Saturday, December 18, 2010

Surprised by C.S. Lewis: Why his popularity endures

By John Blake, CNN
December 17, 2010

C.S. Lewis was talking to his lawyer one day when the attorney told him he had to decide where his earnings would go after his death.

Lewis, who had already written “The Chronicles of Narnia” book series, told the lawyer he didn’t need to worry.

“After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written,” Lewis said.

Lewis was a gifted writer, but he would have been a lousy estate planner. More than 40 years after his death, the former medieval literature professor has become the Elvis Presley of Christian publishing: His legacy is lucrative and still growing, scholars and book editors say.

The third film adaptation of Lewis’ "Narnia" series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” was released in theaters worldwide this month. HarperOne publishers also just released “The C.S. Lewis Bible,” a book pairing 600 selections of Lewis’ writings with matching scriptural passages.

Lewis’ books remain strong sellers. His “Mere Christianity” has been on the BookScan Religion Bestseller’s list a record 513 weeks since the list started in 2001. At least 430,000 copies of Lewis’ books have been sold this year alone, HarperOne officials said.

Lewis’ contemporary appeal may strike some as odd at first because he seemed so firmly planted in the past. A scholar at the University of Oxford in England, he wore shabby tweed jackets, smoked a pipe in the pub and was wounded in the trenches of World War I.

But Lewis’ popularity endures because of several reasons: his distinctive writing style, a tragic love affair and a shrewd choice he made early in his career, Lewis scholars say.

Lyle Dorsett, author of “Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis,” says Lewis was fearless.

“He didn’t dodge the tough questions,” says Dorsett, who told the story of Lewis’ conversation with his lawyer in “Seeking the Secret Place.” “People find that refreshing.”

Lewis’ shrewd early career move

Lewis is labeled a Christian writer, but he also wrote essays, children’s fiction, literary criticism and science fiction. He even hosted a popular BBC radio show during World War II.

Some scholars say Lewis’ BBC experience, where he had to make points quickly, honed his writing style. Lewis learned how to systematically explain Christianity in clear and catchy language, devoid of religious jargon.

Philip Yancey, an evangelical author, says Lewis developed this gift because he came to Christianity as an outsider. He was an atheist.

“Coming to faith as an atheist, he had an understanding of and sympathy for people who look at faith wistfully but can’t swallow it,” says Yancey, who writes about Lewis in his latest book, “What Good is God.”

Lewis remains popular because his books don’t seem dated, says Mickey Maudlin, HarperOne's project editor for "The C.S. Lewis Bible."

Lewis didn’t write about the doctrinal squabbles dividing Christian groups of his time, Maudlin says.

“He made a strategic decision early in his career to talk about ‘Mere Christianity,’ ’’ Maudlin says. “He never writes about different modes of baptism, different views of communion or anything that separates one church from another.”

The result: Lewis has a big following today among Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons - even skeptics, Maudlin says.

“C.S. Lewis wasn’t trapped by tribal thinking,” Maudlin says. “He was able to speak to everybody. He felt called by God to be an explainer of the big issues.”

Sculpted by Ross Wilson, the statue is a life-sized figure of CS Lewis opening a Victorian wardrobe, a gateway to Narnia. The statue was unveiled in November 1998, the centenary of CS Lewis.

How 'good infection’ converted Lewis

Though Lewis looked like the prototype of the mid-20th century English professor, he was actually an Irishman. He was born as Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 in Belfast. Friends and family called him “Jack.”

Scholars cite two events as the source for Lewis’ early atheism. His mother, Florence, died of cancer when Lewis was 9. And his best friend, Paddy, was killed during World War I. Most of the men in Lewis’ platoon didn’t survive the trenches.

“When he saw the carnage of World War I, he concluded that if God exists, He is a cosmic sadist,” says Dorsett, Lewis’ biographer.

Lewis' conversion to Christianity was gradual. It was prompted by what he later called “good infection” - being drawn to faith unawares through the friends he made and books he read.

One of those friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellow English professor at Oxford best known today as the author of “The Lord of the Rings.”

According to some accounts, Tolkien, a Christian intellectual, helped convert Lewis. He showed Lewis that many of the mythological books he loved to read were Christian allegories.

Lewis, though, would later add that there was something more subtle that led to his conversion.

He called it “joy.”

“Joy” was Lewis' term for a stab of longing that unexpectedly welled up in him during moments of contemplation, such as listening to opera or reading an ancient Norse tale.

In his book, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote that the yearning he experienced during those moments convinced him there was another existence beyond this world.

“For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a love we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.”

Lewis’ painful love affair

Lewis could be poetic, but he could also be brutally honest. He demonstrated this in his most searing book, “A Grief Observed.”

In the book, Lewis writes about falling in love - and losing that love. Lewis was a bachelor who lived with his older brother Warnie for much of his life. Then he met Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish American writer who was 15 years his junior.

Dorsett says Lewis was both physically and intellectually smitten with Gresham. He says they used to play Scrabble together, using Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German words to fill in the blanks.

“She had a sharp wit and he loved it,” Dorsett says. “She loved to debate and challenge him. They were always having an intellectual tennis match.”

Lewis’ relationship with Gresham would also challenge his faith.

Lewis married Gresham when he was 58. Soon, however, she developed bone cancer. She experienced what seemed to be a miraculous recovery only to fall ill again. Four years after marrying Lewis, she was dead.

Lewis was devastated. He began to question his belief in God:

“Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting,” he wrote in “A Grief Observed.”

“A Grief Observed” inspired the film, “Shadowlands,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. One of the most moving scenes in the film took place when Lewis’ character embraced Gresham’s grieving son, Douglas, and they both wept unabashedly together.

Douglas Gresham at the premier of the latest 'Narnia' film in London.

Douglas Gresham is now 65 with a bristly white beard and a booming baritone. He still holds tightly to his memories of Lewis.

Gresham says there’s one part of Lewis’ personality that movies and scholars often get wrong. Many people think Lewis was a dour Englishman.

“He was full of fun,” Gresham says. “He was always surrounded by people who liked to laugh and drink pints of beer. You could always tell if Jack was in the house. You would hear roars of laughter.”

He was also humble, Gresham says. Lewis spent hours each day answering letters from his admirers.

“Jack was someone who believed that if someone would write him, then the least he could do was give a reply,” Gresham says. “Sometimes people would just show up at the door, and he would never turn them away.”

What would Lewis think of his fame?

Gresham says commentators also often miss the mark on Lewis' friendship with Tolkien.

Lewis and Tolkien were both members of the Inklings, an informal literary group at Oxford that met to swap stories and ale.

In “Shadowlands,” Joy Gresham is portrayed as a party crasher who alienated a stuffy Tolkien. Some scholars have suggested that Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship suffered because of Lewis’ marriage to Gresham.

“Tolkien was a devout Catholic,” says Dorsett, Lewis’ biographer. "He found her quite abrasive.”

Gresham, though, snorts at the suggestion that his mother damaged Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien.

“It never happened,” he says.

Gresham says that when he went to visit Lewis in the hospital during his last days, he saw Tolkien. Tolkien told him he could live with him if anything happened to Lewis, Gresham says.

“Now you don’t do that for someone you’re not fond of,” Gresham says. “He was Jack’s best friend when he died.”

Lewis died at 64 of kidney failure on November 22, 1963, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated. His death was overshadowed by coverage of Kennedy’s death as well as the death of Aldous Huxley, another famous author who died that day.

Lewis, however, grabs his share of headlines today.

Gresham, a retired physiotherapist, spends much of his time talking about Lewis. He’s a producer for the latest "Narnia" film, answers letters from Lewis' fans and has written a biography called “Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.”

He says he doesn’t get tired of talking about the man some still call “Jack.”

“It gives me great pleasure to introduce him to people who haven’t met him yet,” he says. “I’m an unashamed C.S. Lewis fan.”

And what about Lewis? What would he think of the movie franchise he’s spawned and the Christian icon he’s become?

“I think he’d be embarrassed,” Gresham says quickly. “The thought that he would be idolized by so many people would embarrass him deeply.”

In the vein of Dracula

By Stephen Jewell
The New Zealand Herald
Tuesday Nov 30, 2010

Double meanings were a focus for Guillermo Del Toro when coming up with the titles for his trilogy. Photo / Supplied

Stephen Jewell talks to director-turned-writer Guillermo Del Toro about his life post Middle-earth and the newly released second part of his spine-chilling vampire trilogy.

Considering the chaos that has recently surrounded The Hobbit, it is easy to conclude that Guillermo Del Toro got out while the going was good. Film studio MGM's continuing financial problems forced the Guadalajara-born 46-year-old to resign as director of the much-anticipated prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in May. Still, he sounds almost wistful when he speaks about the three years he spent living in Wellington after relocating down under in 2007 to work on the movie's extensive pre-production and to pen the screenplay with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.

"New Zealand is an absolute paradise," declares Del Toro, who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles. "The New Zealand people must be the most delightful people on the planet. Part of the tragedy is that if I were to lose another couple of years, I would have loved to have lost another couple of years in New Zealand. It's easy to do that there because time slips by without you noticing it when you're in New Zealand."

He pays tribute to Auckland in The Fall, the second volume of the contemporary vampire trilogy that he is co-writing with Chuck Hogan. He notes that the City of Sails is one of many cities around the globe to be devastated by undead hordes after a spookily possessed plane arrives at the airport.

"And then there's the certain destruction of New Zealand in the third book," he promises with a laugh. "I try to put everything that is dear to me into the books. Most of the characters are named after very close friends of mine. I killed my wife in the first book after about 40 pages."

In homage to Bram Stoker's seminal 1897 novel Dracula, last year's first instalment, The Strain, opens with an airliner touching down at New York's JFK airport with most of its passengers and crew dead and a mysterious coffin in the hold.

"We've made a huge point to try and root this thing in classic folklore and literature but what we then do with it is very different," says Del Toro. "I wanted the plane to be like the ship in Dracula, coming into port in England. And I named our vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian after Abraham Van Helsing. Dracula was an eminently modern novel when it was first published. It used all the latest cutting-edge technology of the day, like telegraphs, cipher machines and recording machines. It was like a Tom Clancy novel of its time and we want to honour that."

With New York in ruins after the sinister Master and his minions have laid waste to it, The Fall is a much bleaker book than its predecessor.

"From the get-go, I wanted the titles of the books to have a second meaning," says Del Toro. "The Strain was as much about a viral strain as it was about social strain and the strain that is placed on the main character, Ephraim Goodweather, after the dissolution of his marriage, his divorce and the custody battle for his son."

The book takes place during the autumn. "It refers to the fall of mankind and it also hints at where the vampires come from," says Del Toro. "The second book in every trilogy is usually the darkest, because in the traditional three-act structure, the middle act is always about conflict and the moment where the night is the darkest. The third book is probably the hardest to write because it's the book where the characters need to reach some kind of resolution, whether it be good or bad. It's the same with movies and you notice it with any trilogy. The first Godfather was the beginning and Godfather II, which is most people's favourite, is the darkest of them all, while the third one is the most difficult to do because you will always find people that like it and others that dislike it."

With much of the action occurring in downtown Manhattan and the streets around Ground Zero, Del Toro and Hogan draw some striking parallels with September 11. The story also harks back to the atrocities of World War II.

"Setrakian first encounters the Master at the concentration camp at Treblinka," says Del Toro. "We reveal in the third book, which is called The Night Eternal, that the vampires are born out of a great cataclysmic tragedy in a place of great pain and loss. This is because thematically and socially the monsters in The Strain are social monsters. They're creatures that are born out of everything we do wrong and the reason we cannot fight them is because we are incredibly fallible as a social entity. The Fall begins by saying that it took the world 60 days to end and we're basically accountable for that because of our arrogance and pride. That's exactly how I feel: you can apply that to eco-tragedies, viral outbreaks or any kind of disaster. It's a miracle that society functions at all because it is such an imperfect model."

In the prologue, Goodweather, director of the Centres for Disease Control's New York office, refers to the standardised response to a pandemic. "You can apply the Kubler/Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief to any individual or group when they go through anything shocking in their lives," says Del Toro. "It begins with denial, then you get anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It's really quite interesting to realise that as a species or individuals we go through those five stages."

Renowned for his exploration of myths and fairytales in films like Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Del Toro delves into the power of folklore in The Fall. Much of the novel involves the hunt for a mystical text, the Occido Lumen, which details the true nature of the vampires. "I take full responsibility but one of the things that I wanted to do in this book was to create a completely fictional volume that sounded like it could have existed," says Del Toro. "The creation of this forbidden document was essential for the second book because it validates everything. If there is a book about something, we immediately believe that it is real in the same way that people assume that something must be true if it is written in print. I wanted to marry old mythologies with new mythologies and in the third book the crazy origin of the vampires in ancient times relates to this piece of Mesopotamian culture that we introduce in the second book."

A stickler for accuracy, Del Toro does all of his own research. "I don't hire anyone to do it for me," he says. "I know my alchemy and I know my Mesopotamian lore. I just go for it and try and get my facts right. Then at the end just before publication, we run it past an expert. We usually get a lot of slaps on the hand and a few congratulations. Then I argue with the expert and most of the time they win but some of the time I have the satisfaction of proving that our hero is right."

While Del Toro's name looms largest on the cover, he insists that his co-author should receive equal credit. "Chuck is not only a really nice guy but he's also a phenomenal writer," he says of Hogan, whose 2004 fourth novel, Prince of Thieves, was recently turned into the Ben Affleck film The Town. "It's a really great book and people should seek it out."

When The Strain was published, Del Toro was accused of merely providing some spine-chilling ideas while leaving the bulk of the writing to Hogan. However, he has always maintained that the novels are joint efforts. "The way we write and the way we collaborate has just got better and better," he says. "Each of us writes different chapters of the novel and then sends them to the other to look over."

According to Del Toro, The Night Eternal "will definitely be the end of the series." However, he is currently working on a couple of short stories set in the world of The Strain, which will appear in Phantom Limbs, a short story collection that he is writing on his own.

Since The Strain debuted in mid-2009, the vampire genre appears to have become even more popular, with the publication earlier this year of Justin Cronin's much-hyped apocalyptic epic The Passage and the release this month of Let Me In, the American adaptation of cult Swedish film Let the Right One In. With the emphasis placed firmly on bloodshed, Del Toro and Hogan's series is the polar opposite of the anaemic Twilight and other saccharine spin-offs like The Vampire Diaries.

"When we first started writing the books, this fad hadn't happened yet," says Del Toro. "Everything was in its infancy. Twilight wasn't the phenomenon it is now. But the current over-abundance of vampire fiction is mostly based around the romantic, melodramatic take on vampires. What we do goes completely against the grain of that as we use brutality and treat vampires as parasites."

Killer instinct

Film director del Toro unleashes gruesome vampire trilogy

By The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 11, 2009

Forget "Hellboy." Forget "Pan's Labyrinth." Forget directing "The Hobbit," which is why Oscar-nominated director Guillermo del Toro finds himself in New Zealand these days.

For the moment, del Toro's all about a plague of blood-feeders taking over New York -- and the novel he's written about them, a man vs. vampire page-turner called "The Strain."

"There was a little book I read as a kid," del Toro says, on the phone from Wellington, New Zealand, by way of explaining his fascination with vampires. "I was very, very young, I must have been 9 or 10. It was a book that compiled 'true fact' vampiric lore ... Not a literary book, but an anthology that harvested 17th Century, 18th Century,19th Century pamphlets and stories about vampirism. Oral traditions, legends from Eastern Europe.

"It was really quite fascinating. I still have it ... I cherish it."

Bits of that little book, eagerly gobbled up by the young del Toro in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the early '70s, have found their way into "The Strain," the first installment in a trilogy by the filmmaker in collaboration with author Chuck Hogan. Published Tuesday -- with the second book ("The Fall") and third ("The Night Eternal") due in 2010 and 2011, respectively -- "The Strain" is a fast-paced mix of gruesome horror and straightforward investigative crime fiction.

The novel begins on the tarmac of JFK International, where an arriving trans-Atlantic flight goes dead before it can taxi to its gate -- and it's soon discovered that just about every passenger on board is dead too.

Enter Ephraim Goodweather, head of New York City's disease-control operations -- he's thinking virus, pandemic. And then enter into a world of verminlike bloodsuckers, living in the sewers, sleeping in the dirt.

Del Toro, who dealt with vampires in "Blade II," with a freakish devil-child-turned-superhero in his two "Hellboys," and with a traumatized girl's immersion into an alternate reality in the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth," isn't going for that vampires-are-sexy "Twilight" thing.

Rats, not Robert Pattinson.

"Romantic vampires are a perfectly legitimate part of vampire myth, and romanticizing, literally, the nightlife and the thirst and all that is a perfectly legitimate thing," he says. "But it seems like everything is a variation of that theme these days.

"And I really wanted to show it as a disease, and for it to have the inevitability of a disease. To see the vampirism more like a gradual loss of our humanity. ...

"I posit that vampires nest in tragedy, and it's linked to their origin. They grow in tragic times and they essentially nest in places of great pain."

There's a passage in the "true fact" vampire book of del Toro's youth that has stayed with him all these years, and that resurfaces in "The Strain."

"It's about how vampires turn with zealous attention first to their own families -- first they kill the dearest ones, and then they go out into the world," he remembers.

"And rarely have I seen that in vampiric depiction. It's always a stranger attacking strangers. But the idea of a man turning against his own family, or a woman turning against her own family -- I thought that was powerful. That was the moment when I became engaged with vampires."

Del Toro and Hogan started swapping chapters via e-mail, writing and rewriting each other's work -- a "true collaboration" del Toro says.

Hogan, for his part, says that del Toro was equally merciless, editing, cutting, retooling.

"At the same time, he's open to anything I throw out there," the writer reports, on the phone from his home near Boston. "There's an alchemy there."

Hogan adds: "The impressive thing about Guillermo is how specific and exact he is about that world. I'll ask him a question and there's no hesitance. He knows exactly what the vampires look like and what they do."

Bob Feller: November 3, 1918 – December 15, 2010

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 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."

Childhood memories

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."

He paused.

"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 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 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 His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Denial is a river in Londonistan

By Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail, 14 December 2010

Some four-and-a-half years ago, a book of mine was ­published that caused something of a sensation.

It was called Londonistan, and it was about the way in which — astoundingly — Britain had ­become the most ­important centre, outside the Islamic world itself, for the production and export of ­Islamic terrorism.

Worse yet, I wrote, even after the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 London Tube and bus bombings, the British political, legal and security establishments were still refusing to get to grips with the threat posed to Britain by militant Muslims who wanted to conquer it for Islam.

For my pains, I was called ‘mad’ by the Guardian, ‘bonkers’, ‘alarmist’, ‘­hysterical’ and, of course, ‘Islamophobic’.

Indeed, I had a hard time getting the book published at all. It was turned down by every mainstream London publisher because they regarded my views as dangerous extremism. One even remarked: ‘I’d rather take the ­poison ricin than publish this.’ Nice!

For a while it looked as if it would be ­published only in the U.S. — but a few weeks before publication in America, a tiny British publishing house bravely volunteered to ­publish it here.

Given the terrifying nature of what I wrote in that book, it really does give me no comfort to say this - but the fact is that, ever since it was published, a steady stream of revelations has proved that I was absolutely right.

This week, we learned that Taimour Abdulwahab Al-Abdaly, who blew himself up in a terrorist attack in Stockholm, was yet another radicalised British Muslim university graduate. He was but the latest in an ­unremitting procession of British Muslims who have committed terrorist attacks in other countries. And many have been ­educated to a high level in Britain.

Over the past decade, around 30 Muslim graduates or students at British universities have been involved in Islamic-inspired ­terrorism, including former University ­College London student Umar Farouk ­Abdulmutallab, who has been charged with trying to blow up a U.S. airliner with explosives hidden in his underpants.

As for Luton — where Abdulwahab lived and attended university — this has long been regarded as a hot-bed of Islamic extremism.

So why is it that, with the Security Service periodically issuing chilling warnings that it’s monitoring more than 2,000 dangerous ­Muslim fanatics and dozens of terrorist plots, Britain is still failing so dismally to curb its home-grown industry of Islamic terrorism and extremism?

As I pointed out in my book, most of the British establishment is in denial about what it is up against. Our leaders know there is a major threat of terrorism.

But they remain wilfully blind to the fact that the terrorists’ ultimate aim, the Islamisation of ­Britain and the West, is being pursued by Islamic groups that are not violent, as well as those that are.

Of course, millions of British ­Muslims shun violence or extremism. They want only to live peacefully and enjoy the benefits of Western democracy and human rights.

Moreover, since they and their children are themselves among the principal victims and targets of the Islamist fanatics, they beg the British Government to crack down on such extremism.

But here is the most astonishing thing I explored in my book. For the establishment is so heavily imbued by a deadly cocktail of political ­correctness, multiculturalism and ‘human rights’ law that, far from curbing Islamic extremism, it has actually fanned the flames.

Over the past decade and more, the judges have made it all but ­impossible to police Britain’s borders against undesirables or throw extremists out of the country.

Universities have shamefully refused to crack down on extremists on ­campus, even though countless ­Muslim students are being radicalised there by Islamist speakers — with no fewer than four university Islamic ­Society presidents having been involved in major acts of terrorism.

Idiotically, politicians cravenly attempting to defuse Islamic rage by appeasing the Muslim community have funded organisations that have turned out to be extreme.

Even more extraordinarily, to this day the Government is employing radical Islamists in Whitehall — as political advisers on curbing Islamic extremism.

The core reason for this supine approach is that the establishment refuses to acknowledge that Islamic terrorism is rooted in religious fanaticism — an extreme interpretation of the religion that dictates Muslims must impose Islamic law throughout the world.

While most British Muslims most certainly do not accept this interpretation, it is rooted in theology and history, and is supported by the major ­religious authorities in the Islamic world.

So truly moderate Muslims ­cannot make their voices heard. The extremists therefore have the whip hand. And the way they intend to achieve their ends is through a ­pincer movement comprising both terrorism and cultural infiltration to gain social, economic and political power.

The threat of violence makes it more likely they will succeed in infiltrating British institutions. And that in turn makes it ever harder to curb radicalisation. It also galvanises the extremists, who perceive correctly that the society they have in their sights has no stomach for the fight.

This is precisely what is ­happening in Britain. Because our political and security establishment has defined extremism as involving ­violence, it is blind to the steady process of Islamisation that is taking place.

Astonishingly, it is tolerating — and even encouraging — the relentless incursion of Islamic religious law. Yet this is inimical to British values - and not just because it denies the human rights of women, homosexuals or anyone who wants to renounce Islam.

Fundamentally, it does not ­recognise the superior authority of the law of the land, against which it therefore asserts itself.

But it is a fundamental principle of a democratic society that there must be only one law for all. And yet in ­Britain today, blind eyes are being turned to Sharia courts meting out not just family law judgments that oppress women, but even criminal sanctions, too.

In addition, there has been in this country an enormous growth of Islamic banking — despite the fact this serves as an umbrella for the financing of Islamic terrorism and is a vehicle for putting yet more pressure on British Muslims to subject themselves to Sharia law.

Almost every week, more examples surface of the way in which British culture is giving way to Islamic ­practices. As a recent BBC Panorama programme demonstrated, some Muslim schools are teaching their pupils to hate ‘unbelievers’ — all under the nose of Ofsted.

And a growing number of education authorities serve halal meat to all pupils — without even informing the public of this minority faith practice. London hosts three Muslim TV channels — all with ties to fanatical Islamic organisations or regimes.

In short, Britain is being steadily Islamiscised — and the establishment appears paralysed like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Four years ago in my book, I ­delivered a warning. A country that can’t even bring itself to name the nature of the enemy it faces will be defeated by that enemy.

The Stockholm bomber is but the latest export from Londonistan — and unless the ­Government gets up off its knees and changes its disastrous strategy, I very much fear he will not be the last.

Inside Springsteen's Secret E Street Band Show in Asbury Park

Band brought never-before-played tunes from 'The Promise' to life on the boardwalk; set to be webcast later this month

By Rolling Stone
Dec 08, 2010 11:13 AM EST

Bruce Springsteen on location for his new music video at the Asbury Park Carousel on December 7, 2010 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Tuesday night a few dozen lucky fans saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tear through a set of tracks from The Promise — Springsteen's recent disc of unreleased Darkness on the Edge of Town -era material — on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Held at the Carousel House — former home to an antique merry-go-round — the group played a nearly four-hour set, augmented by Jackson Browne sideman David Lindley (who played violin on some of the original sessions). Most of the material has never been played before an audience, though many of the songs are early versions of tracks like "Factory" and "Racing In The Street."

Every song was played at least twice. The intimate show was filmed for a web broadcast, details of which will be announced in the next week. Here is the setlist:

1. Racing In the Street (1978)
2. Gotta Get That Feeling
3. Outside Looking In
4. One Way Street
5. Come On (Let's Go Tonight).
6. Save My Love
7. The Brokenhearted
8. Ain't Good Enough for You
9. The Promise
10. Talk To Me
11. Blue Christmas

Exclusive Review: Springsteen's Asbury Park Show

At an intimate New Jersey gig, Springsteen and a stripped-down E Street Band debuted material from 'The Promise'

By Andy Greene
Dec 15, 2010 10:00 AM EST

It's hard to say what the most bizarre thing about Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's December 7 concert at the Carousel House on the Asbury Park boardwalk. It might have been the fact that the set was almost entirely composed of recently released outtakes from Darkness On The Edge of Town. Maybe it was the decision to hold it in an old, dilapidated building that used to house an antique merry-go-round. Or perhaps it was the unorthodox move of repeatedly calling the entire crowd onto the stage. Then again, it's possible the most surreal aspect of the concert was simply the experience of watching a show often held in front of 80,000 fans with fewer than 60 other people.

Bruce Springsteen on location for his new music video at the Asbury Park Carousel on December 7, 2010 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

The show — which will be streamed on Vevo starting today — was held to promote the new Darkness On The Edge of Town box set. As was the case last year when Springsteen filmed a complete performance of Darkness up the boardwalk at the Paramount Theater, only the 1978-era E Street Band was invited to play (with Charlie Giordano subbing in on organ for the late Danny Federici). This time they were joined by Jackson Browne collaborator David Lindley (who played violin on some of the original sessions) and a five-piece horn section.

It was one of the toughest tickets in Springsteen history. Fifteen contest winners from the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets were allowed to bring a single guest, and 29 other VIP's (family, management, media) brought the total attendance to 59. Dozens of other hardcore fans braved the frigid weather to stand outside for hours to catch tiny glimpses of the show and hear what they could. Those inside got to stand so close that at most any other venue they would have been on the stage. Cameras crews whirled around the stage all night, occasionally bumping into the audience.

The show felt like more like a film taping than a live concert. Each song was played at least twice, which was a real blow to the momentum. Springsteen took long pauses between each song to address the band — and occasionally gently admonish them for mistakes. The E Street Band hadn't played most of the songs since the original studio sessions 32 years ago, and the fact that they were often variations of songs they've played hundreds of times must have been downright confusing at times. "That couldn't get any better," he said after one take. "But we're still gonna do it again."

Bruce repeatedly asked the audience to sing along to the songs. "The singing members of the E Street Band aren't here," Springsteen said — then noted the hurt expression on Clarence Clemons' face. "I'm sorry Clarence. You can sing. So can Steve, and in a pinch [bassist] Garry [Tallent] can too. We used to have microphones by Max [Weinberg] and [Roy] Bittan, but those went away. Max did sing 'Boys' on the last tour. We're waiting for the next one to have Roy sing. He's going to sing 'Strangers In The Night.' No, he'll do 'I'm Too Sexy.' His wheelhouse is 1990s nostalgia."

The band was looking more closely at Bruce than usual for cues, and Springsteen's eyes were firmly locked to the teleprompter all night. It's hard to blame him. Imagine opening "Racing In The Streets" with "I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396" for over 30 years — and then suddenly it's "I got a '32 Ford, she's a 318."

It's appropriate the show was held on the grounds of a former amusement park, because it often felt like a Springsteen concert on the other end of a funhouse mirror. How often in rock history have decades-old studio outtakes and early version of songs been revived for the stage? Even well-known outtakes like "Because The Night" and "Fire" were left unplayed, making room for wonderful obscurities like "Talk To Me," "(Come On) Let's Go Tonight" and "One Way Street."

During four of the songs Bruce or Steve urged the tiny audience to crowd onto the stage. It was bizarre — almost like walking into a movie you've seen countless times. It's a very different view when you're standing directly between Clemons and Springsteen, especially when the microphone is shoved near your face and you scream out the line "Just like Jimmy Iovine" in the middle of "Ain't Good Enough For You."

If that wasn't weird enough, during a brief break Springsteen came into the audience and mingled with the crowd — even taking my reporter's pad out of my hand and flipping through the pages. "I want to make sure you get down every one of my brilliant words," he said. That doesn't happen at Giants Stadium.

The second-to-last song was "The Promise," which hadn't been played with a band since early in the 1978 tour. It's one of his best songs, and the only Darkness outtake that undoubtedly should have made the album. With Lindley on the violin, it was extremely powerful — but Springsteen demanded a second take that didn't pack the same emotional heft. After that they passed out Santa Claus hats to the entire audience for "Blue Christmas." Afterwards the staff tried to usher the crowd quickly out the door, but most people stayed around to mingle with The E Street Band and Springsteen himself — who appeared to be in no hurry to leave.

Today's Tune: Doc Watson - Amazing Grace

On the Fear of Christmas

By James V. Schall, S. J.
Tuesday, 14 December 2010

“The Nativity with God the Father and the Holy Ghost” (Giovanni Battista Pittoni, c. 1740)

The various enemies of Christmas have managed to remove from the public gaze most of its once common external signs. We see few mangers. Everything Christian is swept out or sanitized. What Christmas is finds itself removed. One might argue that things like the Christmas tree itself, the Yule log, or even sentimentalized snow are, in fact, steps to remove any specific Christmas meaning.

Christmas has become a “winter festival,” whatever that is. “Dreaming of a White Christmas” shifted attention from the feast to its atmosphere. “Adeste fideles” and “Silent Night” we still hear, of course. We try to be “joyful and triumphant,” as if the event of Christmas had nothing to do with what causes the joy. We are to be festive without a reason. The increasing emptiness of the feast gnaws at our souls.

Christmas is now a feast without a cause. Folks do not, however, want to give up the days off, the presents, the good feelings, the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” So they are kept without the religious mood that caused them to come about in the first place. We have gone through this elimination of the Christmas theme before. But what interests me is why Christmas in particular, by all odds the most popular of Christian feasts, has found itself under such attack? We cannot even have symbolic signs of its significance or meaning. Why is Christmas feared? Why is it dangerous?

One reason is, supposedly, that it “offends” the sensitivities of those of other religious persuasions. They have delicate consciences. The older notion of “I will tolerate your quirks if you tolerate mine” is not present here. Christmas is what offends. Why is this?

Chesterton’s poem, “The Wise Men,” reads: “Step softly, under snow and rain, / To find the place where men can pray; / The way is all so very plain / That we may lose the way.” Christmas is feared because it is true. If true, it is dangerous. We cannot just ignore it, much as we try. “So very simple is the road, / That we may stray from it. / … And the whole heaven shouts and shakes, / For God Himself is born again….” We may stray from the road.

How odd to have a plain road on which we can lose our way. This not-wanting-to-know about “God Himself” born again is a voluntary act. We do not want to be reminded of the manger. We do not want to see those who actually rejoice in the Christmas Mass, in the family unity about the Holy Family.

We have instead warm colors, winter fests, animals, snow, presents. We do not have the manger, the angels singing on high. And the Word made flesh to dwell amongst us? This we do not want to reckon with.

If Christmas is just a myth, we can let it alone. But what if it is a history, an event, an account of what happened in the time of Caesar Augustus, “when the whole world was at peace?” We do everything possible to prevent ourselves from considering the implications of this fact.

Christopher Dawson once remarked that, on the morning after the Nativity, the leading papers of Jerusalem, Rome, or Athens – had there been such – would not have announced it. It was not important. From the beginning, the Nativity was only known by a few. It is an event that is “too good to be true.” But that is precisely what it is not. It is true. Its good is something we should know and want to know. Indeed, within the Christian corpus is the sometimes upsetting mandate to make this event and its consequences known to “all nations.” Even if they do not want to hear of it? It seems so.

The fear of Christmas is something even more basic, or perhaps more sinister. Why is that? It is one thing simply not to know something because we have never encountered it or thought about it. It is another thing when, having heard of it, we refuse to allow it to be known. We organize our polity in such a way that every obstacle is put in the way of knowing it.

We are not yet like the countries which seek to prevent private expressions or celebration of Christmas. But with developments such as our increasing denial that marriage is of a man and a woman, we belong to the same mentality. We have taken the first step, and perhaps more than the first.

Christmas is a dangerous feast. We fear it. We do not allow ourselves to consider it. Yet, somehow, we still envy those who know this feast of domesticity. “Unto us a Child is born.” “What Child is this?” If this Child is indeed “Christ the Lord,” what happens to us who make every effort to prevent its truth from being known?

- James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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