“Bullet” Bob Feller – An American Hero

Every now and then I read or hear something that really strikes a nerve with me; and though it is usually a negative nerve, occasionally it is a positive nerve – sometimes very positive.

Such was the case yesterday morning when I saw a tweet from MLB.com that read “On this date in 1942, Bob Feller reported for duty in the U.S. Navy.” Yes, this struck a very positive nerve with me.

Although I was just shy of three years old when Feller pitched his final game for the Cleveland Indians, the team that he had spent his entire 18-year career with, I most certainly knew about him growing up in a household that loved baseball. But it wasn’t until years later that I learned what a true American hero Bob Feller really was. In fact, it wasn’t until well after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 that I came to really know who this fellow they called “Rapid Robert”, “The Heater from Van Meter”, and “Bullet Bob” really was.

“My father loved baseball and he cultivated my talent,” said Feller during a 1975 interview. “I don’t think he ever had any doubt in his mind that I would play professional baseball someday.” (New York Times photo)

“My father loved baseball and he cultivated my talent,” said Feller during a 1975 interview. “I don’t think he ever had any doubt in his mind that I would play professional baseball someday.”
(New York Times photo)

Like most, I had seen the classic video clip of Feller throwing a baseball at 104 MPH in an exhibition in which a policeman on a speeding Harley Davidson motorcycle was used. The test was conducted in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and required Feller to hit a target 12 inches in diameter that was exactly 60 feet 6 inches away. The motorcycle passed Feller going 86 miles per hour and with a 10-foot head start, but the ball beat the motorcycle to the target by three feet. It was initially calculated that Feller’s throw was 98.6 MPH but this was corrected to 104 MPH using a more accurate measuring method.

Robert William Andrew Feller was born on November 3, 1918 in Van Meter, Iowa. He grew up on a farm and credited his arm strength and ball speed to “…milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay” and recalled his childhood fondly: “What kid wouldn’t enjoy the life I led in Iowa? Baseball and farming, and I had the best of both worlds.”

Feller made his Major League debut on July 19, 1936 in a relief appearance against the Washington Senators – he was 17 years old. He made his first career start a little more than a month later on August 23. Indians manager Steve O’Neill had Denny Galehouse ready in the bullpen in case the 17-year old Feller had early troubles. Such was not the case as Feller struck out all three batters he faced in the first inning and went on to strike out 15 St. Louis Browns batters to set a new Indians record. Two weeks later he struck out 17 batters, tying a single-game strikeout record previously set by Dizzy Dean. He finished the 1936 season with a 5–3 record, appeared in 14 games, walked 47 and struck out 76 in his 62 innings of work. When Feller returned to Van Meter for his senior year of high school, the governor of Iowa greeted him and proclaimed him as “…the best-known young person in America, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple.”

Feller suffered an injury to his right arm in his first appearance of the 1937 season causing him to miss most of the season; however his 1938 season proved to be the first of many great seasons to come. Feller finished the 1938 season with an MLB-leading 240 strikeouts, but the highlight of his season occurred on October 2, 1938 in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Feller was the starting pitcher for the first game.

That day, Detroit’s Hank Greenberg was two home runs shy of tying Babe Ruth’s (then) single-season home run record of 60. Feller entered the ninth inning, one strikeout shy of tying the (then) MLB record of 17 strikeouts in a 9-inning game. He tied the record when he struck out Detroit’s Pete Fox and then broke the record when he struck out Chet Laabs for the fifth time that day. After the game, Greenberg said “Feller’s curve was jumping wickedly and with that and his fastball, he was murder.” Ironically, Feller did not earn a win that day as the Indians lost, 4–1. It was one of those days when everything feels perfect, your arm, your coordination, your concentration, everything,” said Feller. “There was drama in the air because of Greenberg’s attempt to break Ruth’s record, and the excitement grew even greater when my strikeouts started to add up,” he added.

On Opening Day of the 1940 season, Feller pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox. It remains the only no-hitter ever pitched on Opening Day.

On December 7, 1941, Feller heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor while driving from Des Moines, Iowa (where his terminally ill father was) to Chicago to meet with Indians’ officials to sign a new contract. Two days later Feller enlisted in the Navy, this in spite of the fact that he had been given a military exemption due to his father’s failing health.

Feller was the first American professional athlete to enlist, doing so two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (AP photo)

Feller was the first American professional athlete to enlist, doing so two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
(AP photo)

Feller initially wanted to become a fighter pilot but he failed his hearing tests and instead became an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the battleship USS Alabama. He saw action in the Pacific Theater during Operation Galvanic in November 1943 and Operation Flintlock in 1944. The Alabama also participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea before Feller’s combat duty ended in January 1945; after which he spent the remainder of his service time at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station as an instructor.

When the war ended and after being decorated with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars, Feller was discharged from the Navy on August 22, 1945. His bunk is marked on the USS Alabama at its permanent home in Mobile, Alabama.

The USS Alabama sits proudly at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama.(Photo credit - Ron Cervenka)

The USS Alabama sits proudly at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama.
(Photo credit – Ron Cervenka)

Feller is the only former Chief Petty Officer in the Baseball Hall of Fame and undoubtedly always will be. When he retired from baseball in 1956, he had won 266 games in his 18 seasons – all with the Indians. He acknowledges that his military service during the prime of his career probably cost him an additional 100 wins. “I know in my heart I would have ended up a lot closer to 400 than 300 if I hadn’t spent four seasons in the Navy,” Feller once said. “But don’t take that as a complaint. I’m happy that I got home in one piece.”

Albeit very brief, I was blessed to meet Bob Feller in person at Fan Fest during All-Star Week 2010 in Anaheim. And though I stood in line for nearly three hours to meet one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen, it was well worth every second of it.

When my all-too-brief 15 seconds came, I shook Feller’s 91-year-old golden hand and said to him “Thank you for your service to our country, Bob.” Apparently not too many other people had mentioned anything to him about his service to our country because he paused from the redundancy and tediousness of signing hundreds of autographs, looked up at me, smiled, and said “It was an honor to serve this great country.” He then signed a baseball for me and that was that.

Meeting Bob Feller is a moment that I shall cherish for the rest of my days. (Photo credit - Ron Cervenka)

Meeting Bob Feller is a moment that I shall cherish for the rest of my days. (Photo credit – Ron Cervenka)

As insignificant of a moment in time that this was for Bob Feller, it was a monumental moment in time for me – it was Monday, July 12, 2010.

On Wednesday, December 15, 2010, a short 156 days later, Bob Feller died from leukemia. He was 92.

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Feller Facts

  • Feller was an 8-time All-Star (1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1950).
  • In 1940, Feller won the American League’s pitching Triple Crown with a record of 27-11, an ERA of 2.61, and 261 strikeouts. He also led the majors that year with 31 complete games and 320.1 innings pitched.
  • On April 16, 1940, Feller became the one and only pitcher in MLB history to pitch a no-hitter on Opening Day.
  • Feller pitched three no-hitters during his 18-year career, a record that stood until 1965 when Sandy Koufax pitched four and Nolan Ryan later pitched seven.
  • Feller was the American League’s wins leader six times and strikeouts leader seven times.
  • It was estimated that Feller missed out on over $200,000 in salary when he served in the Navy.
  • During a barnstorming tour in 1945, Feller pitched against Jackie Robinson, who had recently been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson got two hits off of Feller. Robinson and Feller would meet again on July 22, 1962 – the day that both were inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, both on the first ballot.
  • Before the 1950 season, Feller suggested to Indians management that he take a pay cut. Indians general manager Hank Greenberg said “He himself made the suggestion. In fact, he offered to take more than the 25% maximum pay cut allowed. There was absolutely nothing to it.”
  • In 1956, Feller was elected as the inaugural president of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. He was an outspoken advocate of a players right to free agency.
  • Feller considered Ted Williams the fiercest batter he ever faced. “Trying to sneak a fastball by Ted Williams was like trying to sneak a sunbeam by a rooster in the morning,”
  • The Cleveland Indians retired Feller’s uniform number (#19) in 1957.
Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson at their Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 21, 1962 (Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum)

Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson at their Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 22, 1962
(Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

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5 Responses to ““Bullet” Bob Feller – An American Hero”

  1. KSparkuhl says:

    He was quite the Feller, wasn’t he? (You KNOW I just couldn’t help myself, right?)

    Good post, Ron. I very much would have enjoyed watching Mr. Feller pitch… for the Dodgers!! But that will have to remain on an alternate time-line than our own.

    I would imagine there aren’t many players today who would sacrifice their careers in defense of this country. It was a much simpler and moral time back then.

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      With the major league minimum at $490,000 (and going up to $500K next season), you will never again see a professional baseball player (MiLB or MLB) enlist in the military. You will also never again see a professional baseball player ask to have his salary cut.

      Bob Feller wasn’t just a great baseball player, he was a great man and a great American. They definitely broke the mold after he was born, that’s for sure.

      I didn’t want to post too many photos in the article so I’ll add this one here. This is from the Indians (and Reds) spring training ballpark in Goodyear, AZ. Do you think they loved Bob Feller or what?

  2. lindav says:

    Good article, Ron. I am still kicking myself – about 5 years ago, he came to The Palms in Las Vegas and I did not go “to the other side of town” to meet him and pay $20 for his autograph. How stupid was I??? (don’t bother to tell me, I know).

  3. MFGRREP says:

    That was a good article Ron, thank for sharing. didn’t know a lot about the man outside of his stats. He was a much bigger man then what baseball showed us.

  4. Bluenose Dodger says:

    Bullet Bob Feller was indeed a good man and a great pitcher. I couldn’t believe it in 1954 that Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Early Wynn couldn’t beat the Giants in the World Series although Bob Feller didn’t get a start.

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