It's hard to talk about the Cleveland Indians and not mention the name of Bob Feller. There were several years when there was nothing else to talk about as Cleveland Indians fans than their greatest player of all-time, but it was always so much more than that. Feller was always both larger-than-life, and the regular guy next door. The legend was scary to walk up to, but the stories he would tell were always worth the risk. He was Bob Feller. The greatest pitcher to wear an Indians jersey, the ambassador for a team that didn't have any, the guy that could throw harder than maybe anyone to step foot on a baseball field.
It's hard to describe what Mr. Feller meant to me as a kid growing up on the West Side of Cleveland in the 1970's. You see, the Cleveland Indians of that era weren't very good, which may be overstating the case. I didn't know any better. As a Tribe fan, finishing in fourth place was always a fantastic year. There were quirky, blue-collar players that many second division teams are famous for that I followed, like Charlie Spikes, Buddy Bell, Andre Thornton and Duane Kuiper, but there weren't any icons you could hang your hat on. The closest thing to a legend was Gaylord Perry, who was known as much for hiding K-Y jelly as he was for winning a Cy Young in Cleveland.
But there was always Bob Feller.
My first memory of Feller wasn't of a strikeout, a victory, a trip to the Pacific or an opening day no-hitter. No, my first memory of Bob Feller came from my Dad, a devout New York Yankees fan to this day. I'll never forget the story my Dad told me right before bed, when as a five year old, I was still trying to figure out what that silly game of baseball was all about. Normally, he sprinkled me with stories of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, and was, in all likelihood, trying to steer me towards his childhood team, and away from the painful heartache of becoming a Tribe fan. But even Dad couldn't help himself.
There came the day that Dad mentioned Bob Feller.
While I don't remember what my father specifically said about Feller that night, I do remember the main event of the conversation. You see, Bob Feller threw faster than a motorcycle. Today, pitchers are routinely clocked at stadiums through the use of radar, but to a five-year-old, 100 miles per hour might as well be 10 or 1,000. It was all relative. But, you see, Bob Feller could throw the ball faster than a speeding motorcycle.
The next day, I told the story to my neighbor, and we set about creating the same test. Out came the big wheels, the Schwinn's, the mits and the tennis balls. The test was on. Which kid could throw faster than any of the vehicles that we all brought out to the street in front of my house. First against the big wheel with a worn wheel. Then, against the gold Schwinn that everyone swore was the fastest bike this side of Cleveland's Municipal stadium. The Green Machine was also tested. Today, I don't know who could throw faster than what, but that fateful summer afternoon, a kid with a sore arm and a few scrapes became a lifelong baseball fan, and Bob Feller became his hero.
Over the years, I would learn more about the greatness that was "Rapid Robert." I remember listening to an old timer at a game in Cleveland in the early 80's telling the 12 people sitting in the entire section about how Feller had told him that his Dad had mowed over part of his Iowa farm to build him a baseball field. Can you imagine that? A father building his son a ballfield in the middle of his cornfield! I was a little more than torqued when my father refused to bulldoze the forest behind our house for a ballfield of my own. I was even more ticked off a few years later when Field of Dreams came out. I still wonder, did Feller get a cut of the movie's proceeds? If you think the ballfield was a dedicated move for his son by Bill Feller, Bob's Dad, how about Dad getting rid of ALL the corn, to instead grow wheat, because it would allow him to focus more energy on teaching his son how to become a major leaguer. He'd create a team of local ballplayers, and they'd play other teams during the weekend.
I remember reading about Feller as a high school junior, making an ungodly jump from high school baseball to the major leagues. That's right, he never played a second of minor league baseball, before finding himself pitching for the Indians after his junior year in high school. Feller went back to high school after the season, and finished his senior year with the help of tutors, on the road during his second year. He still made it to his graduation however, and it was broadcast on radio from coast to coast. Think about it. Most kids DREAM of playing in the majors in high school. Feller did it. But that's was always his M.O..
I remember watching Jack Morris throw a no-hitter on the first Saturday game-of-the-week on NBC way back in 1984. While I don't remember much about the game, I do remember Vin Scully and his broadcast partner, Joe Garagiola. In painting the picture of Morris' brilliance that day, they kept referring to one Bob Feller, who is the one and only pitcher to throw a no-no on opening day. While Morris was already making his second start for his no-hitter, Feller had done it on opening day in 1940, when he was all of 21 years old.
Then there are the numbers, and there are just far too many to get into them all here. As a 20 year-old, Feller would win 24 games in 1939. As a 21-year-old in that no-hit year of 1940, he would lead the majors with 27 wins and 31 complete games. As a 22-year-old in 1941, he would win 25 games. That was Feller's sixth year in baseball. In today's game, he'd be about to enter his first unrestricted free-agent year. I wonder what kind of deal a 22-year old coming off three 24+ win, sub 3.15 ERA seasons would get...200 million...300 million...perhaps his own island and a kingdom of his own?
Obviously there wasn't free agency in the 40's, but Feller still offered up his services to something else: the U.S. Navy. I'll get to that in a second.
Feller would return late in the season in 1945 for a few starts, but would return for a full season in 1946. He promptly won 26 games with a 2.18 ERA. He had 36 complete games, 10 shut-outs, pitched in 371 1/3 innings, and struck out 348 batters in that remarkable season. In 1947, Feller would win 20 games. During that five-year playing stretch, Feller would win 122 games, lose 59, pitch 129 complete games, and throw 30 complete-game shutouts. Overall, Feller would go 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA and 2,581 strike outs. He'd throw three no-hitters, and 12 one-hitters. In other words, he was otherwordly.
As a kid, I couldn't stand seeing that four-year block of empty games in the early-40's. Surely, Feller couldn't have wanted to miss part of the prime of his career. I mean, imagine the numbers had he stayed healthy. Based on the five-year average from the three years prior to his service, and the two years after, he'd have averaged 24 wins a season. Figuring in the five wins he DID win in 1945, that would be another 91 wins, another 1,000 wins, a lower ERA. Of course, Feller wouldn't have had it any other way. It wasn't about numbers, or wins, or even playing baseball. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, after waiving a deferment because his Dad was ill, leaving Feller as the sole provider for his family. Feller's father would die while he was serving during World War 2. Feller never questioned it. It was his duty. While there have been many references to "Chiefs" during the existence of the Cleveland Indians, Bob Feller was a legitimate one. He was baseball's only Chief Petty Officer elected into baseball's hall of fame.
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to see Feller on several occasions, and I even talked to him briefly a couple of times, because the guy went everywhere in the name of baseball. No, I'm by no means saying that I created a friendship with the guy. Not a chance. He wouldn't have been able to pick me out of a line-up. That's not my point. My point is simply that I got to meet Bob Feller. My most memorable meeting was back in the late-80's, when Feller was a young man in his early 70's. Feller was throwing BP for a bunch of sportswriters at a small ballfield in Erie prior to a minor league game. I was standing in the outfield shagging fly balls. You got it, I was on the same team and field as the great Bob Feller, at least that's the story I'll always tell. Anyways, I didn't have to shag many balls that day. Why? The fireballing 70-year old was busy making the sportswriters look like morons, blowing the ball by them even then.
My most humorous time meeting Feller was at a Winter Caravan meeting a year or two after that. He signed my ballcap, and I asked him if he remembered me from the two years prior, the day I was shagging fly balls. Feller, ever the honest, said, "Hell no, I meet a million kids every year, how am I supposed to remember you." Then, he looked over at my Dad, who was wearing a Yankees cap, and said, "Who let him in?" I didn't get a chance for a follow up because of the massive line for autographs. I saw him at minor league games, major league games, spring trainings, all-star games, hall of fames, world series, and basically everywhere in between. You see, Feller loved baseball, and it was his job to do it some good. It was the same mentality he had playing the game, and the same mentality he had in serving his country.
I loved listening to him talk about ballplayers. I recently heard Tim Kurkjian telling a story about Feller watching Willie Mays making that catch against the Indians in game one of the 1954 World Series. According to Kurkjian, Feller said, "We all knew he was going to catch it. It wasn't that tough a catch." He was loaded with up-front comments like that. It didn't come from a guy out-of-touch, it came from a guy who played baseball better than most. Perspective, you see, is different when you are standing in the clouds to start with.
Ted Williams said Feller was the best pitcher that he'd ever seen:
"(Feller was) the fastest...pitcher I ever saw during my career. . . . He had the best fastball and curve I’ve ever seen. Three days before he pitched I would start thinking about Robert Feller.''Yeah, Ted Williams said that...
You see, Bob Feller was a hero. He'd never admit that he was. Feller would likely grunt that he was just "doing his service for his country, and doing his job playing baseball." That's exactly what he did....his job...and better than most anyone else that ever did it. He was Sandy Koufax (albeit a righty), before Sandy Koufax. He was Nolan Ryan, before Nolan Ryan. He was Randy Johnson, before Randy Johnson. He was Roger Clemens (minus that steroids), before Roger Clemens. Was he better than all of them? That's up for debate. Is he in the mix? Of that, there is no doubt.
It's funny, really, looking back. I had never seen Feller pitch to major league ballplayers. I was born fifteen years after he threw his last pitch for the Tribe, and thirty-five years after he threw his first pitch. But he was always there, talking about the game that he loved. He was the Tribe's connection to the great barnstorming teams of the 1930's, when Feller would travel the country with Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. He shared the same field as Dizzy Dean, and pitched against Lou Gehrig. He fought against the likes of Joe Dimaggio, and forced Teddy Ballgame to sweat three days before pitching against the Red Sox. How many players can say they struck out Gehrig, Dimaggio and Mantle, and stood on the same field as Babe Ruth, the last time he was in a stadium. Ruth used Feller's bat as a cane during his last public appearance at Yankee Stadium.
He even shared the field with me....or I should say...I shared the field with him...
....and he could throw faster than a motorcycle...