© 2010 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
CLEVELAND -- If anybody could succinctly sum up the beauty of baseball and its metaphoric meanings, Bob Feller could.
"Every day is a new opportunity," Feller once said. "You can build on yesterday'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."
Feller certainly made the most of his days, be it on an Iowa farm, where he learned the value of hard work; on the mound, where he staked his claim to his rightful place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame; on the USS Alabama, where he served his country in World War II; or here in Cleveland, where he lived out his days as a regular attendee of his beloved Indians' home games.
The time, sadly, has come for Feller to rest. He passed away Wednesday at the age of 92 after bouts with leukemia and pneumonia. He was baseball's third-oldest living Hall of Famer, behind Lee MacPhail and Bobby Doerr, and arguably the greatest right-hander the game ever saw.
As if to prove that latter point, Feller's talents remained on display almost until his dying day. He was a regular at the Indians' annual winter Fantasy Camp, and he tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at nearly all of the Tribe's home Spring Training games.
And when he wasn't throwing the ball, the man they called "Rapid Robert" talked it. Sometimes, his comments caused controversy, because Feller was nothing if not brutally honest in his assessments. But more than anything, he was a true ambassador for the game, a vital and vigorous link between baseball's distant past and its present.
His story has ended now, but what a story it was. Feller's was an American tale almost too good to be true.
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It was in Van Meter, Iowa, off a dirt road known as 340th Trail and on the farm owned by his father, William, where Feller, who was born on Nov. 3, 1918, first fell in love with the game that would make him a legend.
On the Fellers' property sat a red barn, stocked with corn, oats and bailed hay. It was outside that barn where Feller and his father would play catch on warm days and inside it where they'd play catch on the cold ones, with little Robert keeping his throws low enough to avoid hitting the overhang. At dusk, Feller's mother, Lena, would call out for father and son to come inside for dinner.
"I'd say, 'Hey mom, you can eat after dark,'" Feller recalled a few years back, "'but you can't play ball after dark!'"
The Fellers played on, regardless of the elements. One day, William pulled a gasoline generator out of the basement of the family home, powered it up with 32 batteries and used it to spark the light bulbs that illuminated his son's twilight practices.
Behold, baseball's first night game.
And where Kevin Costner once made a movie about building a ballfield on an Iowa farm, the Fellers lived it. When Bob was 13, he and his father went to work on the field that would come to be known as Oak View Park. They cut down 20 trees to make posts for the backstop, graded the infield and even constructed a small concession stand. That field became home to pickup games and organized tournaments for several years, with the Fellers charging folks 25 cents to attend, raising money for the maintenance fees.
"My dad and I were the groundskeepers," Feller would say proudly.
Feller's role in the construction and the upkeep of the field tells us as much about his development into an elite arm as his participation in the games themselves. His duties at the field and on the farm sculpted his powerful and muscular right arm, which would deliver a triple-digit fastball that came to be known as "The Heater From Van Meter."
It was that pitch that caught the eye of superscout Cy Slapnicka in the summer of 1935. Working for the Indians, Slapnicka was in Iowa to see a pitcher by the name of Claude Passeau, but an American Legion umpire tipped him off about Feller.
Slapnicka rearranged his morning schedule to watch Feller pitch in a tournament in Des Moines, and he was glad he did. He never bothered to go watch Passeau. He signed Feller for $1 and a baseball autographed by the Indians.
The canceled check for $1 sits in Feller's museum in Van Meter. Nobody knows what happened to the ball.
When summer was over, the 17-year-old Feller headed into his junior year of high school. The following spring, he was assigned to the Tribe's farm team in Fargo-Moorehead, transferred to the New Orleans Pelicans and then sent to Cleveland.
Alas, Feller never set foot in those first two places. Slapnicka had no interest in abiding by baseball's rules. Not with a player of Feller's talent. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, on the other hand, did. And when he caught wind of the Indians' violation, Slapnicka caught the heat. He fibbed to the commish and told him Feller had pitched for those two clubs, but Landis didn't believe a word of it. Yet because of William Feller's insistence that his son pitch for Cleveland, Landis let the matter die after the Tribe forked over a $7,500 fine.
Feller would prove he was worth every penny of that $7,501 total investment.
* * *
Feller's famed career began in 1936, with a short stint pitching semi-pro ball for Rosenbloom's, a men's clothing store on Euclid Avenue. On July 6, the Cardinals came to town for an exhibition, the Monday before the All-Star Game. The Indians asked Feller to pitch the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, and he responded by striking out eight, including Leo Durocher, who didn't even bother to stay in the box for his third strike.
"There's no way I'm going to hit against that wild farmer!" Durocher said.
The Indians were impressed enough to add Feller to their roster coming out of the All-Star break. His first official Major League appearance came in relief, against the Washington Senators on July 19, 1936, and his next five games were also all out of the bullpen.
But on Aug. 23, Feller got his first start, against the St. Louis Browns, and turned in one of the more dazzling starting debuts in history. Relying heavily on his fastball but also using a curve he had been working on since the age of 8, Feller struck out 15 Browns batters that day, establishing a Major League record for a starting debut that stands to this day.
With that, a legend was born. And Feller was well on his way to living out his big league dreams.
"From the time I was 9 years old," he once said, "I never had any idea I'd be doing anything other than being a Major League ballplayer. I did my pushups and my chin-ups, and I pitched to my dad and took groundballs all the time. It was all I worked for."
From Feller's dazzling starting debut came instant celebrity. He returned for his senior year of high school after that 1936 season, and NBC Radio covered his graduation ceremony the following spring. In 1937, he returned to terrorizing opposing hitters with his fastball, which would one day be clocked as high as 107 mph, while learning how to control it in the strike zone.
"There's an old saying: 'If the good Lord didn't put it in you, you can't get it out,'" Feller told the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this year. "God gave me gifts. I was very lucky to have good coordination and good rhythm. But I had to develop what I was given."
* * *
With development, over time, came improvement. Feller went 9-7 in 1937 and 17-11 with an American League-leading 240 strikeouts in '38 before truly establishing himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in 1939, when he led the AL with 24 wins, 24 complete games, 296 2/3 innings and 246 strikeouts.
In 1940, Feller pitched his first of three no-hitters, and he did it on Opening Day, no less. No other pitcher in the game's history has achieved that remarkable feat.
"It's purely luck," Feller would say in his characteristically gruff delivery whenever the topic came up.
If it was luck, then Feller lived a truly charmed existence as he went 27-11 with a 2.61 ERA that season. The following year, he was 25-13 with a 3.15 mark, getting the start for the AL in one of his eight All-Star Game appearances.
And then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. And Feller's life and career were never again the same.
"I was driving to Chicago," he would say of that moment when he first heard the news. "I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to enlist. When I got to Chicago, I called Gene Tunney, head of the Naval Physical Fitness Program. I told him I was ready to sign up to join the Navy."
Major Leaguers were offered a deferment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the time Feller spent in the Navy would become his proudest achievement -- more than anything he ever accomplished on a baseball diamond.
Feller served with distinction from 1941-45, the years that could have stood as his baseball prime. Instead of serving as a leader among 25 ballplayers, he was a gun captain in charge of 25 Navy servicemen aboard the USS Alabama in the Pacific theater. When kamikazes were in sight, Feller pulled the trigger.
Where some might call Feller a hero for his service, he was always quick to correct them.
"I'm no hero," he'd say. "Heroes don't come home from wars. Survivors come home from wars. I'm a survivor."
He survived, and so did his Major League career. Feller returned from the war in '45 and hardly missed a step. The '46 season that followed was simply the best of his career. Rapid Robert went 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA, 36 complete games, 10 shutouts and a career-high 371 1/3 innings and 348 strikeouts in 48 starts.
These numbers look downright comical today, like something out of a video game. But they were Feller at his finest. He would also, it should be noted, toss his second no-hitter that year, an April effort against the Yankees. His last would come five years later, against the Tigers.
It was, perhaps, ironic that one of Feller's more difficult seasons as an individual came in the Indians' best as a team during his 16-year tenure. The 1948 Tribe became embroiled in a three-team race with the Red Sox and Yankees for the AL pennant, but Feller found himself batting a sore back and holding a 9-12 record midsummer. He turned it on when it mattered most, however. When the first-place Red Sox came to town Sept. 22, leading the Indians by a game in the standings, their manager Joe McCarthy promised his club would "beat the brains out of" Feller, and Rapid Robert responded with a three-hitter in a 5-2 win that knotted things up with eight games left to play.
"That was the biggest game I pitched," Feller would say.
He pitched another big one four days later, beating the Tigers to give the Tribe a one-game lead. And he came back on short rest three days after that to beat the White Sox, giving the Indians a two-game advantage with three to pay. His impressive run finally ended on the final day of the regular season, when he was knocked out of a potential clincher against the Tigers and the Indians lost, setting up a one-game tiebreaker in Boston. The Indians went on to win that game to clinch their first World Series berth since 1920.
In Game 1 of the Series against the Boston Braves, Feller had a two-hit gem thwarted by a controversial call, when umpire Bill Stewart missed Feller's pickoff of Phil Masi at second base and Masi wound up scoring the game's only run. And in Game 5, another potential clincher, Feller suffered another humbling defeat. The Indians wound up winning it in Game 6, and, as Feller knows all too well, they haven't won it since.
"We came awfully close a few times," he once said, "but no cigar."
It was no cigar in '54, when the Indians were swept by the Giants in the Series. By that point, Feller was far, far removed from his salad days on the Iowa farm. He was in the late stages of a career that, had it not been interrupted by military service, might have seen him win as many as 350 games with more than 3,000 strikeouts.
Instead, Feller, who retired in 1956, would have to settle for 266 wins, 3,827 innings, 46 shutouts and 2,581 strikeouts -- all Indians records. As if those three no-hitters weren't impressive enough, Feller added 12 one-hitters. He also led the league in strikeouts seven times and wins six times, helping to earn him a first-ballot Hall of Fame bid in 1962.
* * *
Feller impacted the game in other areas, as well. His barnstorming tours throughout his career helped break down baseball's color barrier as the games would often feature Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige. Feller also became famous for his physical fitness regimen and for being one of the game's first star players to master the art of marketing his own brand.
Among his proudest achievements was becoming the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1954. Though Feller might have signed that initial contract for $1 and a baseball, he made plenty of money later in his career. His large bonus clauses, tied to the Indians' annual attendance, made him the highest-paid player of his era.
His work for the Indians did not end in retirement. He remained a public-relations persona for the Tribe until death and would often claim -- with no hint of joking -- that he had signed more autographs than anyone in history. He also loved to tell what he would call "rainy day stories" about his life and career, and his memory for even the most mundane details was remarkable.
That was Feller. Proud of his place in the world and his accomplishments. And he was especially proud of his museum, which opened in his hometown in 1995, showcasing a mountain of memorabilia from a life in the spotlight.
Even in his 90s, Feller was still spry and spunky. A couple years ago, Feller was set to throw in a Fantasy Camp game when somebody asked him if he'd like a screen placed in front of him to protect him from line drives.
"I'm no batting practice pitcher," Feller responded tersely.
He was also a man who pulled no punches when it came to offering opinions. Feller, for instance, was an outspoken opponent of any movement to get Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame.
"We don't want anybody who ever gambled on the game to be in this Hall of Fame," Feller once told ESPN. "I don't want him, and the Hall of Famers don't want him."
Feller was the Hall's senior member when he passed. The Indians had hoped to have him on hand to honor him in 2011 for his 50 years as a Hall of Famer, but Feller's health went in steep decline after an August 2010 leukemia diagnosis.
And so, the Indians and all of baseball must now say goodbye to Rapid Robert Feller. But it can be done knowing Feller lived his days to the fullest and enjoyed every minute of the ride.
"I've had a great life," he said a few years back. "Mother Nature doesn't owe me a thing."