Welcome back Ash Day
It can be difficult being a baseball fan when you live an ocean away from the sport you love. It is considerably more difficult when the majority of games begin and end when you really ought to be asleep. Despite these barriers, it wasn’t long before I became infatuated with America’s national pastime and it’s incredibly rich history. In 2007, when I decided to get serious about it all, I began the process of absorbing as much information as I possibly could.
When I chose my beloved team, those Indians from Cleveland, I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of knowledge. The team had existed for over a hundred years and I had many of their legendary players to read and research about. It didn’t matter what website I was on, what book I was reading, there was always one name that stood out among the rest.
Rapid Robert. Bullet Bob. The Heater from Van Meter.
With that legendary assortment of nicknames, I could instantly tell this guy was something special . On his day, one of the greatest pitchers to play the game.
In 1918 Feller was born and raised on a farm in Van Meter, Iowa. In Field of Dreams territory, Feller’s father anticipated (and maybe even inspired) the famous movie and novel, and actually built a baseball field on the farm, just like Kevin Costner. The young Feller would spend hours on the mound throwing to his father, always crafting and honing his abilities. Even in his early teens his prowess as a pitcher gained attention, and locals in their hundreds would flock to the farm to watch him perform. Before long major league scouts were turning up as well.
His signing into professional baseball was actually performed in secret by the legendary scout Cy Slapnicka, as he got Feller to sign at just 16 years-old, in exchange for $1 and an autographed baseball. However, protests were filed as high school students were forbidden to be signed straight off the sandlot and into a major league stadium at the time. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis investigated but luckily for the Indians, both Feller and his father insisted the youngster stay with Cleveland, and the Indians only had to pay a $7,500 fine. They were happy to do so as Feller could have commanded a signing bonus in the range of $100,000 on the open market, an unheard-of sum in those days.
By 1936 and essentially fresh off the farm, Feller was thrust into the spotlight and added to the Indians roster. The 17 year-old power pitcher with the blazing fastball made an unforgettable first impression in his first career start when he struck out 15 batters in a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Browns. It’s inconceivable in today’s age to imagine a major league pitcher finishing his rookie season and return home to attend school again, but that’s exactly what Feller did – his senior graduation was even covered by NBC Radio. The young flamethrower was already making a name for himself.
Feller’s penchant for strikeouts was apparent from the get-go, and that overpowering fastball would strike fear into hitters for the next two decades. The teenager put his schoolwork behind him, grew into his frame and came to dominate the sport; no one had ever seen a pitcher enjoy such success at such an early age. Between 1936 and 1941, Feller regularly led the American League and even the entire majors in total wins, innings pitched, and of course strikeouts, and was voted to 4 All Star games. Feller had established himself as the premier pitcher of his day, what many now consider the golden age of the game.
Then all of a sudden Pearl Harbor happened, and the United States were thrust into the global conflict we know as the Second World War. Within days of the attack Feller had enlisted in the navy, even though, as the sole support for his family in Iowa he would have been eligible to defer. Feller didn’t hesitate and was the first MLB player to sign up, and spent the next 45 months on active duty as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the USS Alabama. Not content with a desk job, he served in five campaigns in the North Atlantic and South Pacific and earned eight battle stars. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Feller said. “Joining the navy two days after Pearl Harbor was not one of them.”
Feller lost nearly four seasons of his career and some of his prime years to military service, but returned to the mound at the end of the war and picked up exactly where he left off. His time away did nothing to diminish his skills. In fact, 1946 saw him enjoy his most successful year, pitching a league-leading 371.1 innings for a 2.18 ERA. He won 26 games (led MLB), pitched 36 complete games including 10 shutouts (both led MLB), and recorded 348 strikeouts, a record at the time (obviously led MLB).
It is indisputable that Feller’s success helped the Indians become one of the powerhouse teams in the American League during his tenure. The crowning achievement has to be the Tribe’s historic 1948 championship, their second title in club history and last (for now). Feller led a dominant rotation including fellow Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, and the Tribe dispatched the Boston Braves in six games. The Indians were back in the World Series in 1954 as well, when Feller was 35 years-old and still in the rotation, but the team fell to the New York Giants in a sweep.
By the time Feller turned 30 years-old his strikeout numbers had begun to decline, as time took its inevitable toll on his arm and rapid fastball. At his peak though, there were many attempts made to record the speed of his fastball, during a time when radar guns could only be imagined in comic books. In a 1940 promotional stunt in Chicago, Feller threw a fastball calculated at 104 mph in a test against a speeding motorcycle, and he had another pitch recorded at 107.9 mph during a test in Washington.
The devices used to measure Feller’s armspeed may have been crude by today’s standards, but there was no doubting Feller possessed one of the fastest arms in major league history, and commanded the utmost respect from hitters. As the Red Sox icon Ted Williams once said, “Three days before he pitched I would start thinking about Robert Feller, Bob Feller. I’d sit in my room thinking about him all the time.”
Feller was a one-club man and finished his career in Cleveland with a 3.25 ERA, a 266-162 record, and a .621 winning percentage he was proud of. Feller was a fierce and unassuming competitor, dependable and unflappable in the most intense environments. He pitched three no-hitters and led the league in strikeouts seven times. The only reason I haven’t discussed his Cy Young award collection is because they didn’t invent them until the year he retired.
Just a year after he donned his cap for the last time the Indians quickly decided to retire his famous number: 19. Can you imagine that happening today, such a swift move? Even Derek Jeter had to wait a couple of years for that to happen! (Ed: Cough, David Ortiz, cough).
His entry into the Hall of Fame was never in question, and Feller was elected in 1962 on the first ballot, alongside Jackie Robinson. In 1994 the Indians chose to honour him once more with a 10-foot-tall bronze statue, depicting Feller mid-windup, at the East Ninth Street entrance when the club opened their new stadium, the formerly named Jacobs Field.
Feller passed away in December 2010 at the age of 92, in the city he called home for 20 years during his playing career, and continued to call home long after he had thrown his final pitch. As a baseball fan who adopted the Indians over a decade ago, I am proud to have a man who was held in such high esteem represent my club. His records have now been broken by modern-day flamethrowers but his reputation and legacy in Cleveland remains undiminished.