One of my earliest memories was seeing Bob Feller in a jacket and tie. My father took me to some sort of morning meeting in Cleveland — a small room, in my memory, filled with metal folding chairs placed in uneven rows — and Bob Feller stood behind a lectern (and perhaps in front of a chalkboard; for some reason I see a chalkboard). I do not remember a single thing he said. I only remember him standing in the front of the room, and the awe he inspired, and my father telling me this: “That’s Bob Feller. He threw the ball faster than anyone who ever lived.”
The fastest pitcher ever. I was maybe five years old then, and the image shattered my imagination. This man in the suit? This man threw the fastest pitch ever? Of course, I believed it. Bob Feller was one of the enduring sports themes of my childhood in Cleveland, a sports childhood that was as fragile and brown as the autumn leaves dusting Cedar Road. My favorite teams were terrible. My favorite athletes were flawed. Cleveland’s past always seemed greener and richer and better than the future. I grew up on the story of Jim Brown pounding into the line, gaining five or six or seven yards, then lying on the mud and snow for what seemed forever (Is he hurt? Can Jim Brown BE hurt?). Then, finally, he would get up and jog back to the huddle line up and pound back into the line, gaining five or six or seven yards again. I grew up on the story of Jesse Owens, who won gold medals under the outstretched arm of Hitler and then returned to Cleveland where people talked often about seeing him and meeting him and shaking his hand and how it felt like shaking the hand of history. I grew up on the stories of Paul Brown and Otto Graham and Rocky Colavito and Dante Lavelli (who, I was told, never once dropped a pass) and Lou Boudreau (who invented the Ted Williams shift).
Mostly, though, there was the legend of Bobby Feller, Rapid Robert, the Iowa farm boy who at age 17 took the mound at League Park in Cleveland, threw his hardest fastballs, and scared the living hell out of grizzled baseball men who thought they had seen it all.
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The Bob Feller Museum is a fairly small building that looks like a home in Van Meter, Iowa, which is 17 miles west of Des Moines. Bob Feller told me this so often — Van Meter is 17 miles west of Des Moines — that it is burned in my memory. I cannot tell you precisely how far London is from Paris or how far Los Angeles is from San Francisco. But I sure as heck know that Van Meter is is 17 miles west of Des Moines.
He told me this often because Bob Feller believed that if you are not willing to promote yourself, well, who will? This was one of the first things I learned about him. The first time I had ever talked to him was close to 30 years ago at a baseball card show. He was signing autographs. The way I remember it, he was signing them for free, though it’s possible that he was charging some absurdly nominal fee for each one, like a dollar or something. He was sitting behind this card table, and when I walked up to get my Bob Feller autograph he decided to give me a little test.
“Who is the greatest pitcher of all time?” he asked me.
I panicked. In retrospect, the answer seems pretty obvious. But I was never good at pop quizzes. And, anyway, I had been raised on the legend of Bob Feller, had been taught all about his childhood on the Iowa farm, his arrival in Cleveland as a phenom, his blazing fastball and shaky control, his titanic battles with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, his time at war, his refusal to say what people wanted to hear. I guess I wanted to impress him with my answer.
“Sandy Koufax,” I said in a voice that was still maneuvering unsteadily through puberty.
To his credit, Feller did not seem put off by my answer. He, in fact, treated it with a measure of respect — the answer was wrong, sure, but it was more misguided than anything else. He set me straight. “How many games did Koufax win?“ he asked. “What did he win? Hundred fifty games?” There was a small stack of papers on the table, and Feller reached over and took one, handed it to me. These were stat sheets. They were put together to estimate what Bob Feller’s career numbers would have looked like had he not gone off to war from 1942-45. The estimate was that he would have won 373 games, struck out 3,651 men and thrown five no hitters. The strikeouts and no-hitters would have been records.
I have thought about that scene a lot over the last three decades. There were times, when I was younger, when I found the scene kind of sad. Here was Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, handing out what his stats might have looked like to a kid and a few other baseball fans who had made the trek to a card show in Charlotte, N.C. But as I have grown older my point of view has changed a bit. That’s because I don’t remember Bob Feller being sad at all. I don’t remember him being sad when I saw him pitching baseballs at minor league games or when he was talking baseball at whatever Optimists or Kiwanis Club meeting where he was speaking or when he was showing people what his baseball statistics might have looked like had he not enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. He was a great pitcher. He wanted people to remember. And if you don’t promote yourself, well, who will?
* * *
In the Bob Feller Museum, there are numerous surprising artifacts — including the bat that Babe Ruth was leaning on in that famous picture of him on Babe Ruth Day in 1948. The Yankees were playing the Indians that day, and Ruth had taken Feller’s bat.
But what is easily my favorite piece of Bob Feller memorabilia is a baseball that is signed by Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That comes from 1928, when Feller was nine years old. Gehrig and Ruth had come to play an exhibition in Des Moines, which you now know is 17 miles east of where Feller grew up in Van Meter. Feller desperately wanted to go to the exhibition and, more, he desperately wanted one of the autographed baseballs they were selling. The baseballs cost five dollars, which (as Feller would tell you in the grumpy tone he had perfected) was a lot of money in those days.
Here’s what Feller did: In Van Meter, in an effort to rid the town of a gopher problem, authorities were giving 10 cents for every dead gopher turned in. Feller drove his father’s truck to a gopher hole, he and a friend configured some sort of hose to smoke out the gophers, and they trapped exactly 50 of them, just the number Feller needed to buy the baseball.
The story sounds mythical. But Feller’s whole career sounds mythical. And the baseball is there for everyone to see in the Bob Feller Museum.
That same year, 1928, Feller fully understood and embraced his destiny. His own imagination had been exploded when a mail order package arrived with a Rogers Hornsby model glove, a few clean white baseballs and a full baseball uniform down to the socks. These were gifts from his father Bill, who saw his son’s dream clearly and years before his son saw it. Every day, they would play catch on the farm. The father from the movie “The Natural” seems closer to Bill Feller than just about anyone else, though Bob would often compare his childhood to a different movie.
“I had the first ‘Field of Dreams,'” Bob Feller used to say, and he did. Bill Feller one year asked his son if he wanted a baseball field. Well, what son would say no to that? Bill Feller then leveled the ground on his farm, carved out a ballpark, put up a scoreboard and bleachers, and created a team where Bob Feller could play. Supposedly there were people in town who thought Bill Feller had lost his mind (just the way the townsfolk felt about Kevin Costner in the movie). But Bill Feller didn’t seem to care. He knew his son was going to play in the major leagues.
Bob at that point still had dreams of being a hitter, but Bill knew better. He had seen the power in his son’s right arm. He had carved and whittled and sculpted for Bob a clean motion, one that would produce fastballs that nobody on earth could catch up with. Once Bill impressed upon his son that pitching was his ticket, Bob embraced the future. And when Bob Feller was 17, he signed with the Cleveland Indians for a dollar. His first exhibition game against big league players, he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings.
When Dizzy Dean was asked to take a picture with Feller — one of those “Present and Future” kind of photographs — Dean was willing but unusually modest. “After what he did today,” he said pointing at Feller, “he’s the guy to say.”
* * *
Bob Feller was always good for a quote. He had three qualities that made him so utterly quotable:
1. He saw the world in distinct and pronounced ways — Bob Feller was not much for shades of gray.
2. He did not mind telling you what he thought.
3. He did not seem to care care much if people liked it.
Because of this, Feller was always good for a line about how pitchers were not as tough as they used to be or how much money is in the game or both. When all the hype about Stephen Strasburg built up in 2010, Feller was happy to pierce the absurdity of things (“Call me when he wins his 100th game”) or remind everyone that hype was not invented yesterday (“They broadcast my graduation from high school coast to coast, live on NBC”).
He said some things that followed him around all his life. Well that’s the cost of being quotable. And there was nothing easy about Bob Feller. He was, without question, the most famous ballplayer of his time who regularly barnstormed with black players. He and Satchel Paige were close, they were business partners, they were often great friends. And yet Feller said that Jackie Robinson would not make it as a big league player, and said that there wasn’t a Negro Leagues player who was good enough to play in the big leagues. (His famous and straightforward quote on the subject comes from 1969: “I don’t think baseball owes colored people anything. I don’t think colored people owe baseball anything either”). He railed against steroid users, the mushrooming of relief pitchers, the greed of owners, the greed of players and people who too quickly forgot their history. He offered up enough cranky quotes to leave an impression. He also said that the heroes of war are the ones who do not come back. And that America is the greatest country on earth. And that his father was the best man he had ever known.
Feller’s first start in the big leagues, he struck out 15. That was against the St. Louis Browns, who were managed by Rogers Hornsby — the man whose glove had helped set Feller’s baseball dream soaring. That game was in 1936, the day Jesse Owens returned home after winning those four Gold Medals at the Berlin Olympics. When the game ended, the home plate umpire Red Ormsby, who had been umpiring games since 1923, said simply: “That Feller showed more speed than I’ve ever seen uncorked by any American League pitcher, and that does not except Walter Johnson.”
That would be a common topic of discussion over the next 20 or so years as Bob Feller went through his Hall of Fame career. He did too many remarkable things as a pitcher to stuff into a single story. He led the American League in wins, innings and strikeouts every full year he pitched from 1939 through 1947. He threw an Opening Day no-hitter in Chicago in 1940, sparking what was always Feller’s favorite trivia question: “Name the only game in baseball history where every player on a team went into a regulation nine-inning game and came out of it with the same batting average.” That was Feller’s no-hitter. Each White Sox player came into the game hitting .000 and left hitting the same three digits.
He threw three no-hitters in all, one against the Yankees; he would sometimes call that his greatest day, though Feller had too many great days to stick with just one. That Yankees no-hitter was at Yankee Stadium in 1946 in what was probably Feller’s greatest year. He struck out 348 that season in what he thought was a modern major league record. It turned out that it was not the record — statisticians had miscounted Rube Waddell’s total from 1904 and upon recount it turned out he had 349. In any case, Feller won 26 games, and he threw 371 innings, and he proved that he was as good as ever after returning home from the war.
All the while, people tried to figure out how fast Feller threw. People often seemed more interested in that than his pitching greatness. He had his fastball tested many times. Once he was clocked at 104 mph. Another time, he remembered his fastball measured at 107.9 mph. He had his fastball measured by sensitive army equipment, and he had his fastball race against a motorcycle, and he had his fastball measured by various hard-throwing pitchers …
“If anybody threw that ball harder than Rapid Robert,” Satchel Paige said, “then the human eye couldn’t follow it.”
“Feller isn’t quite as fast as I was,” Walter Johnson said.
The second of those quotes is a bit surprising — Walter Johnson was a modest man who would often say that others (such as Smoky Joe Wood) threw harder than he did. But Johnson was nearing the end of his life when he gave that quote.Feller would later say that Koufax and Nolan Ryan didn’t throw as hard as he did. Maybe that’s age speaking. Maybe when you get older, you sometimes want to protect what you believe is yours.
Bob Feller, I suspect, always believed that he threw the fastest pitch in baseball history. He was generally pretty modest about it — his stock answer was that he belonged “in the discussion” but nobody could ever really know who threw the fastest. Still, I think he always believed that when he was just 17, when he came off the Iowa farm armed with his father’s pitching motion and the certainty of youth, he threw the fastest pitches that anyone has ever thrown.
Why do I think this? Well …
“Yes, I do think I threw a baseball harder than any man ever,” he told me once as we walked on a dirt field in Georgia. “A man should always believe in himself.”
* * *
There is a Bob Feller story I am thinking of now, one I’ve never told before. I probably talked with Bob Feller 15 or 20 times in my life. I would call him for a story. I would see him at spring training. I would show up for a Bob Feller event. I don’t know that he ever knew my name. He did a lot of interviews.
I had finished interviewing him this one time — a typically rollicking interview that included stories and gripes and directions to the Bob Feller Museum, just 17 miles west of Des Moines. And for the first and only time, I told him that I was from Cleveland, and that one of my first memories was having seen him speak. He was interested in that. He asked me what I remembered … I told him what I wrote above. I remembered only what my father had said about him.
And then Bob Feller asked me about my father. Direct questions. Did he play catch with me when I was young? I said yes. Did he take me to baseball games? I said yes. Did he believe in me deeply? I said yes.
The tape recorder was off and my notebook was put away and so I cannot write here what he said word for word. But I remember the important part. He told me that I was lucky, that what you need to succeed in this world is a father who believes in you. And he told me that his father believed in him. Funny thing, though, he said Bill Feller never once said, “Bob, someday you’re going to pitch in the big leagues.” No, there were no words. There are some things that cannot be said with words. There was only those sweaty Iowa afternoons and those chilly Iowa evenings, and the sun setting, and a baseball going back and forth. Everything he needed to know about life was in that back-and-forth.
Bill Feller died in 1943, while his son Bob was at war. He had seen his son become the best pitcher in baseball.
Bob Feller died Thursday in Cleveland of acute leukemia. He was 92 years old. He grew up on a farm in Iowa. He played catch with his Dad. He played baseball for the Cleveland Indians when he was young. And when he was no longer young, he traveled the country promoting baseball and himself and America and all the things he believed in deeply. He signed more autographs, probably, than any man in baseball history — so many that an autograph dealer once joked that a baseball without Feller’s autograph was rarer and more valuable than one with. Bob Feller leaves behind family, friends, a detailed baseball record, countless stories and little confusion about how he felt about things. And he threw a baseball harder than any man who ever lived. At least that’s what my father told me.