I’ve often imagined that if I could be one 20th-century American athlete it would be Smoky Joe Wood in 1912. But it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to have been Bob Feller in 1940. Or 1946.
Because to be Bob Feller in those years was to be the baseball equivalent of the heavyweight champ. There were many fine pitchers in those days, just as there were many fine boxers not named Joe Louis. But Joe Louis was boxing to the average person. He was the one and only Heavyweight Champeen of Da Woild and he didn’t just defeat opponents; he knocked people out! Likewise, in Bob Feller’s heyday he was pitching to the average baseball fan. He owned the preeminent fastball in the world, and he didn’t just retire batters; he blew them away!
They say Bob Feller died last night at age 92, but I’m going to need some convincing. Bob Feller was ornery, cantankerous, and extraordinarily opinionated, and he was Iowa farm tough. It’s hard for me to believe a little thing like leukemia could get Bob Feller out. I would have sworn it would at least have to be a nuclear weapon landing at his feet. I see him buzzing one under St. Peter’s chin right now.
I feel safe in saying that Bob Feller had a unique career. There were younger players in the annals of baseball, but none more productive. He was no wartime accident of history, such as lefthanded pitcher Joe Nuxhall or shortstop Tommy Brown, who were 15 and 16 years of age, respectively, when the Reds and Dodgers employed them in 1944. No, Bob Feller was elevated to the Cleveland Indians at age 17 in 1936 because he belonged there.
Baseball was in its complete dominance as the unquestioned national pastime in 1936, and the Indians were not a sad-sack team, either. Into this world stepped Bob Feller, a farm boy from Van Meter, Iowa, whose father, Bill, had long ago decided was destined to be a major league pitcher, and who helped make it happen by building a full-sized baseball field, complete with seating, on his property. This baseball Mozart introduced himself to the American public at large by striking out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first major league start two months in advance of his 18th birthday.
Arm trouble hampered him during his first two years, but he made a huge statement in September 1936 when he tied Dizzy Dean’s major league record of 17 strikeouts in a game. He went 17-11 in 1938, and on the last day of the season he separated himself from the pack by fanning 18 Tigers to set a mark that would last until Sandy Koufax came along a couple of generations later.
Those first three years were the appetizer seasons. The main course in Bob Feller’s career began in 1939, when he was 20. He went 24-9 with a 2.85 ERA, the beginning of a dazzling three-year run in which he went 76-33, leading the league in strikeouts each season and walks twice. He led the league in both 1939 and 1940 with 6.9 hits per nine innings. He averaged 320 innings per season.
Note the strikeout/walk juxtaposition. Bob Feller led the league in strikeouts seven times and in walks four times. The base on balls totals didn’t bother his managers because the fear of his high 90s fastball and crackling curveball were all they cared about. He was, as they liked to say in those days, “pleasingly wild.’’
Bob Feller turned 23 on Nov. 3, 1941. He was the best pitcher in baseball. No pitcher since Lefty Grove in 1929-31 had put together a comparable three-year period of dominance (Lefty had a positively sick six-year roll of 152-41 from 1928-33). There was every reason to think he was on his way to becoming the greatest righthanded pitcher in history.
And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Bob Feller was no different than millions of his countrymen. Those two hours changed his life forever. He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 9, 1941, and the next time he appeared in a major league game was Aug. 24, 1945.
Like many other jocks, he played his share of baseball while in uniform, but he also served the better part of three years aboard the U.S.S. Alabama — his request to be assigned to the U.S.S. Iowa was rejected — a vessel he described in the 1950 ghostwritten autobiography “Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story’’ as “a mighty battlewagon of 35 tons.’’ (Incidentally, I must have read that book, coauthored by Cleveland baseball scribe Gordon Cobbledick, 10 times when I was a lad.) He was given charge of a 24-member anti-aircraft gun crew, and he spent the bulk of his time in the Pacific Theatre.
What happened to Bob Feller was hardly unique. Hundreds of big league ballplayers had careers interrupted, altered, or downright ruined by serving in World War II. The least important fallout imaginable was the inability of a Ted Williams to hit more homers or a Bob Feller to strike out more people, and you never heard any one of them complain about serving in WWII.
Would it have been nice for Bob Feller to have won the 95 or so games he would have, absent the war, and thus have won 361 games instead of the 266 he retired with? Would it have been nice to add 900 or even 1,000 more strikeouts to his career total of 2,581?
Well, sure, but in the end, what does it matter? What matters is a legacy, and he nailed it down for good with his 1946 season. The numbers read like baseball science fiction. He was 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA, completing 36 of 42 starts. He had 10 shutouts. He struck out a major league-record 348. He threw a ridiculous 371 1/3 innings. He no-hit the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, the second of his three career no-nos (to go with 12 one-hitters), the first, in 1940, still baseball’s only Opening Day no-hitter.
He pitched until 1956, winning 20 twice more for the only team he would ever play for, getting his only ring in 1948 and having his last good season in 1954, when he went 13-3 on that wonderful 111-43 pennant-winning squad. Losing those wins and those strikeouts to WWII didn’t keep him from being elected to the Hall of Fame with a 93.8 percent vote in 1962.
He was always good and tight with a buck, barnstorming endlessly as a player and then spending much of his later years going around the country giving clinics and taking on gigs in which he would sign autographs and books and pitch to the locals. Count me among the many who can say he batted against the great Bob Feller. He fed me a curve one night in Lynn and I popped it up. He last took the mound at age 90, no kidding.
He was a fixture in the Cleveland press box, answering questions from anyone. He was Old School to the max. The modern players were no good, overpaid and ungrateful, etc., etc., etc. He didn’t suffer the fools all that gladly, but, hey, he was no phony. He was Bob Feller and he was supremely comfortable in his skin.
I’ll tell you what he was. He was real. He was one of the greatest pitchers of all time, he was a red, white, and blue Patriot who had put it on the line in the Big One and he did things his way.
Bob Feller no longer with us? Yeah, right.