Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bob Feller, 1918-2010

I met Robert William Andrew Feller once. On June 6, 1994, he came to Mercer County Waterfront Park in Trenton, New Jersey. It was the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion in World War II, and a salute to veterans was being held. That ended up being all that was held that day, as the game ended up being rained out. The Trenton Thunder, in its first season in the Double-A Eastern League (and, as it turned out, the former London Tigers' last season as a farm team of the Detroit Tigers), did not play that night.

Bob Feller, 75 years old at the time, greeted fans and signed autographs in full Cleveland Indians uniform -- the current one, not a version of any of the designs he wore for that team from 1936 to 1956. He was no "grumpy old man" that night. He was completely gracious, a sterling example of what a retired athlete and an old military man should be.

Rapid Robert was born on November 3, 1918, in the small rural town of Van Meter, Iowa, and, after Indian scout Cy Slapnicka responded to the letters of Feller's father and was amazed that the father was telling the truth about the son's amazing pitching ability, debuted with the Indians in 1936.

It was the latter period of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his 2nd term as President. Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, sent troops into the Rhineland, a part of Germany neighboring France and declared off-limits to German troops as part of the Treaty of Versailles that set the terms of punishment for Germany's aggression in World War I. Edward VIII was in the middle of his 11-month reign as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Emperor of India; he had become King upon the death of his father, George V, and, since he could not marry "the woman I love" and remain on the throne, he would abdicate later that year in favor of his brother, who became King George VI. (The film The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth as George VI, premieres tomorrow and will touch on this story.)

There were no nonwhite players in baseball. There was no artificial turf. No stadiums with domes, retractable or otherwise. Only Crosley Field in Cincinnati had artificial lighting and could host night games. The 3 New York teams didn't even broadcast their games over the radio, and television was just an experiment at this point. There were no major league teams south of Washington, Cincinnati or St. Louis; and, except for the 2 teams in St. Louis, whose Sportsman's Park was 2 miles in, no teams west of the Mississippi River.

In his first season, Bob Feller tied Dizzy Dean's major league record with 17 strikeouts in a game. It was a big deal. It was a bigger deal because 17 was also his age. In 1984 and '85, Met fans would be amazed at what Dwight Gooden could do at age 19 and 20. Feller was doing pretty much the same things... at 17. What were you doing at age 17? I certainly wasn't striking out 17 big-leaguers at that age. When Frank Sinatra, nearly 30 years later, sang, "When I was 17, it was a very good year," he could have been singing Bob Feller's song.

In 1938, Feller broke that record -- his and Dean's strikeout standard, not Sinatra's 45-RPM single (Sinatra wouldn't debut as a recording artist until 1939) -- by striking out 18 in a game. In 1940, in the Indians' first game of the season, he pitched a no-hitter, still the only one ever pitched in a team's first game of the season.

Due to his high school commitments -- yes, high school -- 1938 was his first full season. Here's how he did in his first 4 full seasons, 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941; ages 19, 20, 21 and 22: 17-11, 24-9, 27-11 and 25-13. His ERAs in those seasons? 4.08 (admittedly, the 1930s were a hitting-happy era, so check out the following numbers), 2.85, 2.61 and 3.15. ERA+, ERA in relation to the rest of the American League? 114, 156, 163 and 125. Strikeouts? He'd have been the first to admit it wasn't the best way to measure a pitcher's effectiveness, but: 240, 246, 261 and 260, each time leading the League. WHIP -- walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched? 1.559, 1.244 (suggesting his control got considerably better once he physically matured and got more work), 1.133 and 1.394. He was named to the AL All-Star Team in each of those 4 seasons. In the last 3, he had finished 3rd, 2nd and 3rd in the voting for the AL's Most Valuable Player.

On November 3, 1941, Bob Feller turned 23. He had the best fastball in baseball (the most accurate measurements of the time said 98 miles per hour, but it was almost certainly hitting 100 regularly), and maybe also the best curveball. Changeup? Slider? Knuckleball? Split-fingered fastball? Cut fastball? He didn't need no stinkin' 3rd pitch.

With Dean and Lefty Grove having retired, Carl Hubbell nearing retirement, and Satchel Paige seen by only a fraction of those fans able to afford to go to baseball games, Bob Feller was recognized by nearly every white baseball fan as the best pitcher in baseball. And he was getting better.

*

On December 7, 1941, an enemy far more insidious than Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, the 2 best hitters of that time, struck. The Japanese air force bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, Bob Feller enlisted in the United States Navy.

He served as a gun captain on board a battleship, the U.S.S. Alabama. Having never attended college, he never became an officer. When World War II ended, he had risen to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. We may never know how many enemy planes, German or Japanese, he shot down, or if he contributed to the sinking of any enemy ships. But at a time when the stakes were higher than in any sporting event, he put himself in a position to do so -- even if it meant dying in said position. And he left the Indians at a time when his salary was $30,000, one of the highest in baseball at that point -- about $425,000 in 2010 money.

He was discharged in time to return to the Indians for the end of the 1945 season. In 1946, he pitched his 2nd no-hitter, against the Yankees, went 26-15 (no Indians pitcher has matched that since), and struck out 348 batters. At the time, that was believed to be a major league record, at least since the adoption of the 60 feet, 6 inches pitching distance in 1893. Rube Waddell was credited with 343 Ks with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1904. Later research showed Waddell had 349, so Feller was one short, but it was still the most strikeouts any pitcher had in a major league season from 1904 to 1965, and the most an AL pitcher had from 1904 to 1973.

In 1948, after a close call in 1940, the Indians finally won a Pennant for the first time since 1920. Feller finally got a chance to pitch in a World Series. Fortunately for him, the Indians won it, beating the Boston Braves in 6 games. Unfortunately for him, the 2 games the Indians lost were the 2 games he started, including Game 1 where a controversial call may have cost him the game: He appeared to have picked Phil Masi off 2nd base, but Masi was ruled safe, and then scored the only run of the game.

Feller pitched a 3rd no-hitter in 1951. It would be 1965 before anyone pitched a 4th. He went 22-8, his 6th and last 20-win season. He was 32, but had lost just a little off the amazing fastball. He became one of those "pitch with your head" pitchers. In 1954, now 35 and no longer an ace or even close to it -- the Indians had Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia, and between them they won 65 games -- he went 13-3 and helped the Indians win another Pennant. They got swept in the World Series by the New York Giants, and Feller did not appear in the Series. He did get a ring in 1948, but he never won a World Series game.

His last 2 seasons showed what pitching 3,800 innings, and facing 16,000 batters, can do to an arm. He retired after the 1956 season, just before turning 38. His career records: 266-162, 3.25 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.316 WHIP, and 2,581 strikeouts -- and more walks than any pitcher in history, 1,764, a record later broken by Nolan Ryan.

There was one unfortunate moment in Feller's career: In 1946, having seen film of Jackie Robinson playing his one season of minor-league ball, he said that, due to his physique, closer to that of a football player (which Robinson was, at UCLA, and a very good running back by the standards of 1939 college football), Robinson might not be an effective major league baseball player. In fact, he said, if Robinson were white, he might not even be big-league material.

In 1962, both Feller and Robinson were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, each in his first year of eligibility. Correcting his earlier misjudgment, Feller spent the rest of his life saying he was proud to go into the Hall with Robinson.

In 1957, Feller's Number 19 became the first uniform number retired by the Indians. In 1994, a statue of him was dedicated outside the left field entrance to the Indians' new ballpark, Jacobs Field. In 1995, the Bob Feller Museum opened in Van Meter, designed by his son, architect Stephen Feller.

In 1999, The Sporting News named him Number 36 on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. This ranked him 3rd among players who spent their best years with the Cleveland Indians, behind Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie. It ranked him 12th among all pitchers; among those in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era, it ranked him 8th, behind Satchel Paige (whose brief big-league career included being Feller's teammate on the '48 World Champions), Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver -- so only Paige, Gibson and Seaver outranked him among modern-era righthanders. It ranked him 5th among players of his generation, behind Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Warren Spahn -- meaning only Spahn outranked him among pitchers in his generation, and no righthanded pitcher of his generation did.

All this despite missing 4 years in service to his country. He always insisted that he wouldn't trade his 4 years in the Navy for 4 successful years in baseball.

What if he had been exempt from the draft? Well, keep in mind, he enlisted before he could be drafted. But he was averaging 25 wins and 250 strikeouts in the 3 years before he went in, and won 26 and fanned 348 in his first full season back. Chances are, instead of 266 wins -- still the most in Indians' history -- he would have had somewhere around 363, matching Spahn's total for the most among 20th Century pitchers, and more than Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, the only pitchers since Spahn to top 350 -- or even 330. And he almost certainly would have broken what was then the all-time strikeout record, the 3,508 by Walter Johnson.

In 2008, Bob Feller appeared at the All-Star Game at the old Yankee Stadium, as one of 49 players already in the Hall of Fame on hand, the largest group of HOFers ever gathered together outside of the Hall's location of Cooperstown, New York. It may have been his last appearance in a big-league ballpark. A full house of 57,000, most of whom knew him only from his name, some stats, old film clips and the occasional television interview -- gave him a standing ovation. Not just because he was Bob Feller, HOF, but also because he was Bob Feller, CPO, USN.

Bob Feller died yesterday. He was 92 years old. At ease, sir.

No comments: