CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Bob Feller, the brilliant pitcher who is the only Cleveland athlete to be immortalized with a statue, died Wednesday night of complications from leukemia at age 92.
As you approach Gate C at Progressive Field, you'll see a statue of Bob Feller in the middle of his windup, the ball hidden behind his leg, just about ready to shove off and throw his famous blazing fastball. This is Feller the phenom hurler, frozen in time at the peak of his ability. But Feller was also a veteran, a shrewd businessman, a pioneer in the baseball labor movement, a barnstormer, a conversationalist. And until today, a living legend.
The Indians signed the 16-year-old Feller in 1936, and essentially sent him straight to the majors from the sandlots, a move that ran afoul of current rules and almost made Feller a free agent after the season. Feller made some appearances out of the bullpen, then made his first start against the doormat St. Louis Browns. He struck out the first eight he faced, and finished his complete game with 15 punch outs. Feller was no longer a curiosity; he was a star. But the Indians' method of bypassing existing minor-league guidelines placed his contract with the Indians in doubt. Fortunately, commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruled in favor of the Indians, largely because Feller wanted to stay with the Indians. Had Feller wished, he could have become a free agent, with the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox poised to jump on the opportunity.The decision (no pun intended) was closely covered by the major media outlets of the day, and most of the major newspapers ran the story on their front pages the following day.
Feller missed most of the first half of the 1937 season with a dislocated bone in his pitching arm but pitched very well upon his return, finishing the season with a 3.39 ERA and 132 ERA+. The next season, Feller struggled after the All-Star Break, part of a team slump that doomed their pennant hopes. In 1939, everything fell into place for the 20-year-old Feller, even as tensions between Indians players and manager Ossie Vitt escalated. Feller allowed just 227 hits in 296.2 innings pitched and finished with the third-best ERA in the AL. Credited with an impressive 24 wins, Feller finished third in the AL MVP voting, behind Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx.
The 1940 season couldn't have started any better for the Indians, as Feller threw the first and only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history. Pitching in 40 degree weather at Comiskey Park, Feller eschewed the curve and just went with his fastball, and White Sox hitters simply couldn't catch up. With the no-hitter as a springboard, Feller pitched well all spring, and the Indians were in good position in the AL standings.
Off the field, however, manager Ossie Vitt continued to alienate his players, and though the team was within striking distance of first place, the players went to President Alva Bradley and demanded that Vitt be removed as manager. This might have blown over had not the story leaked to the local press, but the team felt compelled to keep Vitt on as manager even as the players essentially ignored him, and the controversy dogged the club for the rest of the season. The Indians still had a chance to win the pennant on the final weekend with the Tigers in town, but with the Indians down two games with three to play, the Tigers bested Feller and the Indians 2-0, clinching the pennant.
Feller pitched extremely well through the debacle, improving on his impressive 1939 numbers in every category. He threw more innings, struck out more, walked less, and posted a lower ERA. He won the AL pitching triple crown, leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. He finished second in MVP voting and certainly would have won the Cy Young Award had it existed. In fact, the elderly Cy Young himself frequently traveled to Cleveland to watch Feller pitch.
Feller had the best stuff of his day, and possibly the best stuff in history. He struck out over 240 batters for four straight seasons when 120 or 130 strikeouts was a fantastic feat. The late '30s and early '40s was an offensive era, but most batters gave in after two strikes. Feller was striking out batters trying desperately to put the ball in play. Bob was also very wild in the early part of his career, also leading the league three seasons, but that wildness probably helped his effectiveness on the mound; batters were reluctant to dig in if the pitcher wasn't sure where his upper-90s fastball was going. But Feller didn't just have a fastball; many of his contemporaries, including Ted Williams rated his curve as a more difficult pitch to hit.
There were a couple attempts to measure the speed of his fastball. In this clip, an army ordinance chronograph was placed at home plate in 1946:
Feller also took part in a 1941 stunt that pitted a motorcycle against his fastball. The motorcycle was allowed a head start, and got up to 86 mph when it passed him, but it didn't beat the baseball to the target. It seems very probable that from his debut in 1936 up to World War II, Feller could throw a fastball at 100 mph or above with regularity. Even after the war, his stuff was just as good, as his incredible 1946 season stats indicate.
Two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Feller entered the Navy, even though he would have been exempt from serving because of his ailing father and his status as a farmer. After training, Feller was assigned to Norfolk as a physical drill instructor, and also played baseball exhibitions for troop entertainment and morale. By the summer of 1942, Feller wanted to volunteer for combat duty, so he entered naval gunnery school (he had wanted to serve as fighter pilot, but couldn't quality because of a hearing deficiency), and after completion, was assigned to the battleship USS Alabama. He served on that vessel in the Atlantic and the Pacific as the fire director of a gun crew. He saw action in many battles throughout the Pacific theater, including the Battle of the Phillippine Sea in June 1944. Afterward, he would always say that this win (World War II) meant more to him than any wins on the baseball field.
The four-year gap left in Feller's career by World War II is one of baseball's great "What if?" questions. What would that career have looked like had the war not interrupted it? It's possible that another 1,200 innings would have had a cumulative effect on Feller's stuff, ending his prime a couple years earlier, but it's also possible that Feller's arm was strong enough to withstand four more 300-inning seasons. He did throw during World War II in exhibitions, including perhaps 200 innings in 1942, so his arm didn't have a complete rest during the war. Had he pitched those four seasons with no injuries and with his great stuff, he probably would have finished his career just about even with Walter Johnson at the top of the All-Time Career Strikeout list. But that assumes a lot. Even with losing those four prime seasons to military service, Feller had a great career, a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Which, if you think about it, is extremely impressive.
What we do know is that Feller returned to Cleveland in late August of 1945 and started nine games, showing little sign of rust. By this time, he was relying on a slider (which he learned during his wartime exhibitions) as his secondary pitch, but his fastball still had the same velocity. That Feller was able to get in a few games in before the 1945 season ended set the stage for the best pitching season in Indians history.
The 1946 Indians were clearly built around Feller; gone were most of the supporting cast that made the pre-war Indians pennant contenders. Feller responded by pitching an incredible 371.1 innings, a team record. He posted a 2.18 ERA and struck out 8.43 batters per nine innings, both career bests. He threw a no-hitter, two one-hitters, and ten shutouts. He appeared in 46 games, started 42 of them, and completed a team record 36 of those starts.
Feller's season total of 348 strikeouts wasn't just impressive, it was mind-boggling. Over a 50-year span from Walter Johnson to Koufax, no other pitcher ever struck out more than 275 in a season, and it was not uncommon for a pitcher to lead the league with less than 200 strikeouts - as Feller himself did in each of the next two seasons. In the same year Feller led the AL with 348 strikeouts, Johnny Smitz led the NL with 135.
After the war, Feller organized a major barnstorming tour, pitting major-leaguers against Negro League stars. Feller fronted the money for the tour, and became the first player to incorporate himself so that he could get liability insurance. The two teams played 34 games in just under a month, with the tour hitting cities from coast to coast. Everyone made a lot of money; the payout almost matched the winning World Series share that season. Satchel Paige, who was the captain of the Negro League stars, would become Feller's teammate just a couple of years later.
In 1947, Feller injured a muscle in his back in the during a game against the Athletics. His fastball would never be the same again, though he would be a productive full-time starter for five more seasons. He reinvented himself in the early 1950s, becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower, and by that time, the Indians could afford to use Feller as a complementary player, as their rotation was as deep as any in baseball with Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia as its anchors. He was a spot starter on the great 1954 team, and retired two years later at the age of 37. Five years later, he entered the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, appearing on 150 of the 160 ballots cast.
Feller was always ready with an opinion, and didn't care much for what people thought of it. After retiring, Feller sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace (video and transcript here) and spoke out against MLB's Reserve Clause and argued for free agency:
WALLACE: Wait just a second. The Congressional sub-committee investigating this issue has brought to light the fact of the average earnings in the Major League and I was amazed to find out that the average... the average salary for the twenty-five men on your former team, the Cleveland Indians, was eighteen thousand five hundred and twenty dollars each last year; for the Dodgers that was slightly higher. Now certainly there's nothing wrong in that kind of pay for men who play, how many months out of a year?
FELLER: Well of course, Mike, as far as I'm concerned it's not the amount that you make, it's the principle that you're not in a strong bargaining position. If you have ever read a Major League contract, you can tell that a ball club can give you twenty-five percent cut any year and sign you either with or against your wishes.
In his retirement, Feller became famous for his prolific autograph signing; he charged for his signature, but always had a short conversation with each person. Frank Deford noted:
But otherwise Bob Feller, who is advertised to be so cranky and opinionated, is the model of graciousness with his public. Really, apart from the blue-ink standard, there is only one rule: "I don't do last names." That just gets into too much spelling. Feller would rather shoot the breeze. He reminisces, jokes, inquires, commiserates, even takes it upon himself to volunteer how best to fix a chipped figurine or to repair one that has broken altogether off the Best Western stand. He always has a comment when somebody hands him a glove. Like, "That's a regular butterfly net." Fans with Wilson gloves (as is Feller's own mitt) learn that Feller actually knew Mr. Wilson. It's like the dual-colored seams on the old baseballs: Who knew? Who knew that there was a real live Mr. Wilson who walked the earth in our time? "Sure. Thomas E. Wilson--a fine man."
On April 12, 2010, inside the stadium where his statue stands, Bob Feller, age 91, stepped to the mound after saluting the Opening Day crowd, made sure his footing was good, and threw the ceremonial first pitch. I don't remember if the pitch was a strike, but it carried the plate by plenty. This was Feller the Cleveland living legend, held in awe both by fans who were around to see him pitch and fans who were born decades after he hung up his glove. For Feller may have retired 54 years ago, but he never left the Cleveland spotlight; he lived in the Cleveland area, was a regular at Indians games, fantasy camps, and many other baseball functions. For 74 years, Feller was a Cleveland Indian whether in or out of uniform. He was, and still remains, the greatest player in Indians history.
One more standing ovation for a Cleveland legend.
Many thanks to Jay Levin and Maple Street Press for allowing excerpts from the Indians 2009 Annual to be included in this post. For more information about Feller's life, check out John Sickels' biography.