On the worst days, being a baseball beat writer is a great job. But there are some days that really stand out.
It has been my good fortune to shake the hand of Ted Williams, ask some questions of Mickey Mantle and sit next to Stan Musial in the press box at a spring training game one afternoon. Shared an elevator with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron once asked to borrow my pen. He walked away with it, too.
Then there was one memorable morning in Winter Haven, Fla., a few years ago. The Indians used to have spring training at dusty old Chain O’ Lakes Park and when I arrived early for a game, there were two people playing catch on the infield.
One was an old man wearing a baggy Indians uniform. The other was a teenager in shorts and a t-shirt. It was Bob Feller and his grandson.
I believe Feller was 89 then and he could still chuck the ball with some authority. But he got tired after a while and sat in the dugout, asking Joe Torre and some of the Yankees players to sign a few balls for him. He talked about having faced Lou Gehrig.
Everybody called him Mr. Feller, even the players. How could you not?
I’d like to tell you Feller was a kindly old guy. But to be honest, he had edge. He thought modern players were overpaid and spoiled and he wasn’t afraid to tell you that. He had opinions and wasn’t shy about sharing them.
Then he sat at a table in the stands and signed autographs for everybody who wanted one. They were free, unless of course you felt compelled to donate $5 to the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa. Based on the money in the box he had, most folks felt compelled.
Feller, as you probably have heard, passed away earlier this evening at the age of 92. He pitched in the big leagues when he was 17, enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and stuck out 348 batters in 1946. He wasn’t just a Hall of Famer, he was a legend.
I never saw him pitch. But it was pretty cool to watch him play catch once.
My friend Tyler Kepner wrote a piece about seeing Feller that day for the Times back in 2007. It’s a great read.