Remembering the Great Bob Feller
Rocket Robert Goes Into Extra Innings
BY PAT WILLIAMS
On a July day in 1993, Carol and I drove from Washington, D.C., to Cooperstown, New York, for our first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We had the pleasure of being invited to attend the induction of Reggie Jackson.
A day prior to the ceremony we were strolling the Hall, enraptured by baseball history: memorabilia, the room dedicated to Babe Ruth, the films and presentations. I was walking along looking at the timeline exhibit, about the games, history, events, and great players. And there was Bob Feller; not in the exhibit, but right there, standing next to me. Bob Feller, Bullet Bob, Rapid Robert—the greatest fastball pitcher of his generation with his wide, squared shoulders, barreled chest, and hands the size of pickle jars.
“Hello Mr. Feller.”
“Hello, sir,” came his almost shy replay.
“It’s great to meet you,” I said.
Feller smiled and asked, “Where are you from?”
He nodded and with a smile said, “The hunting and fishing out there are great and Montana is beautiful.”
We shook hands, walked slowly and silently together studying the exhibits. Occasionally he would pause, mutter something or make a nod of recognition. I didn’t ask why. He and I, just two baseball fans taking in and enjoying the panoply of the greatest of games.
Bob Feller died a few days ago. Born in 1918, he was 92. He was still in high school and 16 years old when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians. In his first major league game, during summer vacation, he struck out 15 batters. A true phenomenon, he was suddenly one of the biggest names in the game. The next season he was tutored through his senior year while on the team’s road trips, featured on the cover of Time magazine, and graduated in June. During that season he tied Dizzy Dean’s major league record by striking out 17 batters.
The speed of his fastball overpowered hitters. Yogi Berra remarked, “To hit Feller’s fastball you have to start your swing in the on-deck circle.” The great Lefty Gomez, also a pitcher, took three called strike fastballs he claimed he never saw. On the last strike he remarked to the umpire, “That last one sounded a little low.”
On an early December day Feller was driving to the office of the Cleveland Indians when on his car radio he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Arriving at the office, he informed the Indians he wouldn’t be playing the next year and two days later, December 9, 1941, Bob Feller was in the United States Navy. For the next four years he served as a shipboard gunner.
He returned to baseball, throwing a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in April, 1946. That season he set a major league record by fanning 348 batters. Feller was clocked at throwing at an astonishing 107.6 mph. Feller retired 54 years ago in 1956. Last year he pitched in the Hall of Fame Classic at Cooperstown. Feller didn’t throw the obligatory one pitch and then retire to the dugout. The 90-year-old threw to all three batters.
Bob Feller cared about his fellow players and created the Baseball Players Association, now the Players Union. Not a bad life for that 16-year-old kid from an Iowa pig farm whose first major league contract was for one dollar and a ball signed by all of the Cleveland Indians.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana.
Editor’s Note: "Nobody lives forever and I've had a blessed life," Bob Feller said in Sept. 2010. "I'd like to stay on this side of the grass for as long as I can, though. I'd really like to see the Indians win a World Series." Feller, in fact, played for the Indians the last time they won the series in 1948.
Bob Feller was born and raised in Van Meter, Iowa, on a family farm, where his father built a baseball diamond and recruited his son and others to play for a team. Feller joined the Cleveland Indians without having played in the minors. and spent his entire career of 18 years with the Indians. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times and bases on balls four times. His fastball was nicknamed "the Van Meter Heater." He pitched three no-hit games and shares the major league record with 12 one-hitters. Feller was the first pitcher to win 20 or more games before the age of 21. When he was 17 years of age, he struck out 17 batters; one of only 2 batters ever to strike out their age.
On October 2, 1938, Feller set a modern major league record of 18 strikeouts against the Detroit Tigers. He also threw the second fastest pitch ever officially recorded, at 107.6 mph, in a game in 1946 at Griffith Stadium.
On December 8, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy, volunteering immediately for combat service, becoming the first Major League Baseball player to do so following the attack on Pearl Harbor. One year after his return to Major League action, in 1946, he registered an incredible 348 strikeouts while pitching in 48 games, starting 42 of those games. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times and had 200 or more strikeouts five times. Feller pitched in 570 games during his career, and pitched in 40 or more games six seasons. Feller also threw three no-hit games including the only opening day no-hitter in baseball history in 1940. He had 46 shutouts during his career with 10 of those in 1946. Many baseball historians have speculated that Feller would have won perhaps 350 games with well over 3,000 strikeouts had he not joined the military.
Throughout his career, Feller criss-crossed the country playing exhibition games in the off season. His barnstorming tours featured other big leaguers and Negro League stars like Satchel Paige. He was prohibited from pitching in the Cuban winter league during the off-season by major league baseball commissioner Happy Chandler.
Feller's barnstorming business made him one of the wealthiest players of his time. As a result, he did not have to take off-season jobs to make ends meet like many players of his era.
On Dec. 15, 2010, Bob Feller died of complications related to leukemia at the age of 92.
He was honored as The Greatest Pitcher of His Time by Sporting News.
Source: Wikipedia/Associated Press