Bob Feller, 92, Hall of Famer had blazing fastball

Pitcher Bob Feller in 1940. Pitcher Bob Feller in 1940.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians’ Hall of Fame righthander whose blazing fastball earned him the nickname “Rapid Robert’’ and made him the dominant pitcher in the Major Leagues during the late 1930s and much of the 1940s, died last night. He was 92.

Mr. Feller was diagnosed with leukemia in August and more recently was hospitalized with pneumonia before being moved to a Cleveland-area hospice, the Indians said on their website.

Ted Williams called Mr. Feller “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career. . . . He had the best fastball and curve I’ve ever seen.’’ Stan Musial called him “probably the greatest pitcher of our era.’’

Even with four years spent in military service during World War II, Mr. Feller pitched 18 seasons. His career won-lost record was 266-162, a winning percentage of .621. His career earned run average was 3.25.

Mr. Feller was the Nolan Ryan of his day, combining great speed with great durability and, at least early on, considerable wildness. He pitched 31 complete games and led the majors in strikeouts, with 263, in 1940. In 1946, he recorded 348 strikeouts. Overall, he led the league in strikeouts seven times and wins six times.

Conversely, he gave up 208 walks in 1938. “I didn’t know much,’’ Mr. Feller once said of his first few seasons. “I just reared back and let them go. Where the ball went was up to heaven.’’

The prototypical power pitcher, Mr. Feller was known for his high leg kick when delivering a pitch and phenomenal velocity. He recorded three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters (the latter mark a record he holds with Ryan). His fastball was once measured at 107.9 miles per hour.

Mr. Feller, Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated, “could, very possibly, throw a round object harder than anybody else who ever strode upon God’s green earth.’’ He also had an exceptional curveball and slider.

Throughout the ’40s, the Indians were a powerhouse, battling the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Detroit Tigers for the American League pennant.

“I would rather beat the Yankees regularly than pitch a no-hit game,’’ Mr. Feller once said.

Mr. Feller anchored an impressive rotation that included Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. The Tribe won the pennant in 1948, after beating the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. They won the World Series, defeating the Boston Braves in six games. Mr. Feller lost both games he started. He did not pitch in the 1954 World Series, the Indians’ only other post-season appearance in his career.

Mr. Feller was one of the best-known players of his era. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine at 18. There was a Bob Feller Bar during the late ’30s (it had a chewy peanut-and-caramel center covered by milk chocolate). On days he was scheduled to pitch, an average of 10,000 more fans than usual attended Indians games. He was the first pitcher to earn a $100,000 salary, putting him in the company of Williams and the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio.

Robert William Andrew Feller was born in Van Meter, Iowa. His father, William A. Feller, was a farmer; his mother, Lena (Forret) Feller, a housewife.

Mr. Feller’s father was his first baseball coach and built a full-size ball field behind their farmhouse for his son to play the game. He switched the farm’s primary crop from corn to wheat, because wheat was less labor-intensive and would leave him more time to coach his son.

Earning a widening reputation playing semipro ball, Mr. Feller was signed by the Indians at 16. A year later, he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals during a three-inning stint during an exhibition game. That earned him a spot on the Major League roster. He struck out 15 in his first start. He struck out 17 in another game, becoming the only player in Major League history to strike out the same number of opponents as his age.

“I was sure of one thing: When I went back to school in September and the teacher asked us how we spent our summer vacations, I was going to have the best answer in the whole school,’’ he wrote in his 1990 memoir, “Now Pitching, Bob Feller.’’

The next year, Mr. Feller had a tutor during spring training and the first two months of the season so he could earn his diploma and graduate with his class. He had become such a media phenomenon that NBC Radio broadcast the graduation ceremonies.

In 1940, Mr. Feller pitched a no-hitter Opening Day, the only time that has been done. He went on that year to record the most wins, most strikeouts, and best ERA in the American League.

Although his 3C classification as his family’s sole financial support exempted him from the draft, Mr. Feller enlisted in the US Navy two days after Pearl Harbor. Serving on the battleship USS Alabama, he saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific and rose to the rank of chief petty officer. Baseball historians have estimated that if Mr. Feller had not missed those four years in the service, he might have recorded 350 wins and 3,500 strikeouts.

Mr. Feller’s absence from the diamond did not prevent him from having perhaps his finest season in 1946. He went 26-15, with an ERA of 2.18.

Next season, Mr. Feller found himself embroiled in controversy. He had organized several off-season barnstorming tours, some of them with Negro League ballplayers. Among the latter was Jackie Robinson. Asked his opinion of Robinson’s chances in the Major Leagues, Mr. Feller called Robinson “muscle-bound’’ and said that would prevent him from doing well. “If he were a white man, I doubt if they would even consider him big-league material,’’ Mr. Feller said. Ironically, he and Robinson both entered the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Mr. Feller was a pace setter off the field, too. He was the first baseball player to incorporate himself, as Ro-Fel Inc., and in 1956 he was elected first president of the Players Organization, forerunner of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

In 1969, Mr. Feller was voted greatest living righthanded pitcher as part of major league baseball’s centennial celebration.

In 1994, a statue of Mr. Feller was unveiled in the center-field concourse of Jacobs Field. A year later, the Bob Feller Museum opened in Van Meter.

Surely the greatest tribute to Mr. Feller was the respect of his peers. “Three days before he pitched I would start thinking about Robert Feller, Bob Feller,’’ Ted Williams once said.

Mr. 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.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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