Nineteen – The Zero Point Hand in Cribbage*
Well this decision should come as no shock to anyone, even to other fanbases. Robert William Andrew Feller was the best #19 for the Tribe. In fact, it is probably a prevailing majority opinion that Rapid Robert was the best Indians player, ever. If not the best player, he was definitely the best pitcher of all-time for Cleveland.
Born in Van Meter, Iowa, Feller got his start playing baseball on the family farm on a team called the Oakviews. He was famously signed by Indian scout Cy Slapnicka for $1 and an autographed baseball in July 1935 when he was still 16 years old. The contract was assigned to Fargo-Moorhead of the Northern League. However, this was a tactic that Slapnicka used quite often. He would sign young players help move them through transfers in the minor leagues. After Slapnicka assumed general manager duties for the Tribe in November 1935 (after Billy Evans resigned), he would transfer Feller to New Orleans, another Cleveland farm club.
After Feller graduated from Van Meter High School in 1936, he reported to the Indians without appearing for either minor league team. This was a violation of a MLB rule that prohibited teams from signing “sandlotters” to major league contracts. He worked out with the club and pitched for a Cleveland amateur team. He appeared in an exhibition on July 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out 8, including Leo Durocher twice.
He then made his major league debut on July 19 in the second game of a double header against the Washington Senators, pitching a scoreless inning. After five more relief appearances, he would make his first MLB start on August 23, 1936. He pitched a complete game 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Browns, striking out 15.
Interestingly enough, on August 20, Des Moines team owner Lee Keyser filed a protest with Commissioner Kennesaw Landis about the illegal signing. In those days, the semi-pro teams could sign the “sandlotters” and then auction them off to the major league clubs. Landis took three months to decide, but both Bob and his father insisted he stay with the Indians. The Tribe ended up paying a $7500 fine to Des Moines.
The Feller story is long and plentiful and many fans probably know most of the highlights, so I won’t go too deeply into them. He did pitch 18 seasons with the Tribe, although he would wear #9 in his debut season of 1936 and #14 in 1937-1938, before becoming the last player to wear #19, starting in 1939.
1939 was his official breakout season, going 24-9 in 35 starts, sporting a 2.85 ERA (156 ERA+) in 296.2 IP. He led the league in CG (24), W, IP, BB (142), K (246 and WP (14). He also finished 3rd in MVP voting that season. Although he missed all of 1942-1944 and most of 1945 serving as a Chief Petty Officer on the USS Alabama, he would lead the league in wins from 1939 to 1947 (five seasons total, not counting the partial 1945).
His best season was probably 1946 when he was 26-15 in 42 starts, with 36 CG, 10 shutouts and a 2.18 ERA (151 ERA+), 348 K in 371.1 IP. His final career numbers are very impressive, especially since he missed 3.75 seassons when he was 23-26 years old. Feller was 266-162 in 570 G, 484 GS, 279 CG, 44 SHO, 21 SV, 3.25 ERA (122 ERA+) with 1764 and 2581 K in 3827 IP. That would make him 1st in W, GS, CG, IP, HR, BB, SO and WAR (66.0). Feller was also an eight time All Star and finished in the MVP voting 7 times (2nd, 3rd twice, 5th, 6th, 8th and 23rd). He was a first ballot Hall Of Famer (93.8% votes) in 1962. He also won the Pitching Triple Crown in 1940, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. His uniform #19 was retired in 1957, the season after he retired from playing.
But let us extrapolate what would have happened had he did pitch full seasons from 1941 to 1945. Removing the 1945 season from the totals and taking the average of his 1939-1941 seasons and then conservatively taking 90% of that value, would give Feller this final line:
353-199, 713 G, 607 GS, 372 CG, 63 SHO, 29 SV, 3.18 ERA (129 ERA+ ??), 2273 BB, 3442 K in 4907 IP and a 95.3 WAR. Now those are some eye-popping numbers. Personally, I think I went too conservatively since he probably is better from 23-26 than he was from 20-22, but I’ll leave that up for discussion.
Although Feller missed out on the future huge paydays (BRef has him earning at least $250k over his career), he was a very smart businessman. He did barnstorming in the offseason, typically with Satchel Paige and other Negro League players. He was considered one of the wealthiest players of his time.
Last interesting tidbit is that Feller also made into an Abbott and Costello Routine:
Bud Abbott asks him: Feller pitching?
Costello: Certainly there's a feller pitching... what do you think they'd use a girl?
Abbott: Oh, I…I know they don’t use a girl… I said, "Feller pitching…"
Costello: What feller?
* There is no combination of points in any hand of cribbage that can add up to 19.
A Brief, Brief History
As Berg only had 14 PA, Andrews, Zuber and Jungels only had 59.2, 28.2 and 15.1 IP respectively, the only other player of note is Oral Hildebrand. From 1932-1936, Oral was 54-45 in 166 G, 115 GS and 49 CG. He ahd a 113 ERA+ in 893.2 IP. He was an All Star in 1933, his best season with the Tribe, 16-11, 31 GS, 6 SHO and 3.76 (121 ERA+) in 220.1 IP. Cleveland obtained him from Indianapolis (American Association) for Les Barnhart, Zeke Bonura and Ed Montague. In 1937, he was dealt to the Browns with Bill Knickerbocker and Joe Vosmik for Ivy Andrews, Lyn Lary and Moose Salters.
The One Year Wonders
Moe Berg, Ivy Andrews, Bill Zuber and Ken Jungels all wore uniform #19 for only one season.
The All-Time List
Moe Berg C (1931) 077/143/154 -27 OPS+ in 14 PA
Oral Hildebrand SP, RP (1932-1936) 54-45 166 G 115 GS 49 CG 7 SHO 10 SV 4.17 ERA 113 ERA+ in 893.2 IP; All Star in 1933, led league with 6 SHO that year.
Ivy Andrews RP (1937) 3-4, 20 G, 4.37 ERA (103 ERA+) in 59.2 IP
Bill Zuber RP (1938) 0-3, 15 G, 5.02 ERA (94 ERA+) in 28.2 IP
Ken Jungels RP (1938) 1-0, 9 G, 8.80 ERA (54 ERA+) in 15.1 IP
Bob Feller SP (1939-1941, 1945-1956)
Statistics and such
Other fun facts, the uniform #19 has been worn 24 times by 6 different players covering 23 seasons of a possible 83 seasons since 1929. Uniform #19 was shared once, in 1938.