By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."Strikeout King
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.
At the end of the season, Mr. Feller went back to his home town of Van Meter, Iowa, for his senior year of high school. His graduation was broadcast nationwide on radio, and he was on the cover of Time magazine at 18.
On the final day of the 1938 season, pitching against the Detroit Tigers, Mr. Feller struck out 18 hitters to set a new major-league record. (Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood share the current mark, with 20.) He also established a less enviable record in 1938 by walking 208 batters in one season - a number that still stands.
Mr. Feller's fastball was so extraordinary that there were repeated efforts to measure its precise speed. He once threw a pitch that easily overtook a motorcycle racing at 86 mph. Another time, military equipment used to test projectiles was set up at Washington's Griffith Stadium, timing Mr. Feller's fastball between 98 and 107 mph.
Baseball writer Tim Wendel concluded in "High Heat," his 2010 book about kings of the fastball, that Mr. Feller was the third-hardest thrower in history, behind Ryan and minor-league phenomenon Steve Dalkowski.
"Feller is the best pitcher living," New York Yankee star Joe DiMaggio said in 1941."I don't think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does."Symbol of the game
Robert William Andrew Feller was born on Nov. 3, 1918, in Van Meter, Iowa, and grew up on his family's farm.
When not doing farmwork, he was hurling a rubber ball against the side of a shed or pitching to his father in the barn. He once broke his father's ribs with a fastball.
The young Mr. Feller was a star attraction by the time he was 12. Years before a mythical baseball diamond was carved from an Iowa cornfield in the movie "Field of Dreams," Mr. Feller's father built a ballfield in his pasture to showcase his son's talents.
In 1936, as a high school junior, Mr. Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball. He never pitched in the minor leagues.
By 1940, he was one of the highest-paid players in the game. He eventually made $100,000 a year, with contract clauses that gave him extra compensation for increased attendance. He led offseason barnstorming tours with other baseball stars and advertised a wide array of products - although he refused to endorse alcohol, tobacco or patent medicines.
Years later, it came to light that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to treat the drug and alcohol dependency of his first wife, Virginia Winther. They later divorced.
In 1947, Mr. Feller injured his arm. He was never quite the same pitcher again. When the Indians won the World Series over the Boston Braves in 1948, four games to two, both losses were charged to Mr. Feller.
By adding a slider to his pitching repertoire, Mr. Feller bounced back in 1951 to lead the league with 22 wins. In 1954, when the Indians won the American League title, he won 13 games.
As one of the organizers of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1950s, Mr. Feller served as its first president and helped establish a pension plan for retired ballplayers.
Mr. Feller spent more years as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. than any other player in history, having been elected in 1962. He was outspoken about preserving baseball's standards and fought against admitting steroid users and convicted gambler Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame. He was equally dismissive of modern-day pitchers, who he thought were coddled by pitch counts--a limit on the number of pitches thrown in games.
"The pitch count, to me, is ridiculous," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2010. "It's a lot of horse muffins."
Mr. Feller settled outside Cleveland in Gates Mills, Ohio, where he kept four tractors.
Survivors include his second wife, Anne Morris Giuiland, whom he married in 1974; and three children from his first marriage.
As a goodwill ambassador for the Indians , Mr. Feller appeared at the team's spring training games, often playing catch on the field in his familiar No. 19 uniform. In 2009, at the age of 90, he was spry enough to pitch in a Hall of Fame exhibition game in Cooperstown.
He signed autographs for countless fans and reminisced with an unfailing memory about players and games long in the past. Yet he fiercely guarded his place in baseball history and did not hesitate to correct any distortions of his record.
In the 1990s, when a statue of Mr. Feller was being designed for Cleveland's new baseball stadium, he had the sculptor change his grip on the baseball and asked that a can of snuff be removed from his hip pocket.
"I never used that stuff," he said.