The numbers are staggering: 266 victories, over 3,800 innings pitched, 279 complete games, twelve one-hitters–all while missing nearly four seasons due to military service. Oh, he was also a World War II hero (gun captain on the USS Alabama), World Series champion, and an eventual baseball Hall of Famer. When I first heard about the death of legendary pitcher Bob Feller last week, I immediately thought, ‘Man–there was a guy who did it ALL.’ He was a cherished sports icon in Cleveland, for sure; elsewhere, he was sometimes thought of as being a bit stuffy, grumpy, and a bit full of himself. One thing was never debated, though: the man could flat-out PITCH like few others EVER have.
I look back on Feller’s 1946 season with Cleveland and just say ‘Wow.’ People were wondering before Feller’s first start that year if the guy could ever be a dominant starting pitcher again. Yes, he HAD pitched effectively in nine games after returning from the service in 1945, but the question still remained: Could he ever shake off the extended military-stay “rust” and be a 20-25 game winner once again? Feller’s answer: 26 wins, 36 complete games, 371 innings (you read that correctly) and 348 strikeouts. Yes, Bob Feller never DID have a problem answering critics throughout his lifetime. And when he spoke, he made SURE he was heard.
I met Bob Feller for the only time back in 1980 at a West Haven Whitecaps (Eastern League) game; he was there during a promotional tour–available to sign autographs for the first few innings. I was in college at the time and was keenly aware of the man’s legendary status–mostly due to my Dad having always told me that Feller and Sandy Koufax were the best pitchers he’d ever seen (ironically, my Dad knew the woman who’d later become Feller’s second wife–Anne Gilliland–and carried her books to school on occasion as a youth). I just HAD to get a ball signed by him that evening; it’s not often that you’re in the company of true baseball royalty. I had also known that Mr. Feller could be a bit stand-offish and gruff; how would he react when I reached the front of the line? Should I say something? What would I say? When I finally handed him the ball to be signed, I recall nervously saying, “Mr. Feller, it’s an honor to meet you–and my father STILL says you’re the best pitcher he’s ever seen.” I remember him replying something like, “Thank you, kid–was your father a Cleveland fan?” I think I was too nervous to answer at that point and my friend, Bob–who accompanied me to the game–proceeded to engage in some small talk with the legend. It didn’t take long for Feller to realize that we were true baseball fanatics as my friend and I proceeded to start reeling off some famous Indians over the years. Then, while exchanging handshakes, our jaws nearly dropped when Feller said, “When I’m done here, boys, I’ll come look for you in the stands and we’ll talk more baseball.” I didn’t fall down/pass out at the time–but I know I came close. Would baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller REALLY seek us out and spend some time with US? I had my doubts as we returned to our usual, behind-the plate bench seats.
Two innings later–almost inconspicuously–Feller and an aide entered the ballpark seating area; we waved at him and he simply pointed back at us. Without hesitation, he walked up the stairs and took a seat next to us; yeah, the game suddenly became secondary. I kept thinking/wondering: So THIS is the ornery, uncooperative man with the questionable personality? I didn’t see it–not THAT night. I recall us talking about some modern-day players, how the game has changed over the years, then finally asking him who was the toughest hitter he ever faced. He replied, “Ted Williams was the best hitter–but DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich always gave me more trouble.” After another few minutes of stimulating conversation among ‘the three Bobs’ (he also talked about his military record–which he took great pride in), Feller excused himself–lamenting, “Well, guys, I have a flight to catch–a pleasure meeting you.” The autographed ball is still displayed in my bedroom; I gaze at it from time to time and remember that special conversation from 30 years ago. Yeah–I always smile.
My Monday Night Sports Talk co-host Tony DeAngelo on Feller: “I had to laugh when he (Feller) went to the Baseball Encyclopedia once and asked them to put In the Service of our Country next to the names of players who missed time during the war; they told him it would be an ‘inconvenience’ to do so. Feller then remarked ‘Inconvenience? What do you think it was for me getting bombed and shot at on an aircraft carrier every day?’ And this came from a man who did his running and throwing on the boat between attacks. Yes–what an inspiration for those who will choose to listen.”
Yeah, I guess there was only ONE Bob Feller–“Bullet Bob” back in the day. Again, many fans/colleagues didn’t care for the man due to his disdain for the modern-day player (he consider them spoiled–and hadn’t earned what they reaped); they also considered Feller egotistical–on the verge of being boisterous. Yes, perhaps it came down to which Bob Feller you met on a particular day. I’m just glad I was able to meet the Bob Feller who simply enjoyed talking baseball with two “pie-eyed” young men on a summer evening a few decades ago. I’ll prefer to remember him in a positive way the rest of my life, too.
Rest in peace, “Rapid Robert.”