Bob Costas spoke at the Drake Knapp Center April 19.
“All you need to know about Bob Uecker,” Bob Costas said of the famous sportscaster, “was summed up by his first baseball experience.”
According to Costas, the experience went like this: A talent scout sat down with Uecker’s family and told them, “We’d like to sign your son for five thousand dollars.” Uecker’s father immediately replied, “We don’t have that kind of money.”
It’s a funny story that’s a whole lot funnier when Costas tells it. The multiple Emmy award-winning sportscaster spent most of the 10th annual Bucksbaum lectureship skewering his peers, especially Uecker and infamously absent-minded ball player Yogi Berra.
The Knapp Center was full of Des Moines residents -- Costas said thousands -- who seemed more than happy to watch him fly from one memory to the next.
Costas had spoken to Berra and confirmed that the following story is true: When asked whether two mid-game streakers had been male or female, Berra said, “I couldn’t tell, they had bags over their heads.”
Costas seemed to have an endless collection of stories. And he would -- he’s been a leading sportscaster for NBC for the past 27 years.
He told a story about another sportscaster who, on Fathers’ Day, accidentally said “Happy Birthday” to all the fathers in the stadium. And there was another involving a home run ball that tipped off the glove of Hall of Fame player Dave Winfield. The sportscaster got a bit too excited by Winfield’s attempt and said, “If Winfield had made that catch, fans would be tossing babies from the upper deck.”
“…which is the commonly accepted means of expressing joy at a baseball game,” Costas said. That bit of explanation was, for the most part, lost beneath raucous laughter.
Costas also told of meeting crime boss John Gotti in an Italian restaurant. Gotti sent a bottle of Chianti to him and said, “I like your work.” The admiration wasn’t exactly mutual, but at the time Costas smartly refused to say so.
Then there was the young Bostonian -- who Costas said sounded exactly like John F. Kennedy -- who approached him in 1999 and said that the Red Sox would win the pennant that year. When Costas explained that the Sox hadn’t won the pennant since 1918 the man replied, “That’s exactly the point: they always win one year after a Russian revolution.”
Above all, Costas’ wit and energy were carried by a passion for baseball. When asked to pass value judgment on modern changes to the game -- players making more money, the corporate advertising, what have you -- Costas said, “I have no problems with the game modernizing if you don’t diminish the heart and soul of the game.”
The evening continued long after the scripted portion of Costas’ lecture was complete. In a lengthy question-and-answer session, he revealed the following:
• His favorite baseball movie is “Bull Durham,” followed closely by “The Natural.” And there’s a special place in his heart for “Major League.”
• The best ball players of all time include Babe Ruth (“certainly the greatest legitimate slugger”), Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and pre-steroids Barry Bonds. Great modern pitchers: Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson.
• He carries a 1958 Mickey Mantle card in his wallet, which he found in a pack when he was six years old.
• He will NOT be a candidate for the next commissioner of baseball.
• His favorite Olympic moment was when Muhammad Ali lit the torch in Atlanta.
• Pete Rose, a talented ball player who made illegal bets on his own team, should be admitted to the Hall of Fame but officially banned from baseball.
• “Baseball will never be more popular than football, but it will always be better than football.”