Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, 92, dies
Monday, December 20, 2010; 10:58 AM
Bob Feller, a fireballing pitcher who broke into the big leagues as a 17-year-old sensation with the Cleveland Indians and was acclaimed as baseball's finest pitcher from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, died Dec. 15 at a hospice near Cleveland. He was 92 and had leukemia.
Mr. Feller, who came out of the cornfields of Iowa in 1936 as a rawboned righthander who threw harder than anyone else of his era, rode his mighty fastball to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also a significant figure off the field, as the first major leaguer to volunteer for military service during World War II and the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Before he turned 23 in 1941, Mr. Feller - nicknamed "Rapid Robert" - had 107 victories and was well on his way to being one of the most dominant pitchers in history. With his overpowering fastball and knee-buckling curveball, he had led the American League in strikeouts four times and in earned run average once.
"In a sport not noted for its prodigies, Bob Feller stands supreme," Donald Honig wrote in his 1975 oral history, "Baseball When the Grass Was Real." "Achieving star status at seventeen with a suddenness that was as dramatic as it was remarkable, Feller became baseball's most electrifying performer since Babe Ruth."
But two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Mr. Feller stepped away from his lucrative baseball career to join the war effort. He enlisted in the Navy and missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving as the chief of a gunnery crew aboard the battleship USS Alabama.
He returned to baseball late in 1945, then recorded his finest all-around season in 1946, with 26 wins and an ERA of 2.18. His 348 strikeouts were considered a single-season record until statisticians later amended Rube Waddell's 1904 total from 343 to 349. (The current record of 383 was set by Nolan Ryan in 1973.) Mr. Feller's 36 complete games in 1946 remain the highest total in baseball since 1916.
By the time he retired in 1956, Mr. Feller had compiled a record of 266-162, with an ERA of 3.25. He led the American League seven times in strikeouts and six times in victories. He pitched three no-hitters and a record 12 one-hit games.
In the decades since, baseball aficionados have speculated that Mr. Feller might have won 350 games and set the career strikeout record if he had not lost several of his prime baseball years to the military. But Mr. Feller never regretted his choice and regarded his years in the Navy as his most important contribution.
"You'll never hear me complain about my time in the service," he said in 2001. "Baseball is insignificant when it comes to war."
Other pitchers have compiled better records than Mr. Feller, but few have inspired the open-mouthed awe that made him a legend from the start. In 1936, as a 17-year-old high school student, he struck out eight of the nine batters in an exhibition game with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sportswriter Red Smith once described the effect the young Mr. Feller had on other players: "They were taking the pre-game exercises when the kid kicked his left foot high and delivered his first warm-up pitch. All over the field, action ceased. Nobody said anything. Everybody just stood still and watched."
Mr. Feller made his first official big-league appearance July 19, 1936, pitching one inning of scoreless relief at Washington's Griffith Stadium against the Senators. Less than two months later, on Sept. 13 against the Philadelphia Athletics, he equaled the major-league record of 17 strikeouts in a game.