Rapid Robert rocked 'em with his fastball

Updated: September 19, 2005, 10:17 PM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"I never intended to be anything other than a ballplayer. Like Thomas Edison said, 'Find out something you like to do and you'll never have to work the rest of your life.' Well, I took his advice. That's exactly what I did," says Bob Feller on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Bob Feller
Bob Feller, with a 266-162 record and 2,581 strikeouts, is the winningest pitcher in Indians history.

Combining an overpowering fastball with a devastating curve, both of which appeared out of a deceptively high leg kick, Bob Feller dominated the American League in the 1940s. Rapid Robert led the league in wins six times and in strikeouts seven over his 18-year career. He pitched three no-hitters and still holds the major league record, along with Nolan Ryan, of 12 one-hitters.

The winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indians history, his career totals -- a 266-162 record and 2,581 strikeouts -- would have been considerably higher but for the almost four seasons he spent in the Navy during World War II.

As a teenager appearing in his first exhibition game against major leaguers he was so impressive that Dizzy Dean, when asked to take a photograph with the youngster, responded. "Why ask me? Ask that kid if he'll pose with me."

Feller's fastball was so potent and his curve so unbalancing that he became the featured player in 1940s newsreels demonstrating that a thrown baseball could travel faster than a motorcycle and could be made to curve. His popularity also had made him one of the main attractions of barnstorming postseason tours between black and white players and he was often matched against Satchel Paige.

One of the more articulate players of his generation, Feller never has been shy about expressing his opinions. Most notably, he said that the significance of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier has been overestimated and that his own accomplishments were more important than Robinson's in the history of the game.

Feller was born on Nov. 3, 1918, on the family farm outside Van Meter, Iowa. While his father Bill farmed, his mother Lena was, at various times, a schoolteacher and a nurse.

When he wasn't helping out on the farm, Feller learned to pitch by throwing to a makeshift backstop his father set up. In the spring of 1936, he was signed by Cleveland scout Cy Slapnicka for $1 and an autographed baseball. The 17-year-old high school junior was assigned to a farm club in Fargo-Moorehead, where he was supposed to report after school ended.

But Slapnicka had plans for the righthander that didn't include seasoning on the North Dakota-Minnesota border. Promoted to general manager, Slapnicka violated the rules by transferring Feller's contract from Fargo-Moorehead to the New Orleans Pelicans to the Indians without so much as a visit by the pitcher to either of the first two teams.

The paperwork shuffle caught up with Slapnicka when the owner of the Western League's Des Moines club, who had tried to sign Feller in 1935, protested to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He said the Indians had broken the regulation prohibiting major league teams from signing schoolboys to big league contracts.

After a three-month investigation, Landis made it clear that he did not believe anything Slapnicka and Cleveland president Alva Bradley said about the matter, but awarded Feller to the Indians anyway (though he fined them $7,500). Landis based his decision partly on the testimony of Feller and his father, who wanted Bob to play for Cleveland.

Bob Feller
Feller gets congrats after one of his no-hitters.

Meanwhile, Feller had become an on-field sensation. On July 6, 1936, in his first game with the Indians, Feller pitched three innings in an exhibition contest, striking out eight St. Louis Cardinals in a lineup that included Frankie Frisch, Joe Medwick, Rip Collins, Terry Moore and Leo Durocher. (It was this game that prompted Dean's extraordinary praise.)

Later that summer, in his first major league start, Feller made headlines by striking out 15 St. Louis Browns, then followed that up three weeks later by fanning 17 Philadelphia Athletics to tie Dean's modern major league record. He finished his rookie season with a 5-3 mark and 3.34 ERA in 14 games.

After suffering through a sore arm in 1937 (he went 9-7 with a 3.39 ERA), Feller went 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA in 1938. On the final day of the season, he struck out 18 Tigers to set a 20th century record that would stand for 31 years.

While leading the majors with 240 strikeouts, he also walked 208, setting a 20th century record, in 277 2/3 innings. Although he led the American League in walks three more times, Feller's control gradually improved. And as it did, his record became more impressive -- 24-9 in 1939, 27-11 in 1940 and 25-13 in 1941, all league-leading totals in victories to match his league-leading strikeout numbers of 246, 261 and 260.

On the first day of the 1940 season, he pitched the only opening day no-hitter-in baseball history when he beat the Chicago White Sox. But despite his career-high 27 victories and league-leading 2.61 ERA that year, Feller suffered a 2-0 loss to the Tigers in the first game of a do-or-die series over the final weekend as Detroit won the pennant by one game over the Indians.

Two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy; he was sworn in by former heavyweight champ Gene Tunney. Because of World War II, Feller missed all of the 1942, 1943 and 1944 seasons before returning late in 1945. During his career interruption, he earned him eight battle stars as the chief of a gun crew on the battleship USS Alabama.

In June 1944, he participated in an extraordinary battle known as The Marianas Turkey Shoot. The Japanese had 430 planes and only 35 were left when the shooting ended. Feller once described the shootout as the greatest day of his life.

During the war, he also married his first wife, Virginia Winther, and they would have three sons.

Bob Feller
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted and became a Navy hero during World War II.

Feller posted perhaps his greatest season in 1946, going 26-10 with 10 shutouts (including his second no-hitter), a career-low 2.18 ERA and 36 complete games in 42 starts. He also struck out 348 batters, which, at the time, was believed to be a major league record. But that was taken from him when modern research upped Rube Waddell's 1904 total from 346 to 349.

After going 20-11 in 1947, Feller went 19-15 in 1948 and helped the Indians reach the World Series for the first time since 1920. While Cleveland beat the Boston Braves in six games, Feller absorbed both Indians defeats in the only Series appearances of his career.

In 1951, Feller was a 20-game winner for the last time, with his 22-8 record leading the American League for the only time in won-lost percentage at .733.

After dropping to 9-13 in 1952, Feller was a spot starter for his final four years (he retired after going 0-4 in 1956). In 1954, his 13-3 record contributed to the Indians setting a then-American League record 111 victories and another pennant, but he did not appear in the World Series when the Indians were swept by the New York Giants.

In 1962, Feller became the first pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility since charter member Walter Johnson in 1936.

When Feller's wife Virginia became addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines, it threw Feller into a financial and emotional battle that lasted even beyond their divorce in the early seventies. Feller says in trying to help Virginia, her addiction cost him several hundred thousand dollars.

A pioneer in the self-institutionalization of the athlete, Feller incorporated himself as Ro-Fel, Inc. He has rebounded from his financial problems to make considerable money from personal appearances, often traveling with his second wife Anne. For a time, he was almost ubiquitous on the autograph circuit and has not shrunk from hawking his signature on Cooperstown street corners.

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