December 15, 2010
Bob Feller, who came off an Iowa farm with a dazzling fastball that made him a national celebrity at 17 and propelled him to the Hall of Fame as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, died Wednesday at a hospice. He was 92.
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The New York Times
Bob Feller in 1940.
His death was announced on Major League Baseball’s Web site. He announced in August 2010 that he was being treated for leukemia. He had recently been treated at the Cleveland Clinic for pneumonia.
Joining the Cleveland Indians in 1936, Feller became baseball’s biggest draw since Babe Ruth, throwing pitches that batters could barely see — fastballs approaching 100 miles an hour and curveballs and sinkers that fooled the sharpest eyes. He was Rapid Robert in the sports pages. As Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez was said to have remarked after three Feller pitches blew by him, “That last one sounded a little low.”
A high-kicking right-hander, Feller was a major league phenomenon while still in high school in Van Meter, Iowa. His debut as an Indians starter, during his summer vacation, was spectacular: he struck out 15 batters.
Three weeks later he struck out 17, tying Dizzy Dean’s major league record. He pitched a no-hitter, the first of three in his 18-year career, when he was 21. (He went on to throw an astonishing 12 one-hitters.) He had more than 100 victories at age 22.
By the end of his brief rookie season, Feller was the best-known young person in America, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple. When he returned for his senior year at Van Meter High School, the governor of Iowa attended a welcome-home ceremony. When the 1937 season opened, Feller’s picture was on the cover of Time magazine. And when he graduated from high school in June of that year (he had been tutored while on road trips), NBC Radio carried the ceremony nationwide.
Feller was not particularly big — 6 feet tall and a chunky 185 pounds — but by most estimations he threw harder than anyone who had ever pitched, except perhaps Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove.
Feller’s career predated the use of radar guns to measure a pitch’s speed, but he was nonetheless able to show exactly how fast he was in a demonstration in August 1946, when he threw 30 pitches through the hole of a photoelectric device before a game in Washington. They averaged 98.6 miles an hour.
“I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does,” Joe DiMaggio was quoted as saying during his epic 1941 season, when he hit in a record 56 consecutive games. “And his curveball isn’t human.”
Feller capitalized on his fame.During the late 1940s, the average major league salary barely exceeded $10,000, and only DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams reached $100,000. Feller, in a 1990 memoir, said he earned more than $100,000 in 1946, drawing on a base salary of $50,000 in addition to incentives tied to victories and attendance; the profits from endorsements, most notably for Wheaties and Wilson sporting goods; and the proceeds of a barnstorming tour in which he led major league stars in games against top players from the Negro leagues. His total income climbed to $150,000 the next year, he said.
Feller set a record, since broken, for most strikeouts in a game (18) and struck out 2,581 batters in his career. His three no-hitters included the only one ever thrown on opening day. He led the American League in victories six times and in strikeouts seven times.
Feller entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 with Jackie Robinson; they were the first to do so in their first year of eligibility since the inaugural inductions 23 years earlier.
Back in 1945, Feller, always outspoken, had created a controversy involving Robinson soon after Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization to break baseball’s color barrier. After pitching against Robinson in California on a postseason barnstorming tour, Feller told a reporter in Los Angeles that Robinson was too muscle-bound to handle major league pitching and expressed doubt that Robinson would be considered for the big leagues if he were white.
Feller eventually acknowledged that he had been mistaken, but it appears he never expressed regrets directly to Robinson. He did say that he had taken pride in giving black players exposure through his barnstorming tours. And in his memoir, “Now Pitching, Bob Feller,” written with Bill Gilbert, he said it had been “extra meaningful” for him go into the Hall of Fame “with major league baseball’s first black player.” Robinson, in turn, said it was a pleasure to be inducted with Feller.
Feller won 266 games in his 18 seasons, all with the Indians, but military service in World War II interrupted his career in his prime and might have deprived him of 100 more victories.
“I know in my heart I would have ended up a lot closer to 400 than 300 if I hadn’t spent four seasons in the Navy,” Feller once said. “But don’t take that as a complaint. I’m happy that I got home in one piece.”
Robert William Feller was born on Nov. 3, 1918, in Van Meter — population 300 — and grew up nearby on a farm where his father, Bill, devoted himself to hogs, wheat and corn, but most of all to raising a ballplayer.
Bill Feller and his son listened to live broadcasts of Cubs games from Chicago and to re-creations on WHO Radio in Des Moines by a fledgling sportscaster named Ronald Reagan.
The father played catch with his son, bought him a Rogers Hornsby model glove and a flannel baseball uniform, and built a batting cage. When Bob was 12, his father leveled pasture land to create a ballpark, complete with bleachers and scoreboard, and formed a team to showcase Bob against players in their late teens and 20s.
“My father loved baseball and he cultivated my talent,” Feller told Donald Honig in his 1975 oral history, “Baseball When the Grass Was Real.” “I don’t think he ever had any doubt in his mind that I would play professional baseball someday.”
Feller was soon blazing the ball past batters in high school and American Legion baseball, and in July 1935 the Indians scout Cy Slapnicka arrived on the Feller farm and signed him at 16. Because Feller wanted to keep playing high school baseball and basketball, the signing was kept a secret. The contract was for a nominal $1 and a baseball autographed by Cleveland players.
Mr. Feller delivered a pitch in a 1948 game against the Boston Braves.
Keep up with the latest news on The Times’s baseball blog.
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Mr. Feller in 1943, when he was a Navy captain.
The New York Times
Bob Feller in 1938.
After Feller’s junior year, his signing was a secret no longer. He joined the Indians for the summer of 1936, and on July 6, four months before his 18th birthday, he struck out 8 of the 12 batters he faced in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals’ heralded Gashouse Gang. Then came his 15-strikeout game against the St. Louis Browns in his first major league start and his record-tying 17-strikeout game against the Philadelphia Athletics.
But in the autumn of 1936, the Indians almost lost Feller. The owner of the independent Des Moines minor league team, which had coveted him, contended that Feller had been acquired by the Indians in violation of baseball rules that governed the signing of amateurs. The baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, could have made Feller a free agent who would have commanded huge contract offers in a bidding frenzy. But Feller wanted to stay with the Indians, and his father threatened to sue if Landis did not allow that. The commissioner permitted the Indians to keep Feller, and in January 1937 he signed a one-year contract with them for only $10,000. He would never spend a day in the minor leagues.
In the 1938 season, Feller threw a one-hitter against the Browns in his first start and struck out 18 Detroit Tigers on the season’s final day, breaking the single-game record he shared with Dean.
He pitched his opening-day no-hitter on April 16, 1940, stifling the Chicago White Sox, 1-0, at Comiskey Park. He won 27 games that season but was bested by a little-known Tigers rookie named Floyd Giebell on the final weekend as Detroit, which won the pennant, knocked the Indians out of the race.
Two days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy. He pitched during the spring of 1942 for the Norfolk Naval Training Station team in Virginia, then requested sea duty. After attending gunnery school, he joined the crew of the battleship Alabama in September 1942 and served as chief of a 24-man antiaircraft battery in the North Atlantic and during eight amphibious invasions in the Pacific.
When he returned from the war, he was better than ever, developing a sinker to go with his fastball and curve. He threw his second no-hitter, at Yankee Stadium, in April 1946, and struck out 348 batters that season, listed at the time as a major league record, eclipsing Rube Waddell’s 343 for the Athletics in 1904. (Waddell’s total was subsequently revised to 349.)
When the Indians won the 1948 American League pennant — their first in 28 years — Feller finally achieved his dream of pitching in a World Series. But he lost the opener to the Boston Braves, 1-0, yielding the only run after he had apparently picked catcher Phil Masi off second base, only to have Umpire Bill Stewart rule him safe. The Indians won in six games, but Feller was routed in his only other start in the Series.
Feller pitched his third no-hitter in July 1951, against the Tigers, tying the major league record held by Cy Young and Larry Corcoran. But he had injured his right shoulder during the 1947 season, and after that he was never the strikeout pitcher he had been.
During the 1950s, Feller served as the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and helped draw up a new player pension plan.
When the Indians won a league-record 111 games in 1954, Feller was their fourth starter, after Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia. He did not pitch in the World Series, in which the Indians were swept by the New York Giants, and his dream of winning a Series game went unfulfilled.
Feller retired after the 1956 season with a career record of 266-162.
For the rest of his life, Feller spoke his mind, denouncing baseball stars enveloped in the steroids scandal, criticizing Pete Rose for lying when he denied betting on baseball, objecting to Muhammad Ali’s throwing out the first ball at the 2004 All-Star Game because of Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, and maintaining that the United States had not used enough force to subdue the enemy in Iraq.
Feller remained a familiar face, making promotional appearances on tours of minor league cities and tutoring Indians pitchers during spring training. He was happy to sign autographs, often for a small contribution to the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.
In June 2009, at 90, Feller donned an Indians jersey and pitched to three batters in the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame Classic, a game in Cooperstown, N.Y., between former major leaguers.
Feller’s records for single-game strikeouts and career no-hitters would be broken. But his reputation remained undimmed.
When professional baseball celebrated its 100th anniversary at the All-Star Game festivities in 1969, Feller was honored as the game’s greatest living right-handed pitcher.
Feller considered Ted Williams the fiercest batter he ever faced. “Trying to sneak a fastball by Ted Williams was like trying to sneak a sunbeam by a rooster in the morning,” Feller said in a videotaped interview that accompanies this obituary online.
But Williams had paid Feller a personal tribute every time he was about to face him, preparing himself psychologically by repeating Feller’s name over and over.
“That was the test,” Williams remembered in David Halberstam’s book “Summer of ’49.” “He was the best, and I wanted to be the best, and three days before he pitched I would start thinking Robert Feller, Bob Feller.”
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
his primary challenge = BF = 26 = Popularity. Celebrity. Photos. In the news.
the most important thing he can do and what he must do/had to do both = BE = 25 = Excitement. Thrilling. Rooting for the underdog.
how he appeared to the world and what he liked both = BL = 23 = Sports. Athlete. Athletic. In shape. A real go-getter.
how he obtained his heart’s desire = BR = 29 = Self-confidence. Self-assurance. Coordination. Adept. Skills. Talents. Competence. Expertise. Specialty. Combine. Teamwork. Cooperation.