Opinion

Bob 'Rapid Robert' Feller, Teenage Phenom

Monday, August 15, 2005

In 1936 Bob Feller burst upon the Major League baseball scene, as no one who had come before. The Cleveland Indians signed him to a major league contract, in 1935, when he was only 16 years old. They were interested in the way he could deliver a fastball pitch, said to be the fastest of any pitcher who had played the game. (It was estimated that Feller threw well over 100 mph, though without the radar gun in '36, a really accurate measurement of pitches was not possible.

When Feller joined the Indians he proved that he could deliver on his amazing fastball. He could throw hard, but in those early days he was wild. Sometimes the ball would sail over the catcher's head and into the stands. He led the league in strikeouts, but also in walks, and probably in hit batsmen, though at that time that statistic was not recorded.

In 1936 he struck out 17 batters in a game, one for each year of his age -- an American League record at the time. He had an icy stare for the batter, and an extraordinarily high kick as he reared back to pitch, all of which, when coupled with his wildness, were intimidating to a batter.

The older players in the league put down Bob Feller when he first arrived, calling him the "Schoolboy," or the Van Meter (Iowa) Plowboy. He wore his pants slung low, and his legs were bowed, which gave him a distinctive walk -- Joe DiMaggio called it "Feller's Plowboy Walk."

Yet, the leading hitters of the game respected Feller and his fastball. Ted Williams once said that he started thinking about Feller three days before he was to bat against him. "I'd sit in my room thinking about him all the time. God, I loved it" --who would be better? -- the best (batter in baseball) facing the best (pitcher).

By the end of his first year in the majors Feller was a baseball star of the first magnitude, and had captured the imagination of the American public. In the spring, Time magazine put his picture on its cover, and when he returned to Van Meter to attend his high school graduation the entire experience rated nationwide radio coverage (which was the best there was, since of course there was no TV in those days).

By the time World War II began Feller had been with the Indians for five seasons and was touted as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, though he was still only 23.

But two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Feller, at the height of his career, hurried off to enlist in the Navy, despite the fact that as primary supporter of his dying father he could have been granted a deferment from the draft.

The Navy wanted to put Feller in a Special Forces unit, where he could work on a physical development program for the Navy, and play exhibition baseball for the troops. Feller would not hear of it and insisted on regular gunnery duty aboard the battleship Alabama.

By the time the war was over Feller had collected five combat ribbons and eight battle stars. He saw action in the Atlantic, and in the Pacific, fighting from the Gilbert Islands and the Marshalls to Truk, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam and the great sea battles off the Philippines. He had also lost four of his peak years in his baseball career.

In 1945 Feller returned to the Indians. His four-year absence had not diminished his skills and he resumed his stellar career, throwing as fast as ever. By the time Feller retired in 1956 he had recorded 266 victories, 2,581 strikeouts (in 1940 he pitched a personal high of 27 strikeouts in one game), pitched three no-hitters (including the only no-hitter pitched on an opening day), 12 one-hitters, and had won 20 plus victories six times. Feller was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1962.

(Feller's career is remarkable for another reason that does not show up in the statistics. Feller regularly pitched the entire nine innings of his games, unusual today, when a starting pitcher usually is counted on for only five innings, giving way to a relief pitcher and finally a closing pitcher).

Most star baseball players begin their careers playing in the minor leagues, and finish their careers in the majors, retiring comfortably to a life of ease. Feller did just the opposite, largely due to horrendous expenses incurred by his first wife's staggering medical bills.

He began in the majors and finished his career by barnstorming to baseball games, with other major leaguers, in cities and small towns all over America. For over 30 years Feller followed the barnstorming schedule of 80-90 dates a year. In many of these barnstorming games Feller's team faced a Negro All-Star team led by Satchel Paige.

In these games Feller and Paige would face each other for the first three innings, before handing the game off to other pitchers, meaning that for his career Feller probably pitched another 2,700 innings that never showed up in his career major league stats.

Feller, always a stubborn and determined negotiator, had to defy the Cleveland management, as well as the major league hierarchy, for permission to carry on his barnstorming schedule.

Early on, he also defied management by learning to fly an airplane, which was deemed unnecessarily dangerous in those days. He used the plane to fly to many of the barnstorming games, in some years logging over 10,000 hours. He did not give up his pilot's license until he was 75 years old.

According to sport historian, Thomas Kope, who saw Feller pitch many times in Cleveland, "I saw him (Feller) at his prime at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium and he was spectacular. If it wasn't for World War II, I'm convinced he would have won 400 games. Before the war, the Indians started Feller every Sunday, and also for the mid-week game. He was paid, above his salary, 5-cents for every fan over 50,000, he drew to the game.

In those days the stadium held 88,000 people. In 1948, Bill Veeck (Indians owner) set major league records for attendance, with gimmicks galore. Of course, it didn't hurt when you had four future Hall-Of-Famers on your pitching staff -- Feller, Paige, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn When Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams came to town 90,000 fans would jam the stadium, literally standing in the aisles.

Over the years Feller has rubbed elbows with celebrities of every stripe -- Richard Nixon, Walter Winchell, Frank Sinatra, and baseball greats from Cy Young and Grover Cleveland Alexander to Sandy Koufax. He never has gotten over his boyhood love of hunting. On at least one occasion he hunted in Nebraska with the unlikely couple of friends, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and Roy Rogers.

At age 87 Feller is still remarkably active. He works as an ambassador of Cleveland Indian baseball, and keeps busy with his own autograph sessions. In the spring he throws out the first pitch for the "Bob Feller Day" baseball game, and still goes an inning or two in the old timers game.

He is still stubborn and outspoken when discussing the things in which he believes -- so outspoken that over the years he has repeatedly humiliated his second wife, Anne (to whom he has been married for 30 years), with his impolitic outbursts.

Some years ago Anne asked her doctor if a person could die of embarrassment. When he assured her that embarrassment was not a cause of death she decided, "Well, then, I wasn't going to worry again about some of the things Bob says." She has been much happier in their marriage since that time.

Source: Frank DeFord in Sports Illustrated: Observations from Sports Historian and faithful McCook Gazette reader, Thomas Kope.

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