An Iowa farm boy who became a star for baseball's Cleveland Indians, Bob Feller (born 1918) threw harder than any pitcher of his generation. Six times, he won 20 or more games in a season, and he set new standards as a strikeout artist. Feller also won medals for his service as a Navy aircraft gunner in World War II.
Feller won 266 games and lost 162 over his career, spent entirely with Cleveland from 1936 through 1956. He might have won many more games had he not served four years in the Navy during the war. His record of 348 strikeouts in 1946 stood for many years, and he pitched three no-hitters during his career. Players of his time were in awe of his blazing fastball. "If anybody threw that ball harder than Rapid Robert, then the human eye couldn't follow it," said pitcher Satchel Paige.
Bob Feller was born on November 3, 1918 in Van Meter, Iowa. He grew up on a farm with his hard-working parents and his sister Marguerite. "We were far from destitute, even during the Depression," Feller recalled in an interview. "My father was a very successful farmer, and that was for one reason: he worked, and he was smart." His mother was a schoolteacher, a nurse, a newspaper correspondent, and a school board member. Their drive to succeed influenced their son who, from an early age, had one overriding desire: to play baseball. His father, who had been a semi-professional pitcher in his younger days, encouraged Feller's interest in baseball. He built a pitching mound and set up a home plate between the house and the barn. Young Feller spent hours a day throwing pitches to his dad and building up his arm strength. In the winter, father and son would play catch inside the barn.
As a child, Feller always wanted to play baseball with older kids. When he was 12, he helped his father build their own baseball field on the farm, complete with a grandstand. His father started a team, with his son as the pitcher, and charged 35 cents admission. Feller grew into a strong, strapping teenager, who looked older than his age. Sometimes more than a thousand people came to the farm to see him pitch. By the time he was in high school, major league scouts had heard about his fastball.
At the time, organized baseball's rules prohibited major league clubs from signing players who were still in high school. But Cleveland wanted the young phenomenon so badly that the club secretly signed him to a contract when he was 16. Pitching soon after for an amateur team in Des Moines, Iowa, Feller attracted so much attention that the Detroit Tigers also offered him a contract. Feller then admitted he was already signed. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis fined the Indians $7,500. On the open market, Feller could have commanded an $100,000 bonus, an unprecedented sum at the time. Instead, he remained with the Indians.
The Indians brought Feller to Cleveland during the 1936 season. In July he pitched in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Feller, who had never pitched a single game in the minor or major leagues, looked raw and nervous. But, using only a fastball, he struck out eight batters in three innings. The Indians immediately put him into their bullpen, even though he was only 17 years old. In his first start, on August 23, he struck out 15 and beat the St. Louis Browns, 4-1.
Because of his blazing fastball, Feller soon earned the nickname "Rapid Robert." In September, he tied the major league record by striking out 17 batters in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He was so wild in that game that he allowed nine walks; so poor at holding runners that he allowed nine stolen bases. For the season, Feller struck out 76 batters in 62 innings. After the season ended, Feller went back to Iowa to finish high school.
The amazing teenage pitching sensation was an instant drawing card for the Indians. When he pitched, attendance would rise by about 10,000 fans. In his second season, Feller joined the club after high school was finished in Iowa. He won nine games, lost seven, and struck out 150 batters in 149 innings. In 1938, his first full season with the Cleveland Indians, he won 17 games and led the league in strike-outs with 240. Baseball had never seen someone of such a young age so completely dominate the opposition.
Control problems are common for a hard-throwing young pitcher, but even so Feller was extremely wild in the early days of his career. In 1938, he walked 208 batters in 278 innings. On the last day of the season, Feller struck out 18 Tigers to set a new major league record. By then he had developed an effective curveball to go with his blazing fastball.
In 1939, Feller lead the American League in wins with 24, in complete games with 24, in innings pitched with 297, in walks with 142 and in strikeouts with 246. To start the 1940 season, Feller pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day against the Chicago White Sox. That year he again dominated hitters: 261 strikeouts, 27 wins, 320 innings, 37 starts and 31 complete games—all tops in the American League.
In 1941, Feller again led the league in wins (25), starts, innings, strikeouts and walks. At age 23, he had already posted 107 career wins (against only 54 losses) and 1,233 strikeouts. He already had more than a third of Walter Johnson's then-record career strikeout total. Never in baseball history had a pitcher enjoyed so much success at such an early age. It appeared that Bob Feller was going to completely rewrite the record books.
Service and Triumphs
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. That very day, Feller volunteered to join the Navy. "I did not have to go," Feller recalled. "My father was dying of brain cancer, so I was pardoned. But it was a war we had to win." Feller spent the next 45 months on active duty, putting his baseball career on hold. He became an anti-aircraft gunner on the battleship Alabama, serving in five campaigns in the North Atlantic and South Pacific theaters and earning eight battle stars.
Feller returned to baseball near the close of the 1945 season, after the end of World War II. He had missed nearly four full seasons at the prime of his career. But he picked up right where he had left off. In 1946, he pitched his second no-hit game, against the Yankees on April 30. Later that season, Feller became the first pitcher to have the speed of his pitches checked with a radar device. He was clocked at 98.6 miles an hour. For that season, he pitched a career-high 377 innings and struck out 348 batters, a new twentieth century record. Feller won 26 games, ten of them shutouts, and completed 36 games—all league highs. The Indians were not a good team that year and, in games Feller did not pitch, won only 42 games and lost 71.
In 1947, Feller again displayed his pre-war dominance, leading the league in wins, strikeouts, innings and starts. But he hurt his arm after slipping on the mound that year, and he was never again as dominant. The following season, Feller won his seventh and final strikeout crown, won 19 games, and helped lead the Indians to a rare appearance in the World Series. In the opening game, Feller locked horns with the Boston Braves' Johnny Sain in a scoreless pitching duel for seven innings. In the bottom of the eighth inning, catcher Phil Masi reached second base. Feller whirled and threw to second base in a great pick-off move, but the umpire called Masi safe on a close, disputed play. Tommy Holmes then brought Masi in to score with a single, and the Indians lost, 1-0. Feller lost game five as well, but the Indians won the series, four games to two.
After Feller turned 30, his strikeout totals declined dramatically. But he remained effective. On July 1, 1951, he pitched another no-hitter, this time against Detroit. That season was the last of six in which he would lead the league in wins. In 1952, however, he won only nine games and lost 13 and struck out only 81 batters.
In 1954, Feller was the fifth starter on an Indians team that won 111 games behind tremendous pitching. Feller won 13 games and lost only three, but he did not pitch in the World Series, in which the Giants swept Cleveland. Feller would win only four more games before retiring in 1956.
One constant in Feller's career was his determination to play and earn victories for his team. He was a workhorse who could be depended upon to keep his team in the game. Besides his three no-hitters, he hurled 12 one-hitters during his career.
Injuries didn't stop him. "I only hurt my arm once, in 1937," he said in an interview. "I slipped on the mound throwing a curve ball at League Park. It hurt my elbow. Mother Nature took care of it. I didn't have to have surgery." He also missed the All-Star Game in 1947 after slipping on the mound and hurting his knee—the injury which put strain on his arm and diminishing his effectiveness.
Personal problems couldn't keep Feller from taking his turn in the pitching rotation. His first wife battled alcoholism and drug addiction, and Feller was unable to help her. But the tragedy didn't distract him from baseball. His second marriage was more stable and enduring. Throughout his life, Feller was a close friend of Ronald Reagan, whom he had first gotten to know when the future president was a sports announcer in Iowa.
Feller was easily elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Later, his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, built him a museum. At Jacobs Field in Cleveland, there is a large statue of Feller, the most successful pitcher in Indians history. Had he played in New York, his fame no doubt would have been much greater.
Baseball historians often speculate what Feller's career numbers might have looked like had he not lost almost four full seasons to World War II during the prime of his career. In the four seasons before the war and the three seasons after it, Feller won 158 games, an average of 23 per year, and struck out 1,715 batters, an average of 245 a season. If four additional seasons with those averages were added into Feller's career totals, he would have finished with 351 wins—the eighth-best in baseball history—and 3,502 strikeouts, which would be ninth on the all-time list and second only to Walter Johnson among pitchers who retired before 1960.
Despite the impact on his career, Feller never complained about the years lost to the war. He remained as proud of his military service as he was about his baseball career. His celebrity as a teenager and young adult didn't leave him with a swelled head, either. Feller was dependable, unflappable, and a solid, unassuming competitor who didn't draw attention to himself. His terrifying fastball did most of the talking for him.
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Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1990.
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"Myth Busters," The Benjamin Rose Institute, http://www.benrose.org/myth/feller.asp.