Bob Feller was the Cleveland Indians.
Make that, Feller was and always will be the man most associated with the franchise, even with his passing at the age of 92 on Wednesday night due to complications from leukemia. Feller -- starting at 17 years old -- spent all 18 seasons of his Major League career as part of the Indians, finishing with 266 wins.
But his impact on the organization went far deeper than his on-field accomplishments. He was a friend and advisor to Indians players, coaches and management alike, and was a representative of the city where he played. Those sentiments were expressed Wednesday by numerous people involved with the Indians, both past and present, and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who issued a statement on Feller's passing:
"I am saddened by the loss of Hall of Famer Bob Feller, truly one of the game's all-time great pitchers. He made his first big league start with the Cleveland Indians as a 17-year-old in 1936 and struck out 15 batters. That marked the beginning of 18 remarkable seasons during which he became baseball's undisputed strikeout king, leading the American League seven times, and a model of durability. Known as 'Rapid Robert,' he posted six 20-win seasons, threw three no-hitters, and led the Indians to the World Series crown in 1948.
"More impressive than his vast accomplishments on the field was being part of 'The Greatest Generation.' Bob was one of the first Major Leaguers to enlist following Pearl Harbor and served our country for nearly four years during the prime of his career. Bob Feller was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost a great American. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Bob's family, friends, the Cleveland Indians' franchise, and all of his fans."
"He will always be Cleveland and will always be the Cleveland Indians," said Rick Manning, the one-time Indians player and current broadcaster. "I will miss him, as he is a piece of history. When you mention greatest baseball players of all-time, he has to be mentioned."
"There has never been a great one with such an affiliation to his original franchise," Indians manager Manny Acta said of Feller. "When you think Cleveland Indians, you think Bob Feller, and vice versa. He was a genuine patriot and a big-time Hall of Famer. Boy, he loved the Indians, and we all loved him back."
Feller threw three no-hitters, including the only Opening Day no-hitter in Major League history on April 16, 1940. He had 12 one-hitters, 44 shutouts, and in 1946, he pitched 36 complete games.
Nineteen of Feller's 266 wins came in 1948, when the Indians last won a World Series championship. Feller's Cleveland legacy lived on long past his postseason success.
"The Indians of the 40s and 50s were the face of the city of Cleveland and Bob was the face of the Indians," said Indians broadcaster Mike Hegan, who also is the son of Feller's former batterymate and Indians great Jim Hegan.
"But Bob transcended more than that era. In this day of free agency and switching teams, Bob Feller remained loyal to the city and the team for over 70 years. You will likely not see that kind of mutual loyalty and admiration ever again."
"Bob was that rare man whose legend and feats were matched by his intellect, strength and substance," Indians president Mark Shapiro said.
"He was inspirational as a competitor and even more so as a man. I was privileged to have known him, and each time I visited with him he reinforced my passion for baseball and my appreciation of the Indians' heritage."
Shapiro's sentiment certainly was shared by others who knew Feller. Not only was Feller able to talk about the Indians, but he also shared great baseball knowledge in general, and always spoke with pride about his time served in the Navy.
Feller enlisted the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and immediately volunteered for combat service, becoming the first Major League player to do so. When Feller once was asked what was the most important game he ever won, he responded, "World War II."
"Nothing was more important to Bob than this country and what it stands for," said Tom Hamilton, the voice of the Indians for the past 20 years. "Of all of his accomplishments, he was most proud of the fact that he served this country with honor during World War II."
Hamilton added how Feller reminded people he was no hero. The heroes were those who lost their lives defending this country.
"I was always amazed at his incredible recall when reminiscing about his career," Hamilton said. "It was like you were back in time reliving those great moments. Bob was a living legend, but more importantly, a true American Patriot. I feel very blessed to have known Bob these last 21 years. Bob was truly an iconic figure who always made you feel like a friend."
"Ever since I joined the Indians organization, it was always an honor to talk baseball with such a legend," Indians Hall of Famer Charles Nagy said of Feller.
"It is very sad to lose someone that was such a Cleveland icon. We also had a connection with the University of Connecticut, and I enjoyed talking Huskies basketball with him on a regular basis. He was a presence that will surely be missed."
Details on a public memorial service for Feller will be announced in the near future. Fans can visit indians.com/feller for a tribute to Feller and the opportunity to share their thoughts and memories regarding the Indians legend.
Feller will always be remembered for his pitching prowess with the Indians. But the Hall of Famer belonged just as much to baseball as a whole, and the entire country.
"We have all lost a friend and the nation has lost an icon," Indians Hall of Famer and former Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said of Feller. "Bob was always there with a word of advice or a story of baseball's past. The thing is that they were always relevant and helpful.
"I will never forget before the first game of the '97 World Series, Bob came up to me and patted me on the back and told me how proud he was of me and the team, then gave me a buckeye and said it was for luck. I don't think that Bob ever believed in luck, just hard work and an honest effort. I will miss Bob very much. He was my friend."