A crowd of fewer than 300 sits contentedly in the breezeless night air as a pair of farm teams in the Florida State League trudges along to the sixth inning tied 2-2. The fans might have dozed off, but a voice over the Dodgertown's Holman Stadium PA system snaps the place to life: Bob Feller is now at a desk and chair next to the press box behind home plate. He'll sign autographs.
Bob Feller? What is the legendary righthander, who pitched three no-hitters in his 20 years (1936-56) for the Cleveland Indians, doing here? It is no more than another semi-torpid night in the bush leagues.
Feller is earning $500, to deal with the grubby economics of appearance money first. But the easy buck is not what draws Feller, a wealthy man, to this ball field or t some 60 others on which he gives pregame exhibitions every year. He comes for the rewards that matter, such as displaying with proud industry the love of a game he began playing as a boy in his Iowa farmyard.
Feller at 66 visits places like Vero Beach to show the best side of baseball -- the clean side and the nostalgic side. It's a needed apostolate. Sports pages this month have been telling of baseball's shames and shadows. Mandatory drug tests have been called for by the commissioner of baseball. A grand jury in Pittsburgh is gathering information on drug use by major- league players. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth says that "the integrity of the game is everything. We've got to eliminate illegal substances which can be used to control people . . ."
In Bob Feller's day, the most dangerous illegal substance was saliva -- as on the spitballs thrown by wacky pitchers. Feller never threw them. His fastball, from the day he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first start at age 17 until he retired as a winner of 266 games, was plenty. So was his integrity, on and off the field.
The other evening at Vero Beach, which is the spring training camp for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Feller lobbed a few pitches from the mound before the game. The old form, though not the smoke, was there. Afterward, in the locker room behind the bullpen in right field, Feller, farm-boy friendly, indulged in a relaxed charm- filled spell of reminiscences.
Sure, he said with a wave of the right arm that once terrorized hitters, there was a drug problem in his time: nicotine. He laughed. A tobacco company once plied Feller with big money to be photographed -- and later plastered on billboards -- smoking Chesterfield cigarettes: "They offered me $5,000 a year -- for years -- but I always turned them down. I don't smoke. I never used tobacco in any form. How could I endorse a cigarette while I'm there eating a dish of Wheaties?"
It was the Wheaties endorsement with General Mills that reminded Feller of his boyhood in a farm town in central Iowa. "I ate Wheaties before they started paying me. My Dad didn't used to buy a box of Wheaties -- he bought 'em by the case! Twenty-four boxes in a case. He'd buy them in Des Moines and haul them home."
Breakfasting as a champion meant that his childhood fastballs had rare zip. They had to be caught with a pillow by his father. The family had little idea that it had a prodigy until, at 16, Feller signed a contract with the Indians. He is still on the team's payroll and works at spring training as a pitching coach. For 200 days a year, Feller is a one-man barnstorm and probably spreads more good will for baseball than any other former player.
Never a time-waster on the mound, Feller hits the strike zone with his remembrances. The toughest hitter he ever faced? "Tommy Henrich of the Yanks." The best left-handed hitter? "Ted Williams." The best right- handed hitter? "DiMaggio." What hitter did he most fear? "Nobody."
The only wild pitch that Feller throws these days is when he talks politics. He can't even see the plate. One minute he lavishes praise on Ronald Reagan -- who has had Feller to the White House and signs "Dutch" to his letters -- and the next he bemoans the unprecedented federal deficit. "I'm a conservative," says Feller the Republican. "I think we should pay our debts." The connection isn't made between his pal Reagan and the deficit, even though it's a fact as easy to see as a meatball down the middle.
After half an hour of lighthearted talk on baseball and politics, Feller walks to the stands. Fans are waiting. Half the stadium's crowd is about to form a line. Feller signs baseballs for the kids, scorecards of the old-timers and banters with everyone. His warmth and smiles are those of a man who loves the game and every day spent with it.
A Vero Beach luminary approaches and says, "Bob, I last talked to you when I was eight years old and you were at the New York World's Fair for an exhibition. That was 1938."
"Nope," said Feller, throwing another straight one, "that was '39."