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Globe Editorial

Feller: A fastball without stitches

December 17, 2010

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Bob Feller, who died this week at 92, embodied an almost mythic American type. He was the Iowa farm boy who learned to pitch on a ball field built by his father, was signed by the Cleveland Indians out of high school, threw fastballs harder (and often wilder) than anyone had ever seen, enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor, and returned home in 1945 to resume being the most dominating pitcher in baseball until the mid-1950s.

He was also an anachronism: A fireballer whose legendary fastball wasn’t preserved by arm surgery or pitch counts. Feller’s was an era before night games, relief pitchers jogging out of the bullpen from the sixth inning on, and that fountain of youth known as the Tommy John procedure.

In Feller’s era, major league pitchers were the winners of a Darwinian struggle for survival. Surgeons then were not able to pluck a tendon from the wrist, thread it into the elbow, and make it serve as a ligament enabling a sore-armed pitcher to recover his best form after a season or two.

The teenage Feller suffered a little arm trouble in 1936 and 1937, just to prove he was human, but by 1946 he was finishing 36 of the 42 games he started. Fans who saw him pitch cannot forget the left leg lifted to the chin, the tremendous torque of his delivery, and the ball whistling to the plate at 107 miles per hour. He was real enough to the hitters who faced him, but in the record books he is going to look like an implausible fictional invention.