100 Greatest Indians: Bob Feller
Iowa right-hander built HOF career with fastball
In 2003, a panel of writers, historians and baseball officials got together and named the "100 Greatest Indians," and the organization then held a season-long celebration in honor of the men who made the team.
Those men will be honored and their feats chronicled in an ongoing series. Each month a story will appear that takes fans back through memory lane, as one by one the legends of Cleveland baseball have their stories told.
Here is the first of those 100 stories.
Bob Feller was raw and wild when he stepped off a farm in Van Meter, Iowa, and put on an Indians uniform in 1936.
"If it hadn't been for baseball," he was quoted as saying in sportswriter Russell Schneider's "Tales from the Tribe Dugout." "I probably would have spent my life picking corn in Iowa, and I've got my father to thank for that."
But the 17-year-old farm boy didn't take long to show the world he was a special ballplayer.
For 16 seasons, Feller and his fastball proved a dominant force in the game.
"I just reared back and let 'em go," he once said.
He put it too simply. Yet that was vintage Feller.
Yes, "Rapid Robert," as Feller was often called, was talented; nobody can dispute that fact. He was also opinionated, mulish and fiercely competitive, three traits that ensured he'd take his mid-90s fastball and ride it to greatness.
The ride was a joyous one for Feller and the Indians fans who followed his Hall of Fame career. He treated them to the best pitching they'd ever see at Municipal Stadium, and for that, he justly earned selection as one of the "100 Greatest Indians."
But it might be an injustice to call Feller just one of 100. Poke and prod at his career statistics and you find a player who should be ranked in the top five, if not No. 1 overall.
He pitched three no-hitters in his career, and if that's not an indication of his dominance, how about this figure: Feller pitched 12 one-hitters.
But as much as those kinds of statistics are to be applauded, Feller took more pride in his patriotism. During World War II, he refused to accept the deferment that President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Major Leaguers.
After the 1941 season, Feller, then 22, enlisted in the Navy, where he saw action in the Pacific. In standing behind the war effort, he made a decision to put country in front of his career. He never regretted his decision, though the war took prime years out of Feller's career.
In 1946, he returned to baseball after the war. He looked as if he was in top form. Still a bit wild, he seemed to have lost nothing on his fastball, which was reportedly clocked that season at 98.6 mph.
"Where the ball went was up to heaven," he once said. "Sometimes I threw the ball clean up into the stands."
And sometimes he threw his fastball right down the heart of home plate. Then on occasion, he mixed in a sharp-breaking curveball.
"Every time I thought I had Feller's fastball timed, he would blink at me and once of those big overhand curves of his would come out of the white shirts in center field and I'd be out again," Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was quoted as saying in Bill James and Bob Neyer's "The Guide to Pitchers."
In essence, Rizzuto was putting into words what the statistics of the time showed: The hitters never had a chance, which helped explain why 2,581 of them witnessed a third strike from Feller.
Those numbers do more than suggest that Feller wasn't just one of the all-time great Indians; he was one of the all-time great players.
Such high praise befit Feller, who was never shy of saying he was great at throwing a baseball. To many people, that'll be his legacy, which he guards. He doesn't just guard his legacy, though; he guards the legacy of the game itself.
No sport is more American than baseball, he'd say. Nobody cares more about its integrity than Feller. Nobody sees more connections between life and baseball than him.
"Every day is a new opportunity," Feller once said. "You can build on yesteryear's success, or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is."
Games Starts Innings Wins Losses K Walks ERA 570 484 3,827 266 162 2,581 1,764 3.25
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.