By this point I suppose most of you know that Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller died Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at age 92. Even I’m not old enough to remember him pitch at his peak. He pitched into the mid-1950s and I heard a couple of Indians games on the radio with him on the mound. I remember my grandfather being more impressed than I, but as I said I only heard games well after he had started down the long slide to retirement.
In 2000, Baseball Digest ran a list of the 100 greatest this and that of the 20th Century. On their pitching list, Feller was in the top 10. He was also the highest rated pitcher whose career extended past 1945, making him, in their opinion, the finest hurler in the last 60 years of the century.
As great a pitcher as he was, he was perhaps a greater man. Many ball players are merely a long list of numbers that we call their statistics. Feller was so much more. Already an established star with the Cleveland Indians when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller immediately enlisted in the US Navy and served until 1945. Unlike a lot of the established players, Feller didn’t spend his Naval career playing baseball. He ended up on a battleship (the Alabama) and served in combat, earning a number of medals. Considering he could have spent the war in the relatively cushy job of pitching and didn’t, he gets a lot of credit from me, much more than a number of his contemporaries.
He came back in 1945, was still superb, and helped his team to the 1948 American League pennant and a World Series title. He lost both his games during the Series, but the Indians won anyway. He was the pitcher on the mound for the most famous play of the Series. In game one Braves catcher Phil Masi was on second. Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau cut in behind Masi, Feller whirled and nailed Masi off base. Unfortunately the umpire was caught totally off guard and called the runner safe. Masi later scored the winning run. By the way, 1948 is the only World Series between teams with American Indian nicknames.
Feller was often outspoken and had a degree of fogeyism in him. According to him, the players of his day were uniformly better than the modern ones. Maybe some of them were, but it was a constant drumbeat from him. It got on my nerves sometimes. I read an interview with Larry Doby just prior to Doby’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He acknowledged that he and Feller were never friends because Feller was too intense for many friendships. But Doby stated that the level of respect between them was mutual and that Feller had supported him when he became the first black player on the Indians.
So rest in peace, Bob Feller. You were a truly great one and we will all miss you. Thank you for gracing our game.