Guest Post: Bob Uecker: Ethical Model

Things are still pretty busy in my world, so I’m staying away from the blog for another week. But that isn’t all that terrible of a thing for you since I’ve been able to finagle another week’s worth of guest posts out of some of my favorite bloggers from around the web. Considering just how great the blog posts were last week and who all is lined up so far, it’s looking to be a pretty good week.

And this first post should be all the proof you need of that. I would hope that everyone here is aware of just how great Carson Cistulli is. If you aren’t, you can find his work over at FanGraphs, as well as here and there around the web (ESPN, Yahoo!, Rouges Baseball Index). He’s an incredibly talented writer, and I’m glad he agreed to contribute. Enjoy the post below – it’s just fantastic, by the way. Thanks, Carson!

If you’ve visited these electronic pages before, you’re almost surely aware that the proprietor of this site, Mr. Larry Granillo, is a resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Something of which you’re maybe less aware is that, in just over a week, the wife and I — I, Carson Cistulli, that is — will pick up a Penske-brand truck*, fill it with literally all of our earthly possessions, and point it (i.e. the aforementioned truck) in the direction of the Middle West, with the idea that we’ll arrive safe and mostly sound in Madison, Wisconsin, around August 1st.

*Penske: Dedication at every turn.

It’d be hard to overstate my enthusiasm for the move. It’s an enthusiasm that exists for a number of reasons — I mean, Wisconsin is the epicenter both of beer and cheese in the fifty nifty — but I feel that the most prominent of these reasons is the knowledge that I will soon be taking up residence in the state that has produced ubermensch Mr. Bob Uecker.

As Nerd Ally and Insufferable Math Snob Jack Moore would certainly agree, Bob Uecker is a VIP in all our hearts. Many who’ve never heard his work as the Voice of the Brewers will at least know him from his role as Indians radio announcer Harry Doyle in Major League. Or as Mr. Belvedere’s low-brow adversary in the show of the same name (Mr. Belvedere, that is — not Low-Brow Adversary).

I’d like to make a case, however — with my tongue as far away from my cheek as is comfortably possible — that Bob Uecker is more than just a Good Times Charlie. I’d like to make a case that he is — at least so far as his public persona is concerned — that he’s as perfect an ethical model as we have in our popular culture.

(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)

First, let’s be clear: though we often use them interchangeably in speech, ethics is not the same as morality. Morality concerns one’s ability to identify the qualities of, and discern between, right and wrong. Ethics, put briefly, is the art of living. The two will interact obviously — it’s hard to live well while always choosing the bad — but they’re certainly different.

Note, also, that it’s impossble to catalog all of Uecker’s contributions to the art of living well in a brief post. With that in mind, I offer here three lessons we learn from Uecker. In each case, I’ve isolated a single ethical precept, the historical antecedents for said precept, and then the ways in which Uecker lives these lessons.

Voila, people:

Lesson: Understand your strengths and your weaknesses.

Historical Antecedents: The aphorism “Know thyself” is more or less as old as the Western intellectual tradition, attributed alternately to Pythagoras (c. 570-c. 495 BCE), Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE), Socrates (c. 469–399 BCE), and others. The sense is also preserved by Epictetus, who writes in his Discourses (II.6): “It is good to be clear about the level of your talent… Don’t pretend you have a particular skill if you don’t.”

The Book of Uecker: Uecker certainly understands his shortcomings. In his autobiography, The Catcher in the Wry (file under: books, must read), he writes: “Anybody with ability can play in the big leagues. To last as long as I did with the skills I had, with the numbers I produced, was a triumph of the human spirit.” There’s also his response to the question, How do you catch a knuckleball? His answer: “Wait until it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.” These sentiments underscore Uecker’s weaknesses and strengths at the same time: his weakness as a baseball player, and his strength as a talker and wit. He does variations on both jokes (and more!) in a 1994 interviews with Dave Letterman (below).

Lesson: Practice humility.

Historical Antecedents: Humility is, of course, intimately tied to an understanding of one’s weaknesses. Religious ascetics, by definition, have practiced humility — a trait perhaps best exemplified in an anecdote related by Alan Watts in The Spirit of Zen. Watts writes: “Frequently, the Zen masters used to refer to each other as ‘old rice-bags’ and with other uncomplimentary terms, not out of any professional jealousy, but because it amused them to think that they and their wise and venerated brothers were supposed by ordinary standards to be so especially holy, whereas they had all realized that everything was holy, even cooking-pots and odd leaves blown about by the wind, and that there was nothing particularly venerable about themselves at all.”

The Book of Uecker: More than anything, Uecker is constantly referring to himself as an old rice-bag. In his autobiography, Uecker writes: “I signed with the Milwaukee Braves for $3,000. That bothered my dad at the time because he didn’t have that kind of dough. But he eventually scraped it up.” His appearances as a spokesman for Miller Lite (such as this one, where he’s moved from box seats to the upper deck) are designed to emphasize not only his futility as a player but his comfort with said fact. Also, there’s the appearance on Johnny Carson where he bemoans the conduct of newspapermen during his playing days, saying: “I think guys used to write stuff — you know, they always wrote about the game. You know — I mean, there were a lot of things I did after the game that I think, you know, merited a lot more than the garbage they wrote about what I did during a game.” Though couched in a joke, it’s also true: Uecker’s better moments have been off, rather than on, the field.

Lesson: Friendship is of vital important to happiness.

Historical Antecedents: Epicurus writes in his Principal Doctrines: “Of all the things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” The importance of living in tight-knit communities, among friends, has also been the subject of recent happiness studies.

The Book of Uecker: In his autobiography, Uecker shares an anecdote about starting a spring-training bar fight with a buddy; about drunkenly operating, crashing, and being thrown from an airboat in the Florida Everglades with a buddy. In his work as the Voice of the Brewers — itself a reason to purchase a subscription to MLB’s audio package — Uecker is constantly being visited by celebrities and former players. Beyond that, it’s important to note the different sorts of people with whom Uecker has rubbed elbows. On the internet, in separate interviews (both below), both Artie Lange and Norm MacDonald share their admiration for Uecker — with Lange referring to Uecker as a “hero” and MacDonald calling him one of his “best friends.” And when Big League Stew’s David Brown asked Uecker about working with Christopher Hewett (TV’s Mr. Belvedere), he got this repsonse: “He was great. I had a good time with him. We had a lot of fun on that show. He was one of those guys who was a true actor. Born in Scotland, brought up in England, very proper — which made it work perfectly because I wasn’t very proper. I always used to tell him bad things about the queen that used to upset him. I’d make up stuff and get him all upset. It was fun.” Uecker has equally kinds things to say about the rest of the cast.

We’re reminded by his recent (successful) heart surgery that Bob Uecker isn’t immortal — nor entirely immune to bouts of pathos (a couple of interviews, both pre- and post-surgery, reveal a rather sedate Uecker). But ethical living doesn’t prevent dark times; those are more or less inevitable. The more pressing question is how we navigate those times. One suspects — at least given all available evidence — that Uecker will lives these times as artfully as possible.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.