1964 Cardinals team photo with Bob Uecker and Bob Gibson holding hands.

April 9, 1964: Cardinals trade for Bob Uecker

On April 9, 1964, the Cardinals traded outfielder Gary Kolb and catcher Jim Coker to the Milwaukee Braves to acquire Mr. Baseball himself, Bob Uecker.

A backup catcher throughout his two seasons in St. Louis, Uecker was a member of the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series championship club. Though Uecker didn’t appear in the postseason, starting catcher Tim McCarver credited Uecker’s clubhouse presence for making an impact.

“If Bob Uecker had not been on the Cardinals, then it’s questionable whether we could have beaten the Yankees,” McCarver said.

Uecker enlisted in the U.S. Army as a 20-year-old in 1954, where he played baseball at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and Fort Belvoir in Virginia. When his service concluded, the native of West Allis, Milwaukee, signed with his hometown Braves and made his major-league debut in 1962. That season, he caught Warren Spahn’s 327th career win, which set the record for most wins by a lefthanded pitcher.

In 1963, Uecker split time between the majors and minors, appearing in just 13 games for the Braves. In 53 games with Triple-A Denver, Uecker hit .283 with eight homers and 33 RBIs.

Heading into the 1964 campaign, the Braves still had plenty of catching depth, making Uecker expendable.

“Uecker, a boy most observers feel could be catching for almost any major league team, was known to be on the trading block,” United Press International wrote after Uecker’s trade to the Cardinals was announced. “With the acquisition of Ed Bailey and the presence of Joe Torre, Phil Roof and Gene Oliver on the roster, the Braves were far overstocked in that department.”[1]

Meanwhile, the Cardinals were thin on catching depth behind McCarver. The 28-year-old Coker had been acquired from the Giants for pitcher Ken Mackenzie, but the Cardinals were unimpressed by his spring training performance.[2]

“We know that Uecker is an excellent defensive catcher,” Keane said. “We expect Tim McCarver to do most of the catching, but Uecker will be an excellent replacement defensively and we can’t expect a man to hit for much of an average when he plays infrequently. We believe that if Uecker hits often enough, he’ll hit satisfactorily.”[3]

The Braves considered Kolb the biggest prize in the deal. A former halfback with the University of Illinois, Kolb could catch and play third base or the outfielder. He had been one of a handful of prospects seen as a possible successor to Stan Musial in the Cardinals’ outfield.

In his first extended look in the majors, Kolb hit .271 with three homers and 10 RBIs across 119 plate appearances in 1963.

Braves general manager John McHale said he was “very happy” to get Kolb[4] and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that Kolb “impressed the Braves by getting several key hits against them” in 1963.[5]

The Braves assigned both Kolb and Coker to Triple-A Denver to open the 1964 season. Kolb appeared in 36 games that season, batting just 188. He was hitting .259 in 24 games when he was traded to the Mets for Jesse Gonder on July 21, 1965. Across his seven-year major league career, Kolb played in 293 games, batting .209 with six homers and 29 RBIs.

Coker never got the opportunity to play for the Braves, as he was sold to the Reds for $35,000 on August 23, 1964. He played four seasons in Cincinnati and concluded a nine-year major league career with a .231 average, 16 homers, and 70 RBIs across 233 games.

Uecker’s fun-loving personality fit in well with the Cardinals. At the 1964 team photo, Uecker was seated next to Bob Gibson. Sensing an opportunity for mischief, Uecker whispered to Gibson that they should hold hands, and the star pitcher happily agreed. No one noticed during the shoot and the Cardinals chose to re-take the photo (with Gibson and Uecker separated) after the grinning, handholding teammates were discovered.

On the field, Uecker played in 40 games for the Cardinals in 1964, batting .198 with one homer and six RBIs.

“I liked throwing to him,” pitcher Nelson Briles said. “He was very self-effacing about it, but he was a good defensive catcher. Of course, you knew he wasn’t going to start because Tim McCarver had established himself, so Bob was going to be a part-time platoon player.”[6]

That August, Devine was fired, and soon thereafter the sixth-place Cardinals began to surge. After a walk-off win on September 1, the Cardinals moved into third place. Four weeks later, they moved into a tie with the Reds for first place. With a win in their final game, the Cardinals won the pennant.

In the final days of the season, the team gathered to decide how they would divide their shares. Pitcher Roger Craig encouraged his teammates to recognize Devine’s contribution in putting the roster together.

“If we do go on to win this thing, I think voting Bing money would be an insult,” Craig said, “but if we do win, I do think we should at least give him a ring.”

“I’ll call him,” declared Uecker as his teammates exploded in laughter.[7]

That fall, Uecker’s antics included borrowing a tuba from the band performing prior to Game 1 of the World Series and attempting to catch fly balls in it before the game. Mike Shannon wrote in his 2022 autobiography, Get Up, Baby!, that Keane’s anger over the tuba stunt was why Uecker didn’t play in that year’s seven-game World Series.[8] Given how rarely Uecker played in the regular season, however, it wasn’t particularly surprising that the backup catcher didn’t appear with the championship on the line.

With Red Schoendienst managing the club in place of Keane, who had left the team to manage the Yankees, Uecker appeared in 53 games in 1965, batting .228 with a pair of homers and 10 RBIs. Ultimately, however, Uecker’s sense of humor – and his talent for impressions, including one of new Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam – spurred his inclusion in a trade to the Phillies following the season.

As Gibson wrote in 1994, “Among his many imitations, Uecker did a hilarious rendition of Howsam, who was very bland and nasal, and in turn Howsam’s dislike for Uecker was so intense that he wouldn’t make the deal with the Phillies unless they agreed to take Uecker.”[9]

In The Spirit of St. Louis, author Peter Golenbock wrote that, “For Howsam, it was addition by subtraction.”[10]

Uecker played 1 ½ seasons with the Phillies before he was traded to the Braves – now based in Atlanta – for the final months of his career. Uecker was involved in a nightclub fight at spring training in 1968 and required 48 stitches after he was hit in the head with a beer bottle. After he suffered a separate spring training injury, the Braves released him on April 2.

Over six seasons, Uecker appeared in 297 games, batting .200 with 14 homers and 74 RBIs.

Uecker became nationally famous beginning in 1970, when he made the first of more than 100 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Since 1971, Uecker has served as a broadcaster for the Brewers, and he did play-by-play for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball from 1976 through 1982. Later, he starred in Mr. Belvedere and was in all three Major League movies. In 2003, Uecker was awarded the Ford C. Frick Award, which was presented at that year’s Hall of Fame weekend.

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[1] UPI, “Trade Made With Cards,” Portage Daily Register, April 9, 1964.

[2] Neal Russo, “Cards Get Uecker, Deal Kolb, Coker to Braves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1964.

[3] J. Roy Stockton, “Cards’ Outfield Only Uncertainty,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 10, 1964.

[4] UPI, “Trade Made With Cards,” Portage Daily Register, April 9, 1964.

[5] Neal Russo, “Cards Get Uecker, Deal Kolb, Coker to Braves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1964.

[6] Peter Golenbock (2011), The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, HarperCollins Ebooks, Page 472.

[7] Tim McCarver with Ray Robinson (1987), Oh Baby I Love It! Baseball Summers, Hot Pennant Races, Grand Salamis, Jellylegs, El Swervos, Dingers and Dunkers, Etc., Etc., Etc., Villard Books, Page 104.

[8] Mike Shannon with Rick Hummel (2022), Get Up, Baby! My Seven Decades With the St. Louis Cardinals, Triumph Books (Kindle edition), Location 817.

[9] Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler (1994), Stranger to the Game, Penguin Books USA, Page 117.

[10] Peter Golenbock (2011), The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, HarperCollins Ebooks, Page 473.