I've traveled more miles, been to more countries, met more people, signed more autographs, shaken more hands, thrown more baseballs ... and spent more time in combat than any other player in baseball history. —BOB FELLER
Rapid Robert, the éminence grise of the National Pastime, wearing his Cleveland Indians uniform, old number 19, makes his way through the fond crowd. Only this year did the Indians start putting his uniform shirt up for sale in their souvenir shops, on the racks alongside those of the current, nondescript Cleveland stalwarts. "Some blood finally got through to somebody's brain," Rapid Robert explains. ¬∂ The admirers press upon him, especially the ones in the general vicinity of his age.
Normally, he will pause to chat with anyone, particularly if the subject is either baseball or the state of the union, but now he must push directly ahead, for it is Bob Feller Day at the Indians' spring training camp. Little figurines, which are graced by the garish logo of the Best Western hotel chain, and which otherwise portray a youthful Rapid Robert in windup mode, have been awarded to those in attendance. "El cheapo" is the assessment of the figurine model himself. "Nothing like my bobblehead from a few years ago. But, what do you expect? Made by some Ping-Pong player in China."
And on through the elderly throng moves Feller, for he has been designated to throw out the first ball on this, his day. Will the octogenarian flamethrower actually hurl the horsehide from the mound, wonder many of the assembled, from the full 60 feet, six inches? Do not concern yourself about that. At the Indians' fantasy camp a few weeks before, under game conditions, Feller pitched to the 32 oldest players, allowing but two cheap Texas leaguers. This man does not play a customer's game.
"I'm not PC," Feller declares. "My wife is PC, but I am not PC. I always believe in what [baseball commissioner] Happy Chandler told me once: Make your decision, and then never show doubt."
And so, without any display of doubt whatsoever, number 19 ascends the mound in his spikes and, yes, promptly goes to the resin bag. He reaches for it, just as he did in those days of yore when there were none like him in all of baseballiana--the "most electrifying performer since Babe Ruth," as the sport historian Donald Honig identified him.
Now, once again, upon a mound he stands, with the resin bag gently cosseted in his right hand. Yet it is curious, even ironic perhaps, that for a man with as fantastic an arm as God ever attached to a shoulder, the lasting vision of Feller is foremost of his left leg. He raised it so high as he delivered his offerings that it seemed to rise above his cap. Feller says that's terribly exaggerated, that he never kicked as high as people remember, that the memory trumps the reality because when he was on the mound the photographers loved to snap shots of him from ground level, which distorted his motion, made him into some kind of Diane Arbus subject. Maybe. Still, the rising Feller leg must have been a terrifying sight to opposing batters, who knew the ascent of that leg prefaced the appearance of a ball rocketing at them with a velocity that had never otherwise been produced by a human arm.
Ted Williams once said, "Three days before he pitched I would start thinking about Robert Feller, Bob Feller. I'd sit in my room thinking about him all the time. God, I loved it.... Allie Reynolds of the Yankees was tough, and I might think about him for 24 hours before a game, but Robert Feller: I'd think about him for three days."
Up on the mound now, Feller throws down the resin bag. With what grand disdain do the best pitchers know exactly how to discard resin bags! Yet as he stands there, glove on his left hand, it is still Feller's legs that call attention. They are bowed more than ever. He always wore his pants slung low (affecting what the citified Joe DiMaggio called his "plowboy walk"). Now he looks even more like some old cowpoke ready to saddle up. Feller has, with age, lost more than an inch of height and now stands 5' 10¾". But even in his salad days he barely reached six feet, weighing perhaps 180 or 185 pounds. There was nothing about him to suggest that he could, very possibly, throw a round object harder than anybody else who ever strode upon God's green earth.
It's weird that way, that the best arms don't look special at all. Pedro Martinez is about Feller's size, and his arm appears, to the naked eye, to be no different than the arm of any Tom, Dick or Harry. The ones who saw him say an Orioles farmhand named Steve Dalkowski could throw as fast as Feller himself (if never very straight), and he was but 5'11", 170. Feller has an ordinary 33½-inch sleeve and a size-10 glove. "You can't really explain it, can you?" he asks. "But by the time I was nine years old, I knew I could throw a baseball faster than anybody else."
Now it is 77 years later, and he is still out there, upon the mound, holding a baseball, rearing back, ready to hurl it plateward, yea, even as Thor hurled thunderbolts.
It is difficult to imagine now what a marvel Feller was when he burst upon the scene in 1936, a callow youth of 17. Many athletes are great. Bob Feller was seminal. In that long-ago time, unlike nowadays, it was unheard of for teenagers to succeed in the big top of athletics. Children politely waited for their turn in the sunshine. Perhaps in all the world only Sonja Henie had previously excelled at so young an age in any sport that mattered, and, after all, she was but a little girl wearing tights and fur trim, performing dainty figure eights. Feller dressed in the uniform of the major league Cleveland Indians, striking out--fanning!--American demigods. In his first start Bobby Feller struck out 15, one short of the league record. Then, later in the season, he broke the mark, fanning 17, one for each year of his life, in the only professional team sport that mattered then in the United States.
He led the league with 240 strikeouts when he was still a teenager, in 1938. The next year he was best with 24 wins when he was still not old enough to drink. Six times he had the most wins, seven times the most strikeouts, and both of those totals might well have been in double figures had he not spent the heart of his career on a battleship. In 1940 he threw baseball's only Opening Day no-hitter, then went on to earn the pitchers' triple crown: most wins, most strikeouts, best ERA.
Cleveland, of course, took him to its bosom. "I don't think anything had ever happened like Feller," says Bob August, his contemporary and a native of the city who grew up to be a distinguished journalist there. "It was the Depression, and things were pretty bad here, and then this amazing kid came along. What a lift it gave us all. People today who don't know exactly what he did still seem to sense how special Bob Feller was to Cleveland."
To the nation, he was as much a sensation as a curiosity. The press called him Master Feller, and General Mills hired the phenomenon to endorse its cereals in tandem with the only minor more famous than he, Shirley Temple. Dutifully he went back to high school after his rookie season. The next spring he made the cover of Time magazine, and at a time when radio meant as much as television does now, NBC radio covered live, in its entirety, his graduation from Van Meter (Iowa) High.
The boy was also the first athlete to be raised by his father to be a star. Bill Feller was a no-nonsense farmer, working 360 acres by the Raccoon River, but before little Bobby could walk, the father would sit on the davenport, roll a rubber ball to him and then hold up a pillow to catch the infant's return tosses. Bill Feller switched to growing wheat instead of corn because that took less labor, allowing more time for Bobby to play ball. In the winter they threw together on the second floor of the three-story barn, so that the boy could keep that magic appendage of his in shape. Bobby could throw a curve at the age of eight (and it never did any harm to his arm). He was beating whiskered high school teenagers when he was still in grade school. When the boy was 13, prefiguring that fictional Iowa field of dreams, father and son cut down about 20 big oak trees and carved out an actual diamond right there on the farm. Of course, they built a real mound. And a scoreboard and a refreshment stand, too, for the wide-eyed visitors who flocked to the farm and paid to see the boy wonder set men down.
Feller was raised Roman Catholic. One day the parish priest upbraided Bill for allowing his son to play on Sabbath afternoons. Bob still remembers. His father said this to the priest: "I'll never see you again." Thereupon he turned heel, and the Fellers started worshipping on Sunday mornings as Methodists, so that Bob might play on Sunday afternoons without sanctimonious censure from the clergy.
The bidding for Feller's services began. The family chose the Indians mostly because they were comfortable with Cleveland's scout, Cy Slapnicka, a no-nonsense Iowan like themselves. The following year, when there was some dispute about whether the Indians had observed the legal arcana in signing the prodigy, Judge Landis, the commissioner, was inclined to void the contract and put the lad on the open market. Now understand: Aided by the fact that he even looked like a wrathful Jehovah, Kennesaw Mountain Landis had put the fear of God into everybody in baseball for 15 years. Well, to his face, the farmer from the Raccoon River told the commissioner: Do that, mister, take my boy away from where he wants to play, and I'll haul baseball into court. Landis backed down. Feller never played with anybody but the Indians all his life. His statue now stands outside the team's park. "Bill Feller was one smart Iowa farmer," Bob Feller declares.
And so the tree was bent. Almost from the moment he arrived in the majors, Feller was known for speaking his mind, doing it his way. "The Indians never tried to tell me anything," he says stoutly. They knew better. Feller got a pilot's license at the age of 20, when that was risky business. He was the first major leaguer to enlist in the armed services after Pearl Harbor. When the fleet admiral wanted him to leave the war zone and go on shore duty in Hawaii, where all he had to do was pitch for the Navy team, Chief Petty Officer Feller said no thanks, he wouldn't leave his ship.
After the war he battled owners about his right to run barnstorming troupes in the off-season. He struck out Jackie Robinson and told everyone that the black guy would never make it because he was too musclebound to handle a high hard one--and it doesn't faze Feller in the least that he still hasn't heard the end of that. He was the highest-paid player in the game and the first president of the players' association, fighting for what little they could get then: telephones in the clubhouse, toilets in the bullpen, penny-ante stuff like that.
But then, when the games were over, everything crumbled because of something he couldn't control. It drove him batty, but there wasn't anything he could do, and all the big money he had made as the highest-paid player in the game, all his rainy-day security, drip-dripped away until about all Rapid Robert had left was that mythical arm. So he would travel the country, flying his own plane, driving rental cars, working the sticks--Bob Feller Pitches Tonight!--a lounge act, tossing up a few to tank-town anchormen and politicians before minor league games, signing autographs, even working the dank clubhouses, trying to peddle insurance policies to the bush leaguers. "I was licensed in 39 states," he explains. He booked his circuit himself in the off-season, using his experience from his barnstorming tours with other major leaguers. For more than three decades he did this, 80 or 90 dates in his best years. He flew 10,000 hours, he says, not giving up his license till he was 75 years old.
Meanwhile his superstar contemporaries--and there were only three of them mentioned in the same breath as Rapid Robert--had, each in his way, become comfortable aristocracy, certified as icons. DiMaggio: always in his sleek, silvery suits, Mr. Coffee, and ... nation's Most Famous Widower. Williams: fishing, bloviating, doing as he damn well pleased, and the devil take the hindmost. Musial: Stan the Doyen of St. Louis, holding court at his restaurant, the National League grandee. And then there was Feller, alone with his arm, on the road, playing all the places he never had to work as a pro, because then he had been the child prodigy and come straight to the top. In some ways he had to live his life backward, the bushes after the big time. But it was a living. His creditors all got paid. His three boys all got their college educations. He found a new wife at church. Slowly, he got it back.
"I'm not complaining," the old man says stoutly. "I had the shorts. Lots of people have had the shorts."
When ballplayers began to realize that their signatures had a value other than the merely sentimental, autographing turned commercial for those who labored at signing as surely as it had been for the sharpies who had brokered these scribbled wares. This offended many citizens who otherwise were capitalist-Americans; there was the sense that providing negotiable autographs, gratis, was as much a part of an athlete's obligation as playing the games. Feller, who had always had a reputation for appreciating the mercantile, was in the vanguard of those who charged for their signatures. Soon, intimations that he was greedy, which had first surfaced when he ran his barnstorming tours with a fine regard for every dollar, resurfaced.
He remains unapologetic. "An autograph is a commodity," he declares. "You can sell it. You can give it away. Or you don't have to produce it." And so he has turned them out, as he boasts, in greater numbers than any man who has ever graced a diamond. When someone proffers him a pen, Feller looks offended, as if he'd just as soon go out without his trousers as without a pen. "I never go anywhere without one in my pocket," he announces. In fact, at official autographing sessions he comes armed with a variety of pens, selecting the best one for the various surfaces he inscribes: balls, photographs, postcards, books (primarily Bob Feller's Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom), programs, figurines, bobbleheads, whatever.
This is important: He never signs in black ink, only in blue. "Blue is the American League color, black the National League," he explains with definitude, as, indeed, he makes most statements. "Ninety-nine percent of the people don't know that." Yes, what exactly accounts for that difference, the black and the blue? Well, Feller explains, when he first came up in the '30s, the two leagues had different balls. The National League ball's laces were black intertwined with the red, the American's blue and red. Besides Feller, what man alive remembers that? But that is why, when Rapid Robert autographs, it is invariably in blue ink. (If you have an authentic Feller in black ink, it would be like a philatelist having a misprinted postage stamp.) And this is how he signs his name:
H O F '62
The third line is short for Hall of Fame, 1962--the year that he was inducted at Cooperstown (with, of all people, Jackie Robinson, arrghhh). Bobby Doerr and Phil Rizzuto are slightly older immortals than Feller, but no living legend exceeds his 43 years of residence in the Shrine. He returns to Cooperstown every summer, signing away along with many of the other diamond divinities, gritting his teeth that Pete Rose is usually bivouacked nearby on the main drag, gaily signing for the Philistines who flock to his sullied presence.
But now, as autograph seekers line up at spring training, especially on Bob Feller Day, Rapid Robert has things perfectly organized. Julie Bailey, the executive director of the Bob Feller Museum in Feller's hometown of Van Meter, hands out literature and price lists to those who stand in the heat upon the long and winding queue. A volunteer for the Indians sits around the corner of the table from Feller, tabulating the items to be signed, collecting the cash. Basically it's a bargain: five bucks per signature, with most of today's money earmarked for the museum.
Unlike so many celebrities who brook no social intercourse whatsoever with the poor petitioners they sign for, Feller is engaging, even expansive with all those who provide items for him to inscribe. "Sure," he says, "when you talk to people, it slows it down and you can't make as much money, but I just like to meet people." Boy, does he.
"I know there's a lot of players, they just go like this when they're signing," he says, ducking his head to display his young-style new buzz cut in the bargain. "You only see the tops of their heads." He raps his white noggin. "I think that's pretty rude."
Rude, in fact, is an old-fashioned word that Feller uses a lot. As for Feller himself, in the four hours of today's session, the only time he gets kind of rude himself is when a gentleman hands Feller his own pen--with what appears to be the cursed National League black ink.
Feller snaps up his blue-ink pen, grouses, "I know what I'm doing," and only shows the offender the top of his head.
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."
But then, as he chats away, it emerges that Feller has encountered an eclectic group of people in his life. He met a young naval officer named Richard M. Nixon on the beach at Saipan. He rode around at night with Walter Winchell as he was putting his dot-dot-dot column together. He heard Frank Sinatra sing for tips at a bar named Lucy's in Los Angeles. He went hunting with (here's an odd couple) Jimmy Doolittle and Roy Rogers in Nebraska. And baseball: He saw an ancient Grover Cleveland Alexander pitch for the House of David team. He played golf with Nap Lajoie. He went to Cy Young's funeral. He showed Sandy Koufax his curveball grip. Young to Feller to Koufax. Sometimes Feller sounds like a baseball Zelig. And then, he has been everywhere. He knows landing strips the way most people only know interstates. Bob Feller's a human gazetteer.
"Where you from?"
"You never heard of it, Bob."
"Oh, sure, I know, right by Route 7. Nice people down there."
A pretty young woman approaches. "I met you in Zebulon, North Carolina, 13 years ago."
"Oh, sure, Zebulon."
"You were so nice to me then. I just wanted to see if you were still as nice."
She comes round the table and poses with him for a snapshot. He puts on his standard professional smile. He lets everybody take his picture. There is no charge for that.
"Bob, can you make this out to Ken...?" and he says the surname.
"I don't do last names."
"Well, where you from?"
"Way up in Canada."
"Sure, Winnipeg. There was a guy named Bruno Hauss there. Almost ruined baseball in Winnipeg. He'd schedule a doubleheader, run 'em out after the first game, and then you had to pay to get back in. Of course I remember Winnipeg."
Somebody brings him a couple of balls that pitchers from the visiting Toronto Blue Jays have sent over. He has a hot dog and washes it down with coffee. Feller drinks a lot of coffee. It's from his Navy days. In the service, as anybody who has ever been in the service knows, everybody drinks coffee. As long as you have a cup of coffee in your hand and/or are carrying a clipboard, nobody makes you do anything.
"Old Dominion, huh?" Feller says to the next guy, who is wearing a college T-shirt. "Great athletic facilities there."
The guy shakes his head, dumbfounded. How does the old man know all this about everywhere? Hasn't he ever forgotten anything? Feller goes on a lot more about Norfolk, where Old Dominion is located. It holds up the line and costs the museum money, but he is having a good time. Besides, Norfolk is a sailor's town, and Feller is an old salt. He was all but born and bred in that briar patch.
He picks up the next figurine. "Who's it to?" This guy has heard about the prohibition on last names, so, prudently, he just gives his first name. Feller inscribes it. best wishes.... "Where you from?"
"Upstate New York."
"You wouldn't know."
Feller stops writing. He's even a little indignant. "Where?"
Feller shakes his head in exasperation. "Utica. Of course, I remember Utica very well. Both the dugouts were on the third base line, side by side. And the clubhouse was in a trailer." He finishes his name and adds, H O F¬†'62. He hands it to the man. "I remember Utica very well," he says with definitude.
And so it goes. Finally the line starts to peter out, and he tells Julie to cut it off. The volunteer closes up the cash box. Feller is still sitting there a few minutes later, drinking coffee, when a boy with a glove rushes up with his father.
"Sorry," Julie says.
Feller looks up, sees the boy, sees the glove. There isn't a boy with a baseball glove he can ignore. "Whaddya play?" he asks.
"Yeah, that's what I played till I found out I couldn't hit," the old man says. The boy nods. Feller says, "Well, if you're a baseball player, I'll sign." The boy hands over his figurine, and Feller inscribes it and gives it back.
The boy examines the signature. Probably he'd never heard of the old player until his father clued him in today. It's like Feller says about some of the young Indians, "The kids just stare at the wall when they hear my name." Flabbergasted, he even mentions a player who'd never heard--never heard--of Babe Ruth. But now he just looks back at the boy looking at his signature. Finally, Feller snaps, "You forgot something."
Flummoxed, the boy looks all around. He doesn't get it. Not at all. Finally, his embarrassed father whispers to him. "Oh, yeah, thank you," says the boy.
Feller watches him go--more in sadness than irritation. This time he doesn't say rude. He doesn't have to. Even for somebody who isn't PC, it isn't worth the breath.
Later, back in his hotel room, Feller shakes his head. "It's a better country than when I was growing up," he says--but quickly then, "but only technologywise. It's more of a violent country, and characterwise, no, not at all. I don't think enough parents think, I'm going to make my children do what I did to become strong." He shakes his head again. "No, characterwise, no."
Don't you hate it when writers try to place someone old back in their time by telling you what the Dow Jones averages were then and how much a suit of clothes cost? Well, you don't need to trick up Feller's antiquity. It's so quaint, it bespeaks another epoch altogether. It's not just that he was born a week before World War I ended and signed up for World War II the day after Congress declared war. When he first went to Cleveland he lived in a boardinghouse, and the other roomer he talked to the most was a veteran ... of the Civil War. Feller himself grew up on a farm without indoor plumbing. A generator supplied what electricity there was; he read by a kerosene lamp. The Fellers made their own soap. When phone service reached Van Meter, it was only a party line; one long, four shorts was the Fellers' ring. Young Bobby milked cows, tended to hogs, cattle, horses and chickens; he hauled hay and helped his father plant and harvest. It's a favorite hoary memory of all old-time farmers but God's truth: He really did troop three miles to school when it snowed and the buses couldn't get through. He had a dog he loved that loved him back named Tagalong.
It sounds almost as if Ma and Pa Kettle were down the road a piece.
"Bob's still so outdoors," says Anne, his wife. "Growing up on the farm, the baseball, the battleship. He's still the farm boy. Even when he's home, he can't stay indoors. Suddenly, he says he's got to go out to the barn." There are a bunch of tractors out there. All those years on the road, the one thing Feller most loved to do, besides pitch baseballs, was go visit people who kept tractors, look at them, talk about them.
He's still convinced that it was the hardship of farm life that made him the man he is, and that it was the hard work that made his arm so strong and magical. "Good clean food, good fresh air," he says--although the fact is that because of all the years on the road, food is just fuel to him. Anne says he simply assures her that everything she serves him is "delicious" and chows it down. Given a choice, he'll order liver. The iron, good for you.
He's remarkably healthy, even if his hearing aid is always failing him. But then, farmers pretty much aren't allowed to take time off. "Bob never gets sick," Anne says. "Oh, some sniffles every few years, but he only gets them at home when it's convenient. As soon as he has to go on the road, he's fine." All those years working the sticks, he was a single; there wasn't any understudy if Rapid Robert came to town and couldn't get up on the mound.
But if you are healthy and avoid the alternative and grow old, and better yet, still have your faculties and still get around, then when you shoot your mouth off, people tend to explain you away just for being old. But while Feller hasn't been old very long, he has always shot his mouth off. The newspaper boys loved him, even protected him some when he sputtered particularly impolitic notions. Anne, who has been married to Bob for 30 years now, says, "Bob just says things without thinking. You know, I actually asked a doctor once, 'Really, is it medically possible to die of embarrassment?' And when he said no, it really wasn't, I just said to myself, Well then, I wasn't going to worry again about some of the things Bob says."
Like his deliveries on the diamond, Feller comes at you high and hard from the right. If he shoots from the hip, though, he has the ammunition. CNN Headline News is always on in his room, and wherever he is, he searches out The New York Times. "For the news!" he hastens to say, as he heads down a side street, flush with quarters, seeking out a Times vending box. "Not the editorials." No, for the slant, he tunes in Rush Limbaugh. Unlike his old pal of like political stripe, Williams, who would deliver his opinions in vulgar bombast, Feller is more in the Dick Cheney mode, expressing his staunchest opinions in his static Midwestern argot, without a great deal of expression, but also without resort to profanity. (Decorously, if not quite stopping to say "pardon my French," he does make a reference to "that Clinton getting BJs in the Oval Office.")
Of course, sometimes extraordinary times bring out more evident passion, as when, two years ago, shortly after the war in Iraq began, Feller stormed into the Indians' spring-training pressroom, bellowing, "Some of the guys on this team aren't going to have a good year, but I'll tell you who's really not going to have a good year. [Pause for effect, louder] Saddam Hussein!"
More often, though, Feller's statements are cogent, spoken with poise and conviction in equal parts. For example, this assessment of the here and now: "It's the instant-gratification generation. The shameless generation. Nothing shames them. The last 30 years: all greed. All green greed. And everything has to be action. No dead air. Every half inning they have to have some damn thing to amuse them--like they're children. It's like the movies. All the movies today are made for 16-year-old nymphomaniacs."
But Feller will surprise you. He's not easily pigeonholed. He doesn't, for example, think that President Bush is much of a leader, certainly not in the mode of men--Democrats (!)--like FDR and Truman.
Likewise, Feller is totally unforgiving on the subject of Pete Rose and is so unrelenting on the matter of his sin, gambling, that he actually carries with him copies of baseball Rule 21(d), the injunction against betting on baseball--growing furious when he sees it is not posted, as it should be, in the Indians' clubhouse. "I'm going to tell them to put it up, or I'll put it up myself," he fulminates. But then, with definitude, he'll say, "The people who criticize Rose for what he did to Ray Fosse in that All-Star Game don't know what they're talking about."
If you will recall, in just a high-tone exhibition, Rose, giving no quarter, barreled into Fosse, who was trying to tag him out at home, so injuring the catcher that, effectively his career was ended. Says Feller, "I was right there and saw it. Whatever they say about Rose, he had no choice but to do what he did to Fosse. Fosse had come up the line, and there was no way Rose could get around him. He did what a base runner should do."
Neither does Feller profess any jealousy over the great salaries players make today, nor, like a lot of old-timers, does he rail on that the game of his youth was glorious but since he himself retired it's all gone to hell in a handbasket. The only thing he is sure was better back then were the baseball shoes. Spalding made them out of a special kangaroo hide, with individual casts for the major leaguers' feet. Then came the war, and Spalding went into making Army boots, and players have never since been shod so well. It's like the black and the blue seams: Who knew? "Now, the managing now," he goes on, "some of that is asinine, it's so overly scientific. A batter comes up, they sit there flipping through a Chinese phone directory to figure out how to pitch to him, and by the time they find the right page, the guy's got a hit and you've lost. But I don't know if it's better or worse. It's just different. Fans like hitting, so we have more balls moving around. The trouble is, now there's so many home runs, it's gotten to be ho-hum. The records have all been broken, so the fans don't care. They've ruined the game for now, but"--he pauses, and without doubt, adds--"it'll blow over."
Of course, however baseball has changed, pitching has changed the most. Starting pitchers are only that now: starters, like soups or shrimp cocktail. "Yeah, five and fly," Feller snorts. Give the team five innings and go to the shower. In his time he would start (and usually finish) every fourth day, and on the middle day between starts he would either pitch batting practice--"without a screen," he declares, "keeps you alert"--or throw a couple of innings in relief. Today only the rare, hardiest pitchers work so much as 225 innings in a season. In 1946 Feller threw 371 innings for the Indians, then went barnstorming, leading a team of white stars against Satchel Paige and the best Negro leaguers. He and Paige would go two, three innings against each other almost every game. Feller figures he started 26 games in a row, most of them without a day off. So he threw about 450 innings that year, and come the next season he was as fast as ever.
Now, in the Cleveland clubhouse, he chances upon a young pitcher with his money arm wrapped in ice. Feller shakes his head. "Put heat on it and save the ice for beer," he tells the kid.
Feller grabs some grub from the team buffet. "I know it's not the same," he says. "We paced ourselves. I got to the bottom of the order, unless somebody got on, I'd let up, save myself. Now they have to bear down against every batter. But I'll tell you this: What starting pitchers don't have to do today is face the pressure at the end of a close game."
It's an interesting point. Athletes are supposed to work in the cauldron. The best hitters, after all, periodically come up late in games in clutch situations. Quarterbacks make their bones off what they can do in the last two minutes. The most admired basketball players are the ones who call for the ball with the seconds ticking away and the game on the line. But starting pitchers? It isn't their fault, but we rarely find out how big their hearts are anymore. It's different when you don't know for sure if somebody can put on the finishing touches.
Anne Feller says, "For all he accomplished in baseball, and all that baseball means to him, I still think Bob's more proud about his service in the Navy." When Feller himself meets an inquisitor, the very first thing he says is, "Now, did you find out about my time in the Navy?" Maybe, as some suggest, Feller has to hold his service in such high esteem because it cost him so much of his career; he has to justify that time lost. After all, few in baseball sacrificed more to war than Rapid Robert Feller did--though none, of course, matched Harvard Eddie Grant, who was killed in World War I. Feller finished with 266 wins. It would have been closer to 350 had there been no war.
In fact, no one served more willingly, and no one seems to have fewer regrets, than Feller. He was driving his fancy new Buick Century (with expensive accessories: radio and heater) from Van Meter to Chicago on Dec. 7, 1941, to meet with Indians officials and sign his new contract. On old Route 6, just after crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa, he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He decided right then that he would sign up. Right then. He was sworn in on Dec. 9--never mind before any other ballplayer, before any other celebrity in the land. He could have had a deferment, too, because his father was terminally ill, and he was the sole supporter of the family.
Feller wanted to be a fighter pilot but couldn't qualify because his high-frequency hearing was deficient--from growing up, he thinks, in proximity to so many noisy tractors and hunting guns. Instead the Navy assigned him to a physical fitness program, but he volunteered for combat and was put aboard the battleship Alabama. There, as chief of a gun crew, he first saw action in the Atlantic and then, most extensively, in the Pacific, where the Alabama fought from the Gilbert Islands and the Marshalls to Truk, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam and, finally, the great sea battles off the Philippines. When he finally was rotated back to the States, in '45, he told a reporter, "Baseball and malted milks and a duck-hunting trip are the things that fellows want to come back to when this thing is over."
Feller himself came back to all that and a bride too. He had met Virginia Winther one spring training when she was attending Rollins College. She was so pretty, so gracious, so bright, so perfect for the star of the heartland. They married in January 1943 when he came home on emergency leave because his father had died. Their first son, Steve, was born in '45, and then a second, Marty, in '47. Virginia was given a blood transfusion after that birth, but someone goofed up and she received the wrong blood type. The mistake often means death; in her case she survived, but she suffered pernicious anemia. For that various medications were prescribed, and Virginia fell under the thrall of both amphetamines and barbiturates. She and Bob would remain married till 1971; indeed, they would have a third son, Bruce, in 1950. But it was never the same again. "The problem was just always there," Feller says forlornly. The problem was that he was now married to a drug addict.
The situation would have been daunting for anyone. For Feller, so imbued with old-fashioned values, so convinced that hard work and dedication could surely solve any human failing, the frustration grew even more vexing. But even with all the help he sought for Virginia, the trips to the Mayo Clinic, the pleadings, the prayers, she would not or could not be cured. Feller tried to keep up appearances, but the whispers began, even as more and more money went out. More prosaically, Virginia's dependency, her unpredictability, her extreme mood swings, had to affect Feller's preparation for games. Often she would be up, wandering the house, at all hours of the night. "I probably pitched better on the road," he says, "because then I wasn't so distracted." But even then, he couldn't altogether escape. Before one trip, to prevent Virginia from overdosing, he took her pills and hid them about the house--just enough to satisfy her addiction. Then, regularly, he would call her up and tell her where the next batch was hidden.
Altogether, he estimates that her condition cost him many hundreds of thousands of dollars. When he finally divorced Virginia in 1971, she took the great house they lived in outside Cleveland too. That is why he had the shorts; that is why he started barnstorming the country, showcasing that Excalibur of an arm that all the rubes had heard about, but had never seen back before TV.
It was, of course, also before radar guns that could measure how fast a ball actually moved. A couple of primitive efforts were made to gauge how fast Feller actually threw. In 1941, for example, a motorcycle going 86 mph roared up behind him and tried to beat his pitch to the plate. The pitch won easily. Deduced from that: Feller threw at 104. At Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium on another occasion, with somewhat more sophisticated equipment borrowed from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Feller's speed was measured at 98.6 mph (which, with modern methodology, would be in the 101-102 range). That was in '46, when he'd lost a smidgen off his fastball. Certainly any reasonable assessment would be that Master Feller threw a baseball above 100 mph when he first came up--especially since in those blue-seam days, Feller says, the American League ball was aerodynamically better for speed (as the higher black-seamed National League ball was for breaking pitches). If anyone, Bob Feller was one human being who could, as they say, throw a hole through the wind.
What Feller lost off his fastball during the war was negligible. The 1946 season was his best for strikeouts--348--as he went after Rube Waddell's record and fell one short. But in the fateful year '47, when his wife became addicted, Feller also lost the magic touch, that indefinable edge that set him above all the other fireballers. He knows exactly when it happened: in June in Philadelphia, at Shibe Park, on a Friday the 13th. He was mowing the A's down with fastballs. Of the first 10 batters, he struck out eight, and he was so overpowering, "I began thinking about 20," he says. Nobody had ever done that before. Then, with two strikes on the next man, a guy named Barney McCosky, Feller's catcher, Jim Hegan, called for a curve. On the breaking pitch, that high left leg came down slightly differently, and when it hit loose dirt that Feller hadn't touched before, he slipped just a bit, and something in his back tore. Just enough.
"That day I was as good as I ever was," Feller says, "but I never had my best fastball after that."
Of course, he was hardly finished. He would win another 120 games, leading the Indians to their last world championship the next year, 1948. That was largely because he had developed a fabulous curveball. He would work on it on the road, perfecting his motion, flinging a ball into the pillow on his hotel bed. Feller even thinks that, in his whole career, he struck out more men with his curve than with his heat. One time old Walter Johnson watched Feller pitch and decided, "I was a little faster than you."
For once, Feller was at his diplomatic best. "I stopped myself from saying, 'Yeah, but you didn't have my curveball.'" That would have been rude. Maybe Johnson was faster. Maybe Nolan Ryan. Maybe ... who knows for sure? Mirror, mirror on the wall....
But no one was ever so compelling a power pitcher as Bob Feller when he came off the farm. It was his speed that made Feller a marvel of his time, and if that time--of davenports and tilling the soil, of Depression and war, of ballplayers dreaming of malted milks and a good bird hunt--is long behind us, the forthright old man is still here, and his good right arm, that marvelous, legendary American limb, is still operating. What a soupbone it was!
So now, Rapid Robert descends the mound, having flung the horsehide one more time to officially inaugurate his day, and through the crowd he saunters, assuring the faithful that he will, at the appointed place, be autographing whatever artifacts are presented to him.
Of course, we do not do last names.
It's difficult to imagine now what a marvel Feller was when he burst upon the scene.
By any reasonable assessment, Feller threw over 100 mph when he came up.
When the games ended, everything crumbled because of something he couldn't control.
"Three days before he pitched, I'd start to think about Robert Feller," said Ted Williams.
Feller finished with 266 wins. It would have been closer to 350 without the war.
"He speaks without thinking," says Anne. "I asked a doctor, 'Can you die of embarrassment?'"
"When you talk to people, you can't make as much money," he says, "but I like to meet them."