Commentary

Bob Feller lived a proud life

Outspoken Hall of Famer defended impressive pitching record and his country

Originally Published: December 15, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The truth about Bob Feller's life and career is inelastic; it cannot be stretched; it is unfathomable, but true. He was a prodigy, a war hero, a pitching icon; he barnstormed, he raced a motorcycle and he said Willie Mays' catch wasn't that great. He was indomitable, irrepressible and irascible and, at all times and in all situations, he came at you at 100 mph.

The numbers are spectacular, but they don't tell you everything you need to know about Feller. He won 266 games and had six 20-win seasons. He led the American League in victories six times and strikeouts seven times. In 1946, he had 36 complete games, exactly half as many as the National League had in 2010, which is the latest "Year of the Pitcher." He threw three no-hitters, one on Opening Day 1940, and had 12 one-hitters. He is the greatest player in Indians history, and one of the best pitchers of all time.

"He was the best pitcher I ever faced," Ted Williams once told me. "He was the hardest thrower I ever faced, and he had the best curveball. I hit him pretty good, but he was great."

Feller's story began, appropriately, in a corn field in Van Meter, Iowa. He was a local legend in the sixth grade, a kid that threw impossibly hard for someone that young. He signed with the Indians in 1935 at age 16; Indians scout Cy Slapnicka signed him for $1. Feller skipped the minor leagues and went straight to the major leagues. In his first start, as a 17-year-old, he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns. A few weeks later, he struck out 17 -- striking out his age -- tying Dizzy Dean's modern record for strikeouts in a game. Feller's struck out 76 in 62 innings, then, when the season ended, went back to finish high school.

The next spring, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His high school graduation was broadcast nationally on the NBC Radio Network. He was a phenomenon; he was Mozart with a heater, a curveball and a really high leg kick. In 1938, he struck out 18, a modern major league record that stood for 31 years. In 1940, he threw a no-hitter on Opening Day, the only pitcher ever to do that. Before he turned 23 years old, he had won 102 games, including seasons of 24, 27 and 25 victories.

[+] EnlargeBob Feller
AP Photo/U.S. NavyTwo days after Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy.

There were no radar guns back then, so, as a promotion, his fastball was clocked side-by-side against a speeding motorcycle, and Feller's fastball won, going around 100 mph. There was no stopping him.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and two days later, Feller -- the best pitcher in the game, and one of the highest-paid players at $30,000 a year -- enlisted in the Navy; he was sworn in by former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney. Feller didn't have to enlist. He had a deferment; he was caring for his ailing father, but he went to war anyway. Can you imagine a star baseball player doing that today?

Fifty-seven years later, I asked Feller why he enlisted. He screamed into the phone, "We were losing a war, a big war, we were losing big in the Pacific … any red-blooded American with a gut in his body would have gotten busy." The former anti-aircraft gunner screamed again: "We took back the Pacific. I can look anyone in the eye and say, 'I was there.'"

Feller earned eight battle stars as part of the chief gun crew of the USS Alabama, but he missed nearly four prime seasons due to military service. It cost him around 75 victories, which would have placed him near 350 wins, not to mention all the lost strikeouts, shutouts and complete games. And yet, he told me in 1997, without screaming, "I've never once thought about all the prime years that I missed. I did what I had to do for my country. We won that war. I'm as proud of serving as anything I've ever done in my life."

In 1946, Feller's first year back, he went 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA and 36 complete games, the most in the major leagues since 1921. He struck out 348 that year, which was believed to be a modern major league record until researchers found errors in the 1904 season of Rube Waddell, and raised his strikeout total that season to 349.

Feller pitched 10 more seasons, winning 20 in a season twice. He barnstormed, traveling the country pitching exhibition games, sometimes against the best teams from the Negro Leagues; sometimes he pitched against Satchel Paige. Feller was a little like Nolan Ryan. He walked 208 batters (the most since 1900) as a 19-year-old, but went 17-11. In 1941, he walked 194, but went 25-13.

In 1948, on the day Babe Ruth delivered his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, he grabbed a bat -- just coincidentally, Bob Feller's bat -- from the bat rack and used it as a cane. Feller told a Cleveland writer that that bat wound up being sold to a collector, and Feller had to buy it back for $95,000. It rests in the Bob Feller Museum in Iowa.

In 1946, he had 36 complete games, exactly half as many as the National League had in 2010, which is the latest "Year of the Pitcher."

The Indians won the World Series in 1948, but lost to the Giants in the World Series in 1954, the Series in which Mays made his famous catch off Vic Wertz. Feller told me, "A lot of center fielders could have made that catch. We all knew he was going to catch it."

Feller was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, the first pitcher elected to the Hall in his first year eligible since Walter Johnson, a charter member elected in 1936. In retirement, Feller could often be seen at his beloved Indians games. He always was a legend in Cleveland, to the end; it was him and Jim Brown, local icons. Feller was always outspoken, and not as complimentary of today's players as some would like. When Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg faced the Indians in Cleveland in his second big league start, Feller told a Cleveland writer, "Check back with me when he's won 100 games."

That was Feller: proud and defiant to the end. He loved pitching, and he loved being Bob Feller, to the point that he used to tour the country putting on pitching exhibitions in minor league ballparks. He was in his 60s and still pitching, usually against media members that covered the local minor league teams. Those that batted against Feller received a certificate that acknowledged such. In large print at the bottom of the certificate was a disclaimer that said: "The aforementioned slugger realized that if he had faced Mr. Feller in his prime, the results would have been different," as if a writer that batted against him in 1980 actually thought he would have had any chance against him in 1940.

It was typical Bob Feller. He just wanted you to know that you couldn't hit him, no matter who you were. But his life was about more than throwing a ball past a hitter. It was about dealing with expectations as a teenager, about defending his country, about defending a wonderful game against those that disrespect it. In that way, no one was better than Bob Feller.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.