Sometimes, it seems like people confuse the “what if” story of someone like Bob Feller with the “what if” story of, say, a brilliant young pitcher like Herb Score. Feller and Score were both extraordinary young pitchers who, at an early point in their lives, had their careers derailed.
Feller was 23 and the best young pitcher in baseball when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Navy the next day and did not play in the big leagues for the better part of four years.
Score was 23 and the best young pitcher in baseball when he was hit in the face by a Gil McDougald line drive, causing him to miss the rest of the season — for various reasons he was never quite the same pitcher after that.
Now, in both cases, it is fascinating to consider what might have happened had history been different.
I have estimated that Feller, had World War II not interrupted him, might have won 360 games with 70-some shutouts and more than 3600 strikeouts.
Most people suspect that Score, had he not been hit by the line drive, might have had a Sandy Koufax like career — the similarities between the young Score and Koufax are striking. Score was more advanced. Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig actually included Score in their book “The 100 Greatest Baseball Player of All Time” simply because of what might have been.
But there’s a huge difference between these stories — just as their is a huge difference between Ted Williams and Pete Reiser, between Joe DiMaggio and Bo Jackson, between Oscar Charleston and Tony Coniigliaro, between Hilton Smith and Dwight Gooden or Mark Prior or Mark Fidrych or any other brilliant young pitcher who, for some reason or another, had great potential snuffed out.
The huge difference I’m referring to here has nothing to do with fairness or the significance of the event that prevented them from achieving their potential in the big leagues. Obviously Hilton Smith, a great Negro Leagues pitcher, was barred from playing in the big leagues because of the color of his skin while Mark Prior blew out his arm — one is a significantly bigger outrage. But that’s not the issue here, no more than World War II being an obviously bigger worldwide event than McDougald’s line drive.
No, the point here is this: In Feller’s case, basic reality was not altered. Feller did not pitch in the big leagues but he still WAS the world’s greatest pitcher during the war.
And in Score’s What If case, he was not great after McDougald’s liner.
You see the difference there? It can seem subtle, but it really isn’t. Feller was unquestionably a brilliant pitcher in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. He had been brilliant before, he would be brilliant afterward, there simply can be no question of his brilliance in the time between. We are not saying “If this had not happened happened he would be great.” When you lose your keys, they don’t just drop of out existence — they are very real, and still work exactly the same.
But the line drive that hit Herb Score — and the subsequent arm problems he had while recovering — altered him. He was no longer a brilliant pitcher. These what-if questions are fascinating. What if Sandy Koufax had not wrecked his arm? What if Bo Jackson had not played football? What if Darryl Strawberry had stayed healthy and focused his gifts. But these things did not happen. And Koufax retired at 30, Bo blew out his hip, Strawberry not a great player after age 28.
Feller, meanwhile, WAS great in the war years — he just couldn’t pitch in the big leagues because he was serving his country. That’s quantifiably different.
* * *
I suspect no player ever understood his legendary place in baseball history better than Robert William Andrew Feller, often called “Rapid Robert” and “Bullet Bob” and sometimes called the “Heater from Van Meter.” He is the archetype, the folk story and the place where baseball’s mythological heart beats. If I ever wrote a book about Bob Feller — and I have thought often of trying it — I would write it as a baseball fairy tale, not because his life really was a fairy tale (nobody’s life is, Feller’s in particular) but because that’s how he saw it, and that’s how he promoted it, and I suspect that’s the deepest truth Bob Feller chose to believe about himself.
He grew up in a tiny town in Iowa — Van Meter had fewer than 500 people, and the Fellers lived a little bit outside the town center. Bob was the son of a farmer named William who, like a few million other fathers, wanted his son to play in the Major Leagues. Bob would often say that his father stopped planting corn and other labor-intensive crops and moved to wheat in order to free up some time for baseball. They played catch every day — when it was raining, they played inside the barn.
“If you lose your healthy and your money, you can regain those,” William Feller told his son. “But if you lose your integrity, it is gone forever.
“You’ve got a gift, Roy,” Roy Hobbs father told his son in The Natural. “But it’s not enough. You gotta develop yourself. Rely too much on your own gift, and you’ll fail.”
When Feller was 12, he and his father cut down a bunch of trees on their land — William cut down the first dozen by hand — and built a baseball stadium complete with seating, a concession stand and two outhouses. People would come from all over the area to see the kid Bobby Feller and his team play baseball against other kids.
“We had everything under the sun,” Feller would say.
“Is this heaven?” the father asks the son in Field of Dreams. “No,” the son replies, “it’s Iowa.”
When Feller was around that same age, he went out and trapped 50 gophers — brought them in for 10 cents each. He went to a ballgame with his father in Des Moines and spent that $5.00 on a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. That baseball is on display at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.
Some 20 years later, Babe Ruth made what would be his second-last public appearance — Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948. Nat Fein took one of the most famous sports photographs ever of a frail but still proud Babe Ruth leaning on a baseball bat. It was Bob Feller’s bat.
That bat too is on display at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.
He was signed at 16 by famed scout Cy Slapnicka and the Cleveland Indians for $1.00 and a baseball autographed by the team. For a short while, he was given a job selling peanuts at League Park so he could be around the team. The contract was eventually voided because there was a rule at the time that Major League teams were not allowed to sign amateur baseball players. This was to protect the minor leagues, who would bird-dog and sign the best young players, develop them and then make their business viable by selling them to the big leagues. The Indians were eventually slapped with a somewhat meaningless fine by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis but were allowed to keep Feller — this was a key moment in baseball history. The minor leagues were never really independent once major league teams started to sign their own amateur players.
Feller was just 17 and still in high school when he showed up to pitch an exhibition against the St. Louis Cardinals. That was July 6, 1936. He struck out eight in three innings and, two years before Superman made his debut in the comic books, he was hailed as a superhero. This was the game that sparked countless legends.* Supposedly, the first batter to face Feller was a backup catcher named Bruce Ogrodowski, and after seeing — or hearing — the first pitch, he turned toward Indians manager Steve O’Neill and said: “Just get me out of here in one piece.” He bunted to avoid the strikeout embarrassment.
Brash Leo Durocher barked at Feller before striking out swinging. Art Garibaldi followed with a strikeout of his own.
*One interesting side note, unrelated to Feller specifically: Feller’s relieved a pitcher named George Uhle, who many say invented the slider (even if he did not invent the pitch — there are several possibilities there — he probably did invent the name).
The next inning, Feller got rattled — a single, a walk, a double steal, a wild pitch — but then he struck out Pepper Martin and Ripper Collins to get out of it. The following inning he struck out the side, starting with Durocher again.
The review were overwhelming.
“Best prospect since Dizzy Dean,” Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch said.
“He can’t miss,” Dean added.
“One of the fastest balls I have ever looked at,” Joe Medwick gushed.
“He’s fast all right … and let me tell you something: He knows how to pitch,” Pepper Martin said.
And perhaps the most effusive praise was from umpire Red Ormsby, who had been umping games since 1923 and was behind the plate in the decisive Game 4 of the 1927 World Series. “I don’t care if he’s only 17,” Ormsby said. “He showed me more speed than I have ever seen uncorked by an American league slabster. And I don’t except Walter Johnson either.”
So the headlines followed. FASTER THAN JOHNSON. … OL’ DIZ SEES YOUNGER SELF. … THIS “FELLER” MUST BE GOOD.
He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.
Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”
Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.
“It feels out there,” Ebby Calvin Laloosh said after winning his first professional game in “Bull Durham.” “A major rush. I mean it doesn’t feel ‘out there’ but it feels out there.’”
“What are you going to do,” Bob Feller asked after he struck out 17, “if you pitch the ball and they can’t hit it?”
In a way, that ended the first book of the Bob Feller odyssey — Feller as prodigy. In the second book, he’s a 20-year-old, more mature, a regular starter and probably the best pitcher in the Major Leagues. He won 24, 27 and 25 games from 1939-1941 and based on MVP voting would have won the Cy Young ever year. He threw the fastest pitches of the time, maybe of all time. Nobody worked harder to find out just how fast he pitched a baseball. He raced his fastball against a motorcycle. He threw a baseball through an odd contraption that supposedly measured speed. Feller would say for the rest of his life that his fastball was measured separately at 104 and 107.9 mph.* Obviously both of these numbers would trump even Aroldis Chapman’s fastball.
*Feller, in his book “Bob Feller’s Little Blue Book of Baseball Wisdom” even includes the formula of the 104 mph fastball. He was racing a motorcycle going 86 mph. His fastball gained 13 feet on the motorcycle in the 60 feet, 6 inches between the mound and home plate.
86 (speed of motorcycle) / 60.5 (feet from from mound to plate) = 1.42.
13 (feet gained by fastball) + 60.5 (mound to plate) = 73.5.
73.5 X 1.42 = 104 mph.
I have no idea if this formula has any mathematical validity, but I was impressed Feller included it. Feller was actually more of a numbers guy than he got credit for; he was interested in new statistics even if he didn’t always buy into them.
Then Feller went to war, returned, and in 1946 as a 27-year-old had his season for the ages. He pitched 371 innings, most in a season for any right-handed pitcher after Deadball. He struck out 348 batters, most in a season for almost 20 years until Sandy Koufax broke it in 1964. He completed 36 games, won 26, and finished with a 2.18 ERA.
Feller led the league in strikeouts each of the next two seasons, and he won 20-plus games twice more, but he wasn’t really ever the same after 1946. He pitched in the 1948 World Series and got hit pretty hard, drawing the loss in both starts, a baseball regret. But by 1948, he just wasn’t the same Bob Feller. He was a on the staff of the 1954 Indians team that famously won 111 games, and he was somewhat effective, but he only made 19 starts and did not appear in that World Series. he tried to give it a go in 1955 and 1956 but it was really over by then.
Feller was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 — he got 93.8% of the vote. It has been pointed out that one irony is that he was elected in the same class as Jackie Robinson, a man Feller had numerous spats with through the years, a man Feller said was too musclebound to play Major League Baseball, a man pointedly left out of his “Little Blue Book” — this wouldn’t have been so obvious except that at one point Feller talked about the importance of equality and referred to Roy Campanella breaking the color barrier for catchers, skipping right over Robinson.
There was irony here — Feller, by barnstorming with Satchel Paige and his team of Negro League stars before the 1947 season did more than most to integrate the game. “Bob’s an interesting guy,” said Buck O’Neil, who was on the Satchel Paige team in 1947. “In the end, I think his heart is in the right place.”
Book three of the Feller Odyssey involved the way his life intertwined with the game for 50-plus years. As Feller would be the first to say, nobody signed more autographs, made more appearances, traveled to more minor league parks, spoke at more banquets or was interviewed more about the state of baseball.
Feller was ubiquitous. He lived on the road. He would bring to card shows a piece of paper that showed what his career statistics might have looked like without World War II. He would pitch to people to give them the thrill of facing what as left of the Heater from Van Meter. He often came across as a man stuck in time; he grumped endlessly about the lousy ways the game and the world had changed and the fading character of young athletes, I would see men in the game roll their eyes when they saw him coming. There was much kindness in his him too. He would frequently pitch the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter (just 17 miles from Des Moines!) and when someone kidded him about it he would get serious and say, “If you don’t promote yourself, who will?”
I will never forget the way our first interview ended. I was 24 or 25, working as a columnist at the Augusta Chronicle, and he was coming to town for ‘Bob Feller Day” — Augusta, like every other minor league city at some point, had a Bob Feller Day where the man would come, sign some autographs, pitch to some lucky fans and tell a few stories. There had been several Bob Feller Days in Augusta through the years.
Feller had long before perfected the art of the interview, and when I talked to him he got the message across. After I thanked him for his time, Feller this: “So, are you set to pick me up at the airport?”
I was confused by this. I said something like, “Did you want me to pick you up at the airport? I mean, I can …”
He grumbled, “No, fine, I’ll find my own way.” And he hung up. It was strange. I decided he had me confused with someone else, maybe someone who worked for the Augusta team. But I interviewed Feller many times after that, and I’ve since come to the conclusion that he really might have just wanted me to pick him up from the airport. The ride to the hotel, 10 or 15 minutes or whatever it was, would have been for Feller another chance to talk baseball and and relive some moments and, one more time, tell the story of an Iowa farm boy who became a legend.