average of .200, he thrived. But the truth is, Uke wasn’t always as terrible as he’d like us to believe. On this date in 1965, for instance, he clubbed a home run off a three-time Cy Young award winner, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

Uecker played for the Cardinals at the time. Though he was the first native of the Cream City to play for the Braves, he was also the first Milwaukeean the franchise traded away (maybe that’s why he can make an honor and a dubious honor seem one in the same). It was a once-in-a-lifetime blunder: Milwaukee didn’t want Bob Uecker. Thankfully, pride was never an issue with Uke, and he was happy to return home.

He landed in St. Louis in 1964, and despite (or because of?) the fact that he spent the entire Fall Classic on the bench; the Cardinals won the World Series. Uke got a bump in playing time the next season. As he noted in his book, Catcher in the Wry, that was a sign the defending champs were in trouble.

Due to an ill-fated vote of confidence from manager Red Schoendienst, Uecker platooned with All-Star Tim McCarver, with the former penciled in the lineup against lefties. Uecker coped with the raised expectations. “I had to adapt a new philosophy,” he said. “I learned to dread one day at a time.”

Somehow, that was the right mindset to have against Sandy Koufax. The southpaw embarrassed hitters in the early-to-mid ’60s, posting the lowest ERA in the National League in five straight seasons and leading the Majors in strikeouts four times. By contrast, Uecker was no slouch when it came to shagging fly balls with a stolen tuba.

It was a classic duel: Mediocrity vs. Excellence. Something had to give.

With his team trailing 2-0 in the fifth inning at Los Angeles, Mr. Baseball swatted an offering from Koufax into the leftfield seats of Dodger Stadium. It was a solo shot. No co-stars were needed in the making of this Hollywood masterpiece. The game’s momentum shifted.

The left-handed ace wanted no part of Uke in the top of the seventh, issuing an intentional walk to the man who would someday be pretend-choked by Andre the Giant. Some will claim the move was done strategically to get to the pitcher’s spot of the order with two outs—but I like to think Koufax was afraid.

Thanks to a career day from Uecker, the Cards prevailed in ten innings by a score of 3-2. Uke wasn’t finished clobbering bombs—although he did slow down the pace a bit, mustering 14 in his career. Chances are, that’s still more home runs than you’ve hit in Major League Baseball.    

In Catcher in the Wry, Uecker had this to say about besting a seven-time All-Star:

“Poor Sandy. He was the greatest pitcher of his time, and whenever I stepped in to face him he didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Thank the Lord I didn’t destroy the boy’s confidence.”

Along with getting “out of a rundown against the Mets,” the portrayer of Harry Doyle has cited the intentional pass as a career highlight. With humble charm, he quipped:

“I was pretty proud of that until I heard that the commissioner wrote Koufax a letter telling him the next time something like that happened, he’d be fined for damaging the image of the game.”

The reigning Redbirds of ’65 weren’t picture-perfect, either. They fell out of contention by August and finished 80-81. The Dodgers and Koufax went on to prevail in the Series.

During the offseason, Uecker was traded to Philadelphia, “a town where, on Easter, they boo the little kids who don’t find eggs,” as the voice of the Brewers has put it. By 1967, he was a Brave again, but in Atlanta. That’s where his playing days got numbered.

In a surprise twist, despite being two years older than Koufax, Uecker outlasted him on the career timeline. Koufax had to shut it down at the end of the ’66 campaign. Dominant as he was, the lefty was not superhuman, and three seasons of tossing 300+ innings took a toll on his pitching arm; he developed chronic pain and traumatic arthritis. His talent got him overworked.

In a way, mediocrity had defeated excellence again. How could the game be so cruel to its best players? Who else but Bob Uecker knew how to explain it?

“I made an interesting discovery. These were all players with high standards, which they set for themselves. When they failed to meet them, the fans and the management came down hard. I had no such problem.” 

The man shuns praise. So, don’t bother telling Bob Uecker he’s brilliant. 

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