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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

The heater from Van Meter

Monday, January 31, 2011

Growing up in the 1930s, one of my first sports heroes was Cleveland Indians pitcher, Bob Feller -- AKA Rapid Robert, Bullet Bob, The Schoolboy Phenom, The Heater from Van Meter. The Omaha World Herald was making a strong effort to cover the news in Western Iowa, where Van Meter is located -- so we got constant updates on the progress of Van Meter's favorite son, who was making a big splash in baseball, with Cleveland in the American League. We looked forward to the occasional Cleveland weekend games that were carried on the radio.

Bob Feller, who died recently, at the age of 92, was born in Van Meter, Iowa, in 1918. His father was a farmer and his mother was a registered nurse/teacher. His father was a stern taskmaster, who insisted on Bob's doing his share of the chores at the farm. (Feller later claimed that he owed his arm strength to milking cows, picking corn by hand, and heaving bales of hay). The elder Feller also was a sports fan who played catch with young Bob at every spare moment, and even carved out a ball field on his farm for amateur games. (Bob's sister, also an athlete, was once the Iowa ping pong champion.)

Bob was the star pitcher on his high school baseball team. He was still just 16 years old when he signed a major league contract with the Cleveland Indians. His initial contract called for a salary of $675 and a signing bonus of $1 plus an autographed baseball. He bypassed the minor leagues and immediately began pitching for the Indians, becoming the youngest player (at 17) ever to pitch in a major league game, compiling a 5-3 record in '36. In his first game as a starter he beat the St. Louis Browns 4-1, striking out 15, which was two shy of the major league record at the time.

Things only got better for Feller in the years leading up to World War II. In 1938 he set an A.L. record of 18 strikeouts against the Detroit Tigers -- broken by Nolan Ryan (19) in 1974. Feller's signature pitch was his fast ball, clocked at 104 mph against a speeding motorcycle. That blazing fast ball was a thing to be feared, especially in his early years when his control was suspect. His 208 walks, in 1938, is still a Cleveland record.

By the end of the 1941 season, Bob Feller had already earned 109 wins, and was an established star for the Cleveland Indians. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec. 7, Feller never hesitated. He enlisted in the Navy the first thing Monday morning, the 8th -- the first major leaguer to go into the service after Pearl Harbor.

Feller volunteered for combat duty right away and spent the war aboard the USS Alabama as a Gunnery Captain -- missing four of his prime baseball seasons. He was decorated with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Following World War II, Feller resumed his place as the Indians' star pitcher, joining a pitching rotation that included fellow Hall of Famers Early Wynn and Bob Lemon.

1946, his first full year back in baseball, was perhaps Feller's finest season. That year, he pitched a remarkable 371 innings in 48 games, winning 26 while losing 15, with a ERA of 2.18. He pitched 36 complete games that year, with 10 shutouts. (In 2010 the entire Indians' staff had 10 complete games and four shutouts). He probably had his best game ever that season when he pitched a no hitter against the Yankees, pitching to a lineup that included Hall of Famers, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Phil Rizzuto, and hard hitters, Tommy Henrich and Charley Keller.

Over a career that spanned from 1936 through 1956, all with the Cleveland Indians, Feller posted some eye-popping statistics. He pitched three no-hit games -- in 1940 (on opening day vs White Sox), 1948 vs Yankees, 1951 vs Detroit Tigers; he was first pitcher to strike out his age in batters (17 at age 17); first to win 20 games before he was 21. He achieved 266 career victories, with 6 years of 20 or more wins. He led the AL in victories six times. He was an All-Star eight times (1938, 39, 40, 41, 46, 47, 48, 50). He was a member of the Indians' pitching rotation, with Lemon and Wynn, when Cleveland won the 1948 World Series, though Feller lost the two games the started in that series.

Baseball historian Thomas Kope recalls seeing Feller pitch twice in 1946 at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. "He was spectacular." Kope goes on to say that he believes Feller would have won another hundred games and possibly 4 or 5 more no-hitters had he not gone to World War II. "He used his overpowering fastball as a set-up to strike out batters. He struck them out on a hard curve that seemed to drop off the end of the table."

Feller said that the toughest batter he faced was Ted Williams, the last of the .400 hitters, who "got to me more often than I like to recall." (a .245 average vs. Feller) Ted Williams said that for days before playing against Feller that was all he ever thought about -- "I thought about meeting him night and day. How will I hit him?"

During the off season, in Feller's day, most players took jobs to supplement their baseball income. Feller took a different activity in the off season. He launched barn-storming tours, using other major league players to play exhibition games around the country, often playing against All-Stars from the Negro League. In those days of segregated baseball, the games proved popular and profitable for Feller and the players. Through these games he became a good friend of Satchel Paige, the great African American pitcher. These tours led to an annual Black and White All-Star game, between major league white players playing All Stars from the Negro League. Many attribute this as a major step in the integration of black players into major league baseball.

Feller lobbied hard for the Indians' management to sign Paige to a contract, which they did in 1948, just in time for Paige to help in the Indians' march to the World Series. Even though Feller is often credited with bringing integration to baseball, he is just as often accused of being a racist. This seems to come from his penchant to speak his mind, regardless of the political correctness of his statements. He was often critical of players, black and white. He was outspoken in his condemnation of Pete Rose for his gambling on Cincinnati Reds' games, and Barry Bonds for drug abuse.

He said that modern players were spoiled, didn't work hard enough, and were overpaid. He received much criticism over his statement that "if Jackie Robinson were white he never would have been drafted," and he believed that another black player should have been the one to integrate baseball. Feller and Robinson both were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.

In retirement, Feller ran a successful insurance business in Cleveland, but he never was far away from baseball. For some time, he served as a pitching coach for the Indians. He was a fixture, in uniform, at spring training, and very often a spokesman for the organization at promotional events. Tourists, sometimes half his age, enjoyed being struck out by Feller and his fastball (a shadow of the pitch that earned him fame and fortune).

He often threw the ceremonial first pitch on opening day, and regularly took part in the "Oldtimers'" game.

Feller remained unusually fit for his age even into his 90s, and was active in Indians baseball and the work at his farm until almost the end of his life. He was diagnosed with leukemia in August, 2010 and died in December.

Upon hearing of Feller's death, Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball, beautifully summed up Feller's life, "Bob served his country nearly four years during the prime of his career. He was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost, a great American."

Source: Yahoo! Sports, Baseball reference.com, Thomas Kope correspondence

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