The legend of Bob Feller began on an Iowa farm
By Bill Livingston, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Thursday, December 16, 2010, 1:53 AM
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Greatest Indian of Them All, Bob Feller, grew up in Van Meter on the Iowa prairie, among legends both real and make-believe.
Winterset, Iowa, was the hometown of John Wayne, although his name was Marion Morrison then. Nile Kinnick, who won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Iowa, was Feller's catcher in American Legion ball and grew up in Adel, Iowa. A sportscaster called "Dutch" Reagan was working in DesMoines.
Feller's life was a tale as tall as any of theirs.
Bob Feller was born, bred and whole grain-fed to be an American icon, and certainly the most beloved athlete to play in Cleveland.
Ted Williams, the consensus choice as baseball's all-time greatest hitter, closely studied pitchers, but he never obsessed about them -- except for one.
Feller captivated Williams. While Williams would focus on someone like Allie Reynolds of the Yankees, a terrific pitcher, for two hours before a game, he started psyching up three days before facing Feller. The difference between Feller's stuff and "good" stuff was always exponential.
Feller had a "field of dreams," in Iowa, just like in the movie. After clearing the land with his own hands, his father planted more wheat than corn on the rest of the farm. Wheat was easier to harvest, which left more time for baseball.
That's a synthesis of fathers, sons, baseball, and amber waves of grain. Feller, who passed away Wednesday at age 92 of complications from leukemia, was born, bred and whole grain-fed to be an American icon.
To protect his amateur eligibility, he signed with the Indians for $1 and a baseball autographed by the members of the team. Feller struck out 17 Philadelphia A's, breaking the American League record, when he was only 17 years old. Then, he went home to finish high school. He would have been a global sensation in today's world of 24/7 news cycles on cable TV and the Internet. It is not overstating it to say that Feller might have been the greatest prodigy in any field since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
He was self-assured enough to throw a strike, at nearly 79 years of age -- and from the pitching rubber yet -- while making the ceremonial first pitch during the 1997 World Series.
Blunt and outspoken, he was also one of the most admirable men of an admirable generation. In the prime of his career, he gave up 31/2 years to serve in the Navy. He enlisted two days after Pearl Harbor, although he could have gotten a deferment since he was the sole support of his family, and his father was dying. In contrast to how teams schemed to arrange reserve-unit berths for players during the Vietnam war, Feller told told Cy Slapnicka, the scout who had signed him: "I'm going to enlist."
Slapnicka replied: "I think you should." As chief of an anti-aircraft battery on the battleship USS Alabama, Feller steamed 175,000 miles, crossed the Arctic Circle six times and the Equator 24 times, won eight battle stars, and, for his pains, saw a bunch of know-littles exclude him from the list of the 20th century's greatest players because he didn't win 300 games. Why, without World War II, he'd have won close to 400!
Although he played catch on the Alabama every day, Feller could not have known that he would come back to the big leagues as good as ever, not after missing most of four seasons when he was his early to mid-20s. In a way, it figured. .Legends are for all time, literally.
Before the color barrier fell after World War II in big-league baseball, Feller barnstormed in the off-season against the best of his era, including the great Negro League stars. He was an equal-opportunity strikeout artist.
He said only Walter "Big Train" Johnson was faster than he was. That riled Nolan Ryan's fans, but Feller had a strong sense of what it meant to be "Rapid Robert." Still, his self-gratification was slight, compared to his self-sacrifice. "Freedom's not free," he said.
On 9/11, one of the darkest days since Pearl Harbor, a reporter seeking reaction from a player who was a veteran of military service called Feller. It was an easy choice. He was the greatest American I ever knew.
© 2010 cleveland.com. All rights reserved.
One last trip home to Iowa, with Bob Feller
By Terry Pluto, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
December 17, 2010
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The barn was red, right on top of a dirt road.
Inside the barn was this sign: FELLER 1886.
"This is where I used to play catch with my father," said Bob Feller.
The Hall of Fame pitcher meant the red barn. He meant the farm that had been in his family since 1886. He meant his life in Van Meter, Iowa, which he shared with a few media members in the summer of 2007.
The work ethic learned at a Depression-era farm in Van Meter, Iowa never left Bob Feller, who arrived in the big leagues at age 17 and had 107 victories before enlisting in the Navy in 1941. (Des Moines Register photo)
Feller is gone now, died Wednesday night at the age of 92 from leukemia. But that trip to Van Meter will forever live in my memory.
There was Feller leading us down that gravel road, a straight shot lined by corn and soybeans and long, prairie grasses. This is the Great Plains, where on summer days the endless sky is swimming pool blue. There is a sense that everyone can see you, but no one is looking -- as novelist Dan O'Brien once characterized the area.
"People don't know much about these roads," said Feller. "When it rained, your tires got stuck. You had to get out the horse and wagon from down by the Racoon River..."
Feller road horses, drove tractors and stood behind a plow. It all came back to him on the summer day, a time when he and the country were so much younger -- and the work was back-aching harder.
Many are now saying that Bob Feller is a true American. He was born in the 1918 at the end of World War I. He grew up during the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression. He pitched in the majors at the age of 17. That was in 1936. He served in World War II, then returned to pitch for the Tribe until 1956. He never wore any other professional uniform than that of the Cleveland Indians. He never played a day in the minors, he never wanted to play anywhere but Cleveland.
He was a man who said, "They talk about Cal Ripken's streak. My father went 40 years and never took a vacation."
Those who romanticize life on a farm probably never lived on one. They didn't deal with the wind, rain, droughts, blizzards and insects -- all capable of destroying a corn crop and sending a family into a sinkhole of debt. They didn't see months or work wilt away in a hot summer sun or washed away in a sudden spring flood.
Feller's father was William Andrew, and he knew that life was hard -- and didn't expect it to be otherwise.
"His father died when my father was nine," said Feller.
The elder Feller never played organized baseball. His education ended in the eighth grade. He played crops, milked cows, cleaned chicken coops and horse stalls and mended fences.
"He ran ahead of the crowd," said Feller. "If everyone planted corn, he planted wheat. ... He knew what to plant and when to plant it. We didn't get hurt as bad as some during the depression."
William Feller caught the fast balls fired by his son at his own risk. When Bob was just eight, he broke three of his father's ribs with a pitch.(Plain Dealer Historical Collection)
Like many men of his generation, Feller had trouble expressing his feelings about his family.
Andrew Feller took his son to nearby Booneville, where his father sold grain that was hauled away to big cities by trains. A young Feller looked at trains from the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific railroads, trains that Feller said went from Gary, Indiana to San Francisco. He knew there was a big country out there, waiting for him.
Feller's father knew there was something special about his son. Baseball. The father could really feel it when he played catch with his son on winters in the barn -- the father's palm hurt from catching his son's fastball. There also was the day that a Feller pitch broke three of his father's ribs.
At that point, young Robert was only 8.
One summer, they went to a part of the farm where they decided to build their own Field of Dreams, long before the movie.
"We cut down about 20 trees and made them into fence posts," Feller recalled, staring at a field in 2007 that had returned to pasture land. But he saw a wire backstop. He saw his father hauling in dirt, making a pitcher's mound and an infield. He could hear the other farmers saying his father was "crazy" to waste the land on a baseball field.
While the Field of Dreams movie made this line famous: "If you build it, they will come," the Fellers built their field and players came. Soon, the Feller family constructed bleachers and charged each person 25 cents to watch the games played by some of the best athletes in the area. A 13-year-old Feller was pitching to 30-year-old men.
His father knew his son's arm would be something beyond the brick factory that Feller showed us. It's now just an overgrown field with old bricks scattered about; a few horses were grazing on that summer day in 2007.
"When we were kids, we used to come here after school to watch them make bricks," Feller recalled. "More than a hundred people worked here. It was a big deal in a jerk town like this."
Start of the glory days
West Des Moines, Iowa resident Ed Brown takes in a display at Van Meter's Bob Feller Museum on Thursday morning. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
Van Meter is 17 miles from Des Moines, now a bedroom community of 1,200 (still no stoplight) to that major Iowa city. Its population was about 300 when Feller grew up.
Feller's high school remained, sort of, where he pitched for the Bulldogs. He couldn't remember how many no-hitters he pitched. "Six ... a dozen?" he shrugged. "No one kept track."
Feller mentioned there were about 45 boys in the entire school. "Only six could play," he said. "The other three just stood out there like statues."
"I pitched five games in eight days when we went to the Iowa State high school finals. My arm was tired and we lost to North High of Des Moines."
As he toured the school, so much had changed. There were more buildings. The diamond where he played was gone, and there were three fields in the area.
This memory came back: "My mother made me wear a white shirt and tie to school each day, instead of these rags and dungarees they do now. ... We'd be better off if kids did that today."
Then he added this, "We started out as Catholic, but the priest told my father not to play baseball with me on Sundays. So we became Methodists."
The house where Feller grew up is gone, replaced by a wonderful brick home built in 1940 -- for the then-outrageous sum of $75,000. It was Feller's gift to his parents. He was 22 and already in his fifth major-league season, coming off a 27-11 record with a 2.61 ERA. He completed 31 of 37 starts.
Feller believed you could never throw too much. He thought it was "idiotic" to put ice on an arm, use heat after pitching. Pitch counts "made no sense." In Feller's Iowa, a man should finish whatever he started -- and that carried over to baseball.
Feller walked around his farm. In 2007, it was owned by the Angel family, where the kids called him "Mr. Feller" and hug him as he arrived. He is like a favorite uncle, welcome any time. The farm was once 300 acres, it's now down to 40 as the rest of the land was sold off to other farmers.
Van Meter is the home of the Bob Feller Museum, a must-see for baseball fans.
Without baseball, Feller said he probably would have ended up working on the farm, then paused.
"My mother was a teacher and a nurse. She wanted me to go to college. I was a C-student, but a good speller. I guess I would have ended up being another damn lawyer."
© 2010 cleveland.com. All rights reserved.
RIP Bob Feller
By Joe Posnanski
December 16, 2010
One of my earliest memories was seeing Bob Feller in a jacket and tie. My father took me to some sort of morning meeting in Cleveland — a small room, in my memory, filled with metal folding chairs placed in uneven rows — and Bob Feller stood behind a lectern (and perhaps in front of a chalkboard; for some reason I see a chalkboard). I do not remember a single thing he said. I only remember him standing in the front of the room, and the awe he inspired, and my father telling me this: “That’s Bob Feller. He threw the ball faster than anyone who ever lived.”
Bob Feller threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters during his 18-year career -- all with the Indians. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)
The fastest pitcher ever. I was maybe five years old then, and the image shattered my imagination. This man in the suit? This man threw the fastest pitch ever? Of course, I believed it. Bob Feller was one of the enduring sports themes of my childhood in Cleveland, a sports childhood that was as fragile and brown as the autumn leaves dusting Cedar Road. My favorite teams were terrible. My favorite athletes were flawed. Cleveland’s past always seemed greener and richer and better than the future. I grew up on the story of Jim Brown pounding into the line, gaining five or six or seven yards, then lying on the mud and snow for what seemed forever (Is he hurt? Can Jim Brown BE hurt?). Then, finally, he would get up and jog back to the huddle, line up and pound back into the line, gaining five or six or seven yards again. I grew up on the story of Jesse Owens, who won gold medals under the outstretched arm of Hitler and then returned to Cleveland where people talked often about seeing him and meeting him and shaking his hand and how it felt like shaking the hand of history. I grew up on the stories of Paul Brown and Otto Graham and Rocky Colavito and Dante Lavelli (who, I was told, never once dropped a pass) and Lou Boudreau (who invented the Ted Williams shift).
Mostly, though, there was the legend of Bobby Feller, Rapid Robert, the Iowa farm boy who at age 17 took the mound at League Park in Cleveland, threw his hardest fastballs, and scared the living hell out of grizzled baseball men who thought they had seen it all.
* * *
The Bob Feller Museum is a fairly small building that looks like a home in Van Meter, Iowa, which is 17 miles west of Des Moines. Bob Feller told me this so often — Van Meter is 17 miles west of Des Moines — that it is burned in my memory. I cannot tell you precisely how far London is from Paris or how far Los Angeles is from San Francisco. But I sure as heck know that Van Meter is 17 miles west of Des Moines.
He told me this often because Bob Feller believed that if you are not willing to promote yourself, well, who will? This was one of the first things I learned about him. The first time I had ever talked to him was close to 30 years ago at a baseball card show. He was signing autographs. The way I remember it, he was signing them for free, though it’s possible that he was charging some absurdly nominal fee for each one, like a dollar or something. He was sitting behind this card table, and when I walked up to get my Bob Feller autograph he decided to give me a little test.
“Who is the greatest pitcher of all time?” he asked me.
I panicked. In retrospect, the answer seems pretty obvious. But I was never good at pop quizzes. And, anyway, I had been raised on the legend of Bob Feller, had been taught all about his childhood on the Iowa farm, his arrival in Cleveland as a phenom, his blazing fastball and shaky control, his titanic battles with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, his time at war, his refusal to say what people wanted to hear. I guess I wanted to impress him with my answer.
“Sandy Koufax,” I said in a voice that was still maneuvering unsteadily through puberty.
To his credit, Feller did not seem put off by my answer. He, in fact, treated it with a measure of respect — the answer was wrong, sure, but it was more misguided than anything else. He set me straight. “How many games did Koufax win?“ he asked. “What did he win? Hundred fifty games?” There was a small stack of papers on the table, and Feller reached over and took one, handed it to me. These were stat sheets. They were put together to estimate what Bob Feller’s career numbers would have looked like had he not gone off to war from 1942-45. The estimate was that he would have won 373 games, struck out 3,651 men and thrown five no-hitters. The strikeouts and no-hitters would have been records.
I have thought about that scene a lot over the last three decades. There were times, when I was younger, when I found the scene kind of sad. Here was Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, handing out what his stats might have looked like to a kid and a few other baseball fans who had made the trek to a card show in Charlotte, N.C. But as I have grown older my point of view has changed a bit. That’s because I don’t remember Bob Feller being sad at all. I don’t remember him being sad when I saw him pitching baseballs at minor league games or when he was talking baseball at whatever Optimists or Kiwanis Club meeting where he was speaking or when he was showing people what his baseball statistics might have looked like had he not enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. He was a great pitcher. He wanted people to remember. And if you don’t promote yourself, well, who will?
Jim Schraner walks past the statue of Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller outside Progressive Field in Cleveland Friday, Dec. 17, 2010. Feller, 92, died Wednesday night of leukemia. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
* * *
In the Bob Feller Museum, there are numerous surprising artifacts — including the bat that Babe Ruth was leaning on in that famous picture of him on Babe Ruth Day in 1948. The Yankees were playing the Indians that day, and Ruth had taken Feller’s bat.
But what is easily my favorite piece of Bob Feller memorabilia is a baseball that is signed by Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That comes from 1928, when Feller was nine years old. Gehrig and Ruth had come to play an exhibition in Des Moines, which you now know is 17 miles east of where Feller grew up in Van Meter. Feller desperately wanted to go to the exhibition and, more, he desperately wanted one of the autographed baseballs they were selling. The baseballs cost five dollars, which (as Feller would tell you in the grumpy tone he had perfected) was a lot of money in those days.
Here’s what Feller did: In Van Meter, in an effort to rid the town of a gopher problem, authorities were giving 10 cents for every dead gopher turned in. Feller drove his father’s truck to a gopher hole, he and a friend configured some sort of hose to smoke out the gophers, and they trapped exactly 50 of them, just the number Feller needed to buy the baseball.
The story sounds mythical. But Feller’s whole career sounds mythical. And the baseball is there for everyone to see in the Bob Feller Museum.
That same year, 1928, Feller fully understood and embraced his destiny. His own imagination had been exploded when a mail order package arrived with a Rogers Hornsby model glove, a few clean white baseballs and a full baseball uniform down to the socks. These were gifts from his father Bill, who saw his son’s dream clearly and years before his son saw it. Every day, they would play catch on the farm. The father from the movie “The Natural” seems closer to Bill Feller than just about anyone else, though Bob would often compare his childhood to a different movie.
“I had the first ‘Field of Dreams,’” Bob Feller used to say, and he did. Bill Feller one year asked his son if he wanted a baseball field. Well, what son would say no to that? Bill Feller then leveled the ground on his farm, carved out a ballpark, put up a scoreboard and bleachers, and created a team where Bob Feller could play. Supposedly there were people in town who thought Bill Feller had lost his mind (just the way the townsfolk felt about Kevin Costner in the movie). But Bill Feller didn’t seem to care. He knew his son was going to play in the major leagues.
Bob at that point still had dreams of being a hitter, but Bill knew better. He had seen the power in his son’s right arm. He had carved and whittled and sculpted for Bob a clean motion, one that would produce fastballs that nobody on earth could catch up with. Once Bill impressed upon his son that pitching was his ticket, Bob embraced the future. And when Bob Feller was 17, he signed with the Cleveland Indians for a dollar. His first exhibition game against big league players, he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings.
When Dizzy Dean was asked to take a picture with Feller — one of those “Present and Future” kind of photographs — Dean was willing but unusually modest. “After what he did today,” he said pointing at Feller, “he’s the guy to say.”
* * *
Bob Feller was always good for a quote. He had three qualities that made him so utterly quotable:
1. He saw the world in distinct and pronounced ways — Bob Feller was not much for shades of gray.
2. He did not mind telling you what he thought.
3. He did not seem to care much if people liked it.
Because of this, Feller was always good for a line about how pitchers were not as tough as they used to be or how much money is in the game or both. When all the hype about Stephen Strasburg built up in 2010, Feller was happy to pierce the absurdity of things (“Call me when he wins his 100th game”) or remind everyone that hype was not invented yesterday (“They broadcast my graduation from high school coast to coast, live on NBC”).
He said some things that followed him around all his life. Well that’s the cost of being quotable. And there was nothing easy about Bob Feller. He was, without question, the most famous ballplayer of his time who regularly barnstormed with black players. He and Satchel Paige were close, they were business partners, they were often great friends. And yet Feller said that Jackie Robinson would not make it as a big league player, and said that there wasn’t a Negro Leagues player who was good enough to play in the big leagues. (His famous and straightforward quote on the subject comes from 1969: “I don’t think baseball owes colored people anything. I don’t think colored people owe baseball anything either”). He railed against steroid users, the mushrooming of relief pitchers, the greed of owners, the greed of players and people who too quickly forgot their history. He offered up enough cranky quotes to leave an impression. He also said that the heroes of war are the ones who do not come back. And that America is the greatest country on earth. And that his father was the best man he had ever known.
Feller’s first start in the big leagues, he struck out 15. That was against the St. Louis Browns, who were managed by Rogers Hornsby — the man whose glove had helped set Feller’s baseball dream soaring. That game was in 1936, the day Jesse Owens returned home after winning those four Gold Medals at the Berlin Olympics. When the game ended, the home plate umpire Red Ormsby, who had been umpiring games since 1923, said simply: “That Feller showed more speed than I’ve ever seen uncorked by any American League pitcher, and that does not except Walter Johnson.”
That would be a common topic of discussion over the next 20 or so years as Bob Feller went through his Hall of Fame career. He did too many remarkable things as a pitcher to stuff into a single story. He led the American League in wins, innings and strikeouts every full year he pitched from 1939 through 1947. He threw an Opening Day no-hitter in Chicago in 1940, sparking what was always Feller’s favorite trivia question: “Name the only game in baseball history where every player on a team went into a regulation nine-inning game and came out of it with the same batting average.” That was Feller’s no-hitter. Each White Sox player came into the game hitting .000 and left hitting the same three digits.
He threw three no-hitters in all, one against the Yankees; he would sometimes call that his greatest day, though Feller had too many great days to stick with just one. That Yankees no-hitter was at Yankee Stadium in 1946 in what was probably Feller’s greatest year. He struck out 348 that season in what he thought was a modern major league record. It turned out that it was not the record — statisticians had miscounted Rube Waddell’s total from 1904 and upon recount it turned out he had 349. In any case, Feller won 26 games, and he threw 371 innings, and he proved that he was as good as ever after returning home from the war.
All the while, people tried to figure out how fast Feller threw. People often seemed more interested in that than his pitching greatness. He had his fastball tested many times. Once he was clocked at 104 mph. Another time, he remembered his fastball measured at 107.9 mph. He had his fastball measured by sensitive army equipment, and he had his fastball race against a motorcycle, and he had his fastball measured by various hard-throwing pitchers …
“If anybody threw that ball harder than Rapid Robert,” Satchel Paige said, “then the human eye couldn’t follow it.”
“Feller isn’t quite as fast as I was,” Walter Johnson said.
The second of those quotes is a bit surprising — Walter Johnson was a modest man who would often say that others (such as Smoky Joe Wood) threw harder than he did. But Johnson was nearing the end of his life when he gave that quote.Feller would later say that Koufax and Nolan Ryan didn’t throw as hard as he did. Maybe that’s age speaking. Maybe when you get older, you sometimes want to protect what you believe is yours.
Bob Feller, I suspect, always believed that he threw the fastest pitch in baseball history. He was generally pretty modest about it — his stock answer was that he belonged “in the discussion” but nobody could ever really know who threw the fastest. Still, I think he always believed that when he was just 17, when he came off the Iowa farm armed with his father’s pitching motion and the certainty of youth, he threw the fastest pitches that anyone has ever thrown.
Why do I think this? Well …
“Yes, I do think I threw a baseball harder than any man ever,” he told me once as we walked on a dirt field in Georgia. “A man should always believe in himself.”
An American flag flies at half mast at Progressive Field behind a statue of Bob Feller Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, in Cleveland. Feller, one of baseball's greatest pitchers during a Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Indians, died Wednesday night Dec. 15, 2010. He was 92. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
* * *
There is a Bob Feller story I am thinking of now, one I’ve never told before. I probably talked with Bob Feller 15 or 20 times in my life. I would call him for a story. I would see him at spring training. I would show up for a Bob Feller event. I don’t know that he ever knew my name. He did a lot of interviews.
I had finished interviewing him this one time — a typically rollicking interview that included stories and gripes and directions to the Bob Feller Museum, just 17 miles west of Des Moines. And for the first and only time, I told him that I was from Cleveland, and that one of my first memories was having seen him speak. He was interested in that. He asked me what I remembered … I told him what I wrote above. I remembered only what my father had said about him.
And then Bob Feller asked me about my father. Direct questions. Did he play catch with me when I was young? I said yes. Did he take me to baseball games? I said yes. Did he believe in me deeply? I said yes.
The tape recorder was off and my notebook was put away and so I cannot write here what he said word for word. But I remember the important part. He told me that I was lucky, that what you need to succeed in this world is a father who believes in you. And he told me that his father believed in him. Funny thing, though, he said Bill Feller never once said, “Bob, someday you’re going to pitch in the big leagues.” No, there were no words. There are some things that cannot be said with words. There was only those sweaty Iowa afternoons and those chilly Iowa evenings, and the sun setting, and a baseball going back and forth. Everything he needed to know about life was in that back-and-forth.
Bill Feller died in 1943, while his son Bob was at war. He had seen his son become the best pitcher in baseball.
Bob Feller died Thursday in Cleveland of acute leukemia. He was 92 years old. He grew up on a farm in Iowa. He played catch with his Dad. He played baseball for the Cleveland Indians when he was young. And when he was no longer young, he traveled the country promoting baseball and himself and America and all the things he believed in deeply. He signed more autographs, probably, than any man in baseball history — so many that an autograph dealer once joked that a baseball without Feller’s autograph was rarer and more valuable than one with. Bob Feller leaves behind family, friends, a detailed baseball record, countless stories and little confusion about how he felt about things. And he threw a baseball harder than any man who ever lived. At least that’s what my father told me.
Feller: Hard and Fast
By Bob Ryan
Boston Globe Staff
December 16, 2010
In this Feb. 28, 1941, file photo, Cleveland Indians star pitcher Bob Feller works out during spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP)
I’ve often imagined that if I could be one 20th-century American athlete it would be Smoky Joe Wood in 1912. But it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have been Bob Feller in 1940. Or 1946.
Because to be Bob Feller in those years was to be the baseball equivalent of the heavyweight champ. There were many fine pitchers in those days, just as there were many fine boxers not named Joe Louis. But Joe Louis was boxing to the average person. He was the one and only Heavyweight Champeen of Da Woild and he didn’t just defeat opponents; he knocked people out! Likewise, in Bob Feller’s heyday he was pitching to the average baseball fan. He owned the preeminent fastball in the world, and he didn’t just retire batters; he blew them away!
They say Bob Feller died last night at age 92, but I’m going to need some convincing. Bob Feller was ornery, cantankerous, and extraordinarily opinionated, and he was Iowa farm tough. It’s hard for me to believe a little thing like leukemia could get Bob Feller out. I would have sworn it would at least have to be a nuclear weapon landing at his feet. I see him buzzing one under St. Peter’s chin right now.
I feel safe in saying that Bob Feller had a unique career. There were younger players in the annals of baseball, but none more productive. He was no wartime accident of history, such as lefthanded pitcher Joe Nuxhall or shortstop Tommy Brown, who were 15 and 16 years of age, respectively, when the Reds and Dodgers employed them in 1944. No, Bob Feller was elevated to the Cleveland Indians at age 17 in 1936 because he belonged there.
Baseball was in its complete dominance as the unquestioned national pastime in 1936, and the Indians were not a sad-sack team, either. Into this world stepped Bob Feller, a farm boy from Van Meter, Iowa, whose father, Bill, had long ago decided was destined to be a major league pitcher, and who helped make it happen by building a full-sized baseball field, complete with seating, on his property. This baseball Mozart introduced himself to the American public at large by striking out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first major league start two months in advance of his 18th birthday.
Arm trouble hampered him during his first two years, but he made a huge statement in September 1936 when he tied Dizzy Dean’s major league record of 17 strikeouts in a game. He went 17-11 in 1938, and on the last day of the season he separated himself from the pack by fanning 18 Tigers to set a mark that would last until Sandy Koufax came along a couple of generations later.
Those first three years were the appetizer seasons. The main course in Bob Feller’s career began in 1939, when he was 20. He went 24-9 with a 2.85 ERA, the beginning of a dazzling three-year run in which he went 76-33, leading the league in strikeouts each season and walks twice. He led the league in both 1939 and 1940 with 6.9 hits per nine innings. He averaged 320 innings per season.
Note the strikeout/walk juxtaposition. Bob Feller led the league in strikeouts seven times and in walks four times. The base on balls totals didn’t bother his managers because the fear of his high 90s fastball and crackling curveball were all they cared about. He was, as they liked to say in those days, “pleasingly wild.’’
Bob Feller turned 23 on Nov. 3, 1941. He was the best pitcher in baseball. No pitcher since Lefty Grove in 1929-31 had put together a comparable three-year period of dominance (Lefty had a positively sick six-year roll of 152-41 from 1928-33). There was every reason to think he was on his way to becoming the greatest righthanded pitcher in history.
And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Bob Feller was no different than millions of his countrymen. Those two hours changed his life forever. He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 9, 1941, and the next time he appeared in a major league game was Aug. 24, 1945.
On Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller volunteered for the Navy. He missed four seasons due to his service in World War II, but earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars for his performance in the military. (AP)
Like many other jocks, he played his share of baseball while in uniform, but he also served the better part of three years aboard the U.S.S. Alabama — his request to be assigned to the U.S.S. Iowa was rejected — a vessel he described in the 1950 ghostwritten autobiography “Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story’’ as “a mighty battlewagon of 35 tons.’’ (Incidentally, I must have read that book, coauthored by Cleveland baseball scribe Gordon Cobbledick, 10 times when I was a lad.) He was given charge of a 24-member anti-aircraft gun crew, and he spent the bulk of his time in the Pacific Theatre.
What happened to Bob Feller was hardly unique. Hundreds of big league ballplayers had careers interrupted, altered, or downright ruined by serving in World War II. The least important fallout imaginable was the inability of a Ted Williams to hit more homers or a Bob Feller to strike out more people, and you never heard any one of them complain about serving in WWII.
Would it have been nice for Bob Feller to have won the 95 or so games he would have, absent the war, and thus have won 361 games instead of the 266 he retired with? Would it have been nice to add 900 or even 1,000 more strikeouts to his career total of 2,581?
Well, sure, but in the end, what does it matter? What matters is a legacy, and he nailed it down for good with his 1946 season. The numbers read like baseball science fiction. He was 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA, completing 36 of 42 starts. He had 10 shutouts. He struck out a major league-record 348. He threw a ridiculous 371 1/3 innings. He no-hit the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, the second of his three career no-nos (to go with 12 one-hitters), the first, in 1940, still baseball’s only Opening Day no-hitter.
He pitched until 1956, winning 20 twice more for the only team he would ever play for, getting his only ring in 1948 and having his last good season in 1954, when he went 13-3 on that wonderful 111-43 pennant-winning squad. Losing those wins and those strikeouts to WWII didn’t keep him from being elected to the Hall of Fame with a 93.8 percent vote in 1962.
He was always good and tight with a buck, barnstorming endlessly as a player and then spending much of his later years going around the country giving clinics and taking on gigs in which he would sign autographs and books and pitch to the locals. Count me among the many who can say he batted against the great Bob Feller. He fed me a curve one night in Lynn and I popped it up. He last took the mound at age 90, no kidding.
He was a fixture in the Cleveland press box, answering questions from anyone. He was Old School to the max. The modern players were no good, overpaid and ungrateful, etc., etc., etc. He didn’t suffer the fools all that gladly, but, hey, he was no phony. He was Bob Feller and he was supremely comfortable in his skin.
I’ll tell you what he was. He was real. He was one of the greatest pitchers of all time, he was a red, white, and blue Patriot who had put it on the line in the Big One and he did things his way.
Bob Feller no longer with us? Yeah, right.
Most underrated RH starter: Bob Feller
By Jayson Stark
December 16, 2010
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History" by Jayson Stark. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author. This excerpt has been printed with the permission of Triumph Books.
Bob Feller warming up during the 1940 season, when he went 27-11 as a 21-year-old. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)
I'm still convinced that Bob Feller is the most underrated righthander who ever lived. But only because he is.
Imagine this kid, at 17 years old, pitching an exhibition game in 1936 against a Cardinals team still rolling out most of the lineup that had won the World Series in 1934 -- and striking out EIGHT of the nine hitters he faced. Imagine this kid, a few weeks later, making the first start of his big-league career, and whiffing 15 St. Louis Browns. Imagine him, three weeks after that, ripping off 17 K's against the Athletics -- the biggest strikeout game in American League history at the time. Now imagine him, just a couple of weeks later, heading back home to Iowa -- so he could ride the SCHOOL BUS with his sister and finish high school. All true. It all happened. In real life. He was the LeBron James of his era -- except with a 12-to-6 curve instead of a learning curve.
How many American teenagers have had the impact on their country that Bob Feller once did? His high school graduation was broadcast live -- to the whole U.S.A. (on NBC radio). His face was on the COVER of Time Magazine before he'd even started 10 big-league games. So it's pretty clear Bob Feller wasn't overrated back then.
But that was then. This is now, all these decades later. And Feller no longer gets his due. When ESPN asked its in-house stable of baseball "experts" (full disclosure: myself included) to rank baseball's greatest living pitchers in May of 2006, Feller finished sixth. But in an accompanying ESPN Sports Nation poll of ESPN.com surfers, Feller didn't even make the top 10. (The only other Sports Nation omission from the experts' top 10: Juan Marichal.) Seven years earlier, in the fan voting for the All-Century team, Feller wasn't even close, finishing 13th (with nearly 740,000 fewer votes than Ryan).
So what's up with that?
We'd better remind you -- assuming you ever knew -- just how enormous a figure Feller was in his time. Over the first 95 seasons in the existence of Major League Baseball, only one pitcher cranked out four straight seasons of 240 strikeouts or more -- Bob Feller. In that same period, he and Walter Johnson were the only pitchers who ever led their league in strikeouts 10 or more seasons apart. Through the first nine seasons of Feller's career, he was the most unhittable pitcher in history (allowing just 7.01 hits per 9 innings). And the real proof was all those games in which nobody -- or just about nobody -- got a hit. This man threw three no-hitters and TWELVE one-hitters. Until Nolan Ryan came along, the only pitcher in the 20th century with even half as many combined no-hitters and one-hitters was Walter Johnson (one no-hitter, seven one-hitters). And Feller was the only 20th-century pitcher with three no-hitters until Sandy Koufax showed up.
Feller also just might be (ahem) The Hardest Thrower Who Ever Lived. We'll never know for sure, of course. In his day, there were no radar guns attached to every scoreboard in America -- possibly because radar had only been invented about 20 minutes earlier. But there's one expert who KNOWS (totally for sure) that Feller was The Hardest Thrower Who Ever Lived. And that would be the ever-modest Feller himself.
I'll never forget, back in the 1997 Indians-Marlins World Series, the radar board in Florida threw a "102 mph" up there after one fateful fastball by Marlins closer Robb Nen. Yep, 102. Never saw one of THOSE before. Before the game the next day, the New York Post's Tom Keegan and I spotted Feller on the field. So we decided to ask for ourselves whether he thought he'd ever thrown a pitch that traveled 102 miles an hour. "Hell," he said, "that was my CHANGE-UP."
Feller then proceeded to tell a story about some gizmo, or military invention, called the Electric Cell Device. This was some kind of chamber -- no longer available at a Wal Mart near you -- that was used back in 1946 to clock his fastball. Feller claimed he whooshed a pitch through the old ECD that was measured at 107.9 miles per hour. Must have been that point-9 that made him so hard to hit.
Virtually from the minute he threw his first pitch, there was so much national fascination with Feller and his heater that folks were constantly looking for ways to figure out whether his 100-mph flameball was reality or myth. So in 1940, Feller was lined up for his most legendary pitcher's duel -- with a speeding motorcycle. Just as the motorcycle varoomed by him at 86 mph, Feller launched his fastball at a target 60 feet, 6 inches away. The baseball won that race so easily, it was calculated that his Harley-ball was traveling at 104 mph. Oh by the way, a small hole had been cut out of the target so a camera could record this fabled pitch -- and Feller launched his fastball right through the target, wiping out the camera. So don't try to buy that historic photo on eBay any time soon.
Now no doubt you Nolan Ryan fans out there are saying: "What's the big whoop?" There are all kinds of stories about Ryan -- who was elected (by me) as the most overrated righthanded starter of all time in this book -- that sound just like these, right? Well, there is one significant difference between Ryan and Feller: Feller consistently found ways to convert his smokeball and all his whiffs into wins.
Feller had seven seasons of at least 15 wins and a .600 winning percentage. Ryan had ONE (and it took him 23 seasons to have it). Put another way, Feller had five seasons in which he won at least 10 more games than he lost. Ryan had NONE. True, Feller's teams were generally better than Ryan's teams. But Feller had a much better winning percentage (.621) than his teammates (.541) -- a margin that's almost three times higher than Ryan's. Feller also had a higher winning percentage than the rest of his staff in nine straight seasons. Ryan's longest streak was six.
Ryan, of course, vastly out-accumulated Feller -- 324 wins to 266, 5,714 strikeouts to 2,581. But who's to say where Feller would have wound up had World War 2 not lopped nearly four full seasons off his career? When he headed off to war at age 23, Bob Feller already had 1,233 strikeouts and 107 wins. No pitcher, before or since, has equaled those figures at that age. So had the four years he missed gone anything like the four seasons that preceded them, we might be talking about a man with more than 360 wins and more than 3,500 strikeouts. And the only pitcher -- ever -- who could say he moved into that neighborhood was Walter Johnson.
Oh, it's true that Feller might have blown out his arm. Or he might have been injured in a collision with a motorcycle than spun out of control in a rematch with his fastball. But let's just assume that hadn't happened. Let's just assume there had never been a World War 2. Where do you think Bob Feller would sit THEN on those greatest-living-pitcher lists, or in the All-Century Team voting results? Wherever it was, you can bet he'd have been high enough that nobody would have to nominate him as The Most Underrated Righthander in History.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online.