Bob Feller: Iowa and America Lose a Hero

As most of you who read this blog are probably aware by now, I’m an Iowan. If you weren’t aware, well, you are now. And being Iowan (not to mention a baseball fan), I can’t let today go by without some remarks about Bob Feller, a native of Van Meter, Iowa, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 92. I don’t know how many people would make a list of All Time Greatest Iowans (insert obligatory joke here), but any such list would have to have Bob Feller near the top and a list of Greatest Living Iowans just lost the person at the very top of the list.

I saw Feller once, years ago, at some event or another where he was signing autographs. He did a lot of that. He was probably in his 60s or 70s at the time.

Age affects all of us differently. For many of us, our features get a bit softer and our eyes lose a bit of whatever it was they had when we were still experiencing virtually all of life for the first time. I saw none of that in Bob Feller.

They say he was among the most intimidating pitchers of his time. I could still see that in his face, and especially his eyes, decades after he retired from the game. I read elsewhere last night that he was still pitching, from the full 60’6”, in Cleveland Indians Fantasy Camps up until just a few years ago. I wouldn’t have wanted to step in there against him. OK, I lied. I’d have LOVED to get in the box one time against him. But I wouldn’t have crowded the plate.

Hearing about his passing Wednesday night, I recalled an interview someone had done for the Cedar Rapids Gazette years ago that had some great quotes. I decided to try to dig through the Gazette’s archives this morning to see if I could find that article. To my pleasant surprise, the interviewer was columnist Mike Hlas, who’s still at the Gazette, AND he re-ran his Feller interview, which you can read in its entirety here. You should, because there’s some great stuff in there about his views on the military and the modern game of baseball. But my favorite line was, “The players today don’t know the rulebook. The only thing they know for sure is their agents’ phone numbers.” You tell ’em Rapid Robert!

Feller made his debut with the Indians at the age of 17, without ever playing a minor league game. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you may remember reading that a lot of players who were “too young” or “too old” to really play well were playing Major League Baseball during World War II… but that wasn’t why Feller was there. He started facing Joe DiMaggio in 1936, the year both of them started their MLB careers, and already had three years of time in when Ted Williams debuted in 1939.

By the time the off-season following the 1941 season rolled around, Feller had five and a half seasons in and was coming off his third consecutive 20-win season… a season during which he completed 28 of the 40 games he started. Oh, and he finished four additional games after coming on in relief. All together, he threw 343 innings in 1941 and was expected to sign perhaps the richest contract in baseball history before the Tribe would report to Spring Training in 1942. On the mound, he was Bob Gibson and Roger Clemens all rolled in to one and he was only 22 years old.

Bob Feller and a display of his Memorabilia aboard the USS Alabama (Photo: Kate Mercer)

But on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the US formally in to World War II and by December 8, Bob Feller had enlisted in the Navy… the first Major Leaguer to do so. He didn’t have to… he was entitled to a deferment as his family’s sole supporter. And he didn’t spend his service time doing promotional tours, either. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner on the battleship, USS Alabama.

As the Gazette’s Hlas mentions in his article, Feller kept up a very busy schedule. This past April, at the age of 91, he traveled to Mobile Alabama for a special USS Alabama reunion. You can read about that here.

At the time of the Gazette interview in 1994, Feller was scheduled to give the Commencement Address at a small Iowa high school the next day. Hlas asked Feller what he intended to say to the students. I think his response is a fitting way to end this post.

“I’m going to ask those kids if they’re the best in the world at something,” Feller said. “You don’t have anything to talk about until you’re the best in the world. Unless you’re the best there is in your profession, you can always improve. And even then, you can still improve.”

Rest in Peace, Bob, knowing you were the best.

–  JC