Feller, Robert William Andrew ("Bob")
FELLER, Robert William Andrew ("Bob")
(b. 3 November 1918 near Van Meter, Iowa), the dominant pitcher from 1936 to 1956, considered by many baseball writers to be the best pitcher of all, because of his three no-hit games and twelve one-hit games for the Cleveland Indians, while leading the American League in wins six times and strikeouts seven times.
Feller was one of two children of Lena Forrett, a school teacher, nurse, newspaper correspondent, and school board member, and William Feller, a farmer. He was born and raised on his father's farm three miles from Van Meter, Iowa. By the time he was thirteen years old, Feller was the cleanup hitter on Van Meter's American Legion baseball team, playing against much older players. When he was fourteen, his father, who had been a semi-professional pitcher in his younger days, created a baseball diamond on the farm for him.
Major League Baseball had a rule against signing players who were still in high school, so the Cleveland Indians signed Feller to a club contract in 1935 secretly, when he was sixteen. Legend has it that Feller received a dollar and a baseball as his signing bonus. When Feller showed up in a Cleveland Indians uniform for spring training, the minor league Des Moines, Iowa, ball club of the Western League, with whom he had played for a short time, protested, claiming Feller should have to play for them. Although Cleveland's signing of Feller was plainly against the rules, Feller insisted on honoring his contract with them. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis let Cleveland keep him and fined Cleveland $7,500, a bargain for the Indians considering the bidding war for Feller's services was expected to exceed $100,000.
The Indians learned quickly, as did the American League, that Feller was the phenomenon that he seemed to be. He was six feet tall and 185 pounds, and had a motion that had him looking back toward third base before delivering his pitch. Feller seemed to regularly throw fast-balls at over 100 miles per hour. It was frightening, and soon earned him the name "Rapid Robert." "I just reared back and let them go," he said, and they flew all over the place. "Where the ball went was up to heaven. Sometimes I threw the ball clean up into the stands," he later remarked. While leading the league in bases on balls in four different seasons, he had batters ready to duck and run.
He struck out fifteen St. Louis Browns batters in his first start on 23 August 1936. Later that season, he struck out seventeen Philadelphia Athletics batters in a game. He was only seventeen, and at the end of the season, he returned to Van Meter, Iowa, and finished high school, graduating in 1937.
In 1938 the Indians discovered that their young pitcher had star power. He drew fans just to see him pitch; in the later years of his career, the team estimated that when he pitched he drew an additional 10,000 fans beyond what would be normally expected. His 17 wins and 11 losses record for 1938 was good, but his striking out eighteen Detroit Tigers batters on 2 October 1938 was sensational, and a new record for a nine-inning ball game. Earlier, on 20 April of that year, he pitched the first of what would be twelve career one-hitters.
For 1939 he led the league with 24 wins, with only 9 losses. He also led the league with 14 wild pitches; batting against him was not for the faint of heart. On opening day, 16 April 1940, he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox, racking up 27 wins against 11 losses for the season. By this time, he was a complete pitcher, because he had a curveball that was as good as his fastball. In 1941, he had another record, with 25 wins and 11 losses, and he was one of the most celebrated players in baseball. He seemed destined to break numerous career records.
On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America went to war, and on December 9 Feller enlisted in the United States Navy. Formally inducted on 6 January 1942, he was first sent to Norfolk, Virginia, for training, and then to the USS Alabama as an antiaircraft gunner. He would later joke, "Baseball in the navy always was much more fun than it had been in the major leagues," but he saw serious duty and battle, earning eight battle stars, as well as five campaign ribbons.
Two major league ballplayers had been killed in action, others were wounded, and for many their athletic careers were ruined. When Feller was discharged from the navy, near the end of the 1945 season, some observers thought he might have lost his fastball. But in 1946, he came back strong. On 30 April 1946, he pitched his second career no-hitter, this one against the New York Yankees, the team he admittedly most desired to defeat, beating them 1–0. That year, using a photographic test run by Life magazine, Feller's fastball was timed at nearly 100 miles per hour. Further, he struck out 348 batters for the season, then believed to be a new record (as it later turned out, however, Rube Waddell struck out 349 in 1904).
Feller signed a contract with the Indians for over $80,000 for the 1947. He responded with a 20–11 win-loss record, but after hurting his arm he slumped to merely above-average performances from 1948 to 1950. At the start of the 1950 season, at Feller's suggestion, he took a $20,000 pay cut, for a salary of $45,000. But the desire to win still burned strong in Feller, and in 1951 he had a spectacular season with 22 wins and 8 losses, for a .733 winning percentage, and he pitched his third no-hitter on 1 July, versus the Detroit Tigers, tying what was then the career record. The next season was a poor one, 9 wins and 13 losses, and the number of his starts diminished thereafter, although his 13 wins against 3 losses in 1954 contributed significantly to the Indians' winning that year's American League pennant.
In 1957, the year following his retirement, Feller's uniform number 19 was retired by the Indians, and in 1962 he became the first pitcher since Walter Johnson to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. When professional baseball held its Centennial Celebration in 1969, he was named greatest living right-handed pitcher. Many writers before and since have insisted that he was the greatest pitcher of all, period.
He settled in Gates Mills, Ohio, with his second wife, Anne Morris Giuiland, whom he married on 1 October 1974, and learned to fly airplanes. Feller became the Cleveland Indians' goodwill ambassador, traveling the United States to visit as many as fifty minor league games a year through the 1980s. A statue of him pitching was erected at Jacobs Field, the Indians' ballpark. In 1995, the Bob Feller Museum, designed by his son Steve, was opened in Van Meter, Iowa, becoming an instant tourist attraction. Feller never lost the magical connection he had with people, and was always loved by fans.
Feller has always been notable for his witty quips and pointed epithets, and his autobiography Now Pitching, Bob Feller (1990), written with Bill Gilbert, has plenty of these along with his insights into baseball of his era and how it has since changed. Bob Feller's Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom (2001) by Feller and Burton Rocks is a delightful assortment of anecdotes, tales, and observations. Of Feller's instructional books, Pitching to Win (1952) probably offers the most insight into his approach to playing baseball. J. Ronald Oakley's Baseball's Last Golden Age, 1946–1960 (1994) places Feller's career in the context of its era. "Bob Feller" in Donald Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real (1975) is an interview in which Feller discusses what he considers to be the highlights of his baseball career. Jerome Holtzmen, "An American Hero," Baseball Digest (Dec. 2000), is an account of Feller's service in the navy during World War II. In Van Meter, Iowa, the Bob Feller Museum displays uniforms, balls, bats, photographs, and other memorabilia related to Feller's career, and it is a major tourist attraction.
Kirk H. Beetz