Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bob Feller, 1918-2010

They don't make windups like Bob Feller's
On Sunday, Sept. 13, 1936, a rookie pitcher for the Cleveland Indians made his fifth start in the first game of a doubleheader. He threw a two-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics, one of the weaker teams in the American League — and, more impressively, set an American League record for strikeouts in a game with 17. (He also walked nine — the pitch count must have been tremendous.)

And a few weeks later, when the 1936 season was over, Bob Feller returned to his family home in Van Meter, Iowa — and started his senior year of high school.

His high school graduation ceremony the next spring was broadcast nationally by NBC (radio, but still ...  as famous as some of today's teen stars, from LeBron James to Taylor Swift, are, none of them get that kind of attention).

If we did not have the statistical record of Bob Feller that we do, if we instead had to rely (as we do with the likes of Satchel Paige) on stories and anecdotes and legend to try to grasp his greatness, we would still know him for what he was as a pitcher — one of the greats.

He once matched his fastball against a speeding motorcycle going 100 mph by its speedometer — and his pitch beat the rider to the plate. You know the Field of Dreams bit about carving a ballpark out of a corn field? That was Feller's childhood — his father actually did that so that his son had a place to pitch.

He won 266 games in his career — a career interrupted at its very peak by World War II. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor — he didn't have to serve; he could have legitimately claimed a farm deferment and sat the war out — and spent most of the war on a battleship in the South Pacific. He is credited with seeing more combat duty than any other major leaguer.

The three seasons before the war (1939-41), he won 24, 27 and 25 games. He missed 1942, 43, 44 and most of 1945 (he returned to the Indians to make nine starts and was greeted by the front-page banner headline "This is what we've been waiting for"), and in 1946 won 26 games.

We can, if we want, imagine an alternate world in which the historical forces that caused WWII didn't happen, and pretend that Feller pitched as well in the missing seasons as he did in the seasons surrounding the war. Say an average of 25 wins for the first three years, another 20 in '45 (when he actually won five). That's another 95 wins — and suddenly his 266 lifetime wins balloon to almost 360.

But we live in the world we have. Feller made it through almost four years of war without a scratch, but there is no guarantee that had he spent those years pitching that everything would have hung together.

But we don't need those wins to know this about Feller:  He was a great pitcher. And the fact that those wins are missing tells us even more about him — he was a great American.

Rest in peace, Rapid Robert.


  1. Second that... My son and I met him at the Moondogs game in '07... To put his career in a Minnesota Twins perspective, he was winding down when Harmon Killebrew was just starting his.

  2. My son and I met him at the same [Mankato] Moondogs game as PaulG. He had Mr. Feller sign his glove. He has used his "Feller" glove exclusively when he toes the rubber. It is getting a little small for him but I'm sure it will have a treasured place amongst his other baseball memorabilia.

  3. I looked at Feller's stats and in 1946, he pitched 371 innings, started 42 games, completed 36 of them, led the league in both strikeouts (348) and walks (153) and for good measure had four saves. Boy, I'd love to see how many pitches he threw that year!

  4. Just like the rest of his generation, they're fading fast. Those who were privileged to have met him must treasure that meeting. We won't see the likes of him again, sad to say.