Bob Feller, the Iowa farm boy turned Cleveland Indians pitcher whose fastball spun heads in the 1930s and 1940s and remains part of Major League Baseball lore, has died. He was 92.
Feller was diagnosed with leukemia in August and more recently was hospitalized with pneumonia before being moved to a Cleveland-area hospice, where he died last night, the Indians said on their website.
Nicknamed Rapid Robert and Bullet Bob, Feller was known first and foremost for how hard he threw, and only then for his hard-breaking curveball that finished off some batters. During World War II he served in the Navy, having signed up two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Bob was one of the first major leaguers to enlist following Pearl Harbor and served our country for nearly four years during the prime of his career,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in an e-mailed statement. “Bob Feller was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost a great American.”
A primitive test in 1941, pitting Feller’s fastball against a speeding motorcycle, reached the very rough conclusion that he threw at 104 mph, which today would challenge the fastest pitches recorded on radar guns. Another test five years later, using photoelectric cells, concluded Feller’s fastball flew at 98.6 mph as it crossed the plate.
“Bob Feller’s blazing fastball set the standard against which all of his successors have been judged,” according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1962.
His military service during World War II cost him almost four full seasons and a strong chance to reach the milestone of 300 career wins. He ended up with 266 wins and 162 losses during 18 seasons, all of them with the Indians of the American League. He threw three no-hit games, plus 12 one-hitters.
Feller led the major leagues in strikeouts seven times, amassing 2,581 in total, good for 26th on the all-time list, even pitching at a time when batters did all they could to make contact.
“It was kind of a stigma to strike out,” he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 2006. “They’d get two strikes and they’d choke up on their bats and try to put the ball in play. They’re swinging very hard now to hit home runs, because the money’s in the home runs. Now they swing just as hard on the third strike as on the first one.”
World Series Win
The Indians won the World Series once during his long tenure, beating the Boston Braves in 1948, with Feller losing both games he started in the series. The franchise retired his uniform No. 19 in 1957.
“It’s the ultimate American success story,” Indians spokesman Bob DiBiasio said. “Consider how a five-ounce baseball provided an Iowa farm boy the opportunity to travel the world as he became perhaps the greatest ambassador baseball has ever known.”
Robert William Andrew Feller was born on Nov. 3, 1918, in Van Meter, Iowa, about 20 miles west of Des Moines, to William Feller, a farmer, and his wife Lena. A sister followed several years later.
Feller’s father had loved playing baseball in his youth but turned his full attention to the family farm after the death of his own father. He made sure his son had every chance to excel at the sport. He built a baseball field on a section of the farm and then named and outfitted a team, the Oakviews, to play other local clubs. Admission was 25 cents.
$75 a Month
Feller became a standout pitcher and, in 1935, drew a visit from Indians scout Cy Slapnicka, who signed him on the spot for $75 a month -- plus, as a bonus, one dollar and a baseball signed by Indians players.
Feller skipped the minor leagues and made his first start for the Indians in August 1936, at 17, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15 batters, one shy of what was then the American League record. Three weeks later he tied the major- league mark of 17 strikeouts in a victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. After the season he returned to Van Meter for several months, to finish high school.
“Bob Feller on the mound was an engine of pure, brute force,” baseball historian Donald Honig wrote in his 2009 memoir. “There was no guile in this boy. He simply swung into his energetic windup and, with a high-kicking delivery ending with an airborne right leg, fired off a fastball that some people said -- heretically -- was the equal of Walter Johnson’s.”
In three seasons starting in 1939, Feller won 24, 27 and 25 games. The first of his 27 wins in 1940 was a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox, the only one ever pitched on an opening day. His other no-hitters came in 1946 and 1951.
“Bob has been such an integral part of our fabric,” Indians owner Larry Dolan said in a statement. “He is Cleveland, Ohio.”
He had 107 career wins when, at 23, he enlisted in 1941. As crew chief of an anti-aircraft gun on the USS Alabama, Feller earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars during World War II. He returned to baseball at the end of the 1945 season.
The years of military service did little to dull his skills. In his first two full seasons after the war, he posted 26 and 20 wins.
In his final years in uniform and several years after, he helped draft a pension plan for an association that was a forerunner to today’s baseball players’ union.
Feller married Virginia Winther in 1943, and they had three sons. That marriage ended in divorce. He married Anne Gilliland, a neighbor in the Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills, in 1974.
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