When I was down in Phoenix for spring training, I met Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. I found him sitting under the stands, signing autographs with Ferguson Jenkins and two other former players.
They were signing autographs to raise money for Fergie Jenkins’ Foundation which supports the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Red Cross and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and others. Bob had quite a crowd around him.
I worked my way up to the front, paid my $20 (most of which went to the Foundation), and watched as he signed a pristine ball, put it in a plastic display case and handed it to me. I told him that I was taking this home to my husband, Ralph, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, listening to Cleveland Indians games on the radio or watching on TV.
The volume was always cranked up in the Hylinski household because another game was also on in the other room. Mr. Hylinski–that sounds so formal but I never met the man–positioned Ralph in the room with the radio, with strict instructions to remember exactly what happened in that game, while his father was glued to theTV in the other room.
I told Bob that his was the only player’s name my husband could remember from those years, when Ralph was forced to listen to baseball games when he’d rather be outside or at the Paramount Theater in downtown Toledo. Feller was my father-in-law’s favorite player on his beloved Indians.
A huge smile broke out on Bob Fellers face. He took my hand and held it saying, “Thank you so much for telling me that story. It means a lot.” Our eyes held for a few seconds before he let go of my hand.
I remember Bob from my childhood also. He was pitching mostly in relief when I saw him in 1955, as he was nearing the end of his career (he retired after the following year).
Number 19 still had good stuff, but his fastball had lost some of its zip. The A’s radio announcers often talked about how good Bob was when he was in his prime, so he was a familiar figure to me.
Of course, the A’s were terrible during their first few years in Kansas City, and were called a farm team for the Yankees. (There is some truth to that, according to a recent book by Jeff Katz, entitled The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees: How the Yankees Controlled Two of the Eight American League Franchises During the 1950s.)
Some have said Feller threw harder in his heyday than Nolan Ryan ever did.
Did you know that Bob is the only pitcher ever to throw a complete-game no-hitter on Opening Day (April 16, 1940)? And did you know that in the prime of his baseball career he enlisted in the Navy during WWII was a highly decorated anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Alabama? Or that he came back from the war was as great a pitcher as ever? In fact, his best season ERA (2.18) was in 1946, his first full year back from the war.
The year before the no hitter, Bob’s parents were in the stands Chicago on opening day when Bob took the mound. Bob went the full nine innings but his mother was not so lucky. The White Sox third baseman, Marv Owen, sliced a line drive foul into the stands that hit his mother in the face. She was rushed to the hospital where she stayed for 2 weeks with two black eyes and various cuts and bruises. What’s worse, it was Mother’s Day.
So it was with much apprehension that Mrs. Feller attended opening day in 1940. If that had happened to me the previous year, I don’t think I would have gone back to Chicago for opening day, especially as it was a fiercely cold and windy day. As Bob says, “The only people in the whole ballpark who were warm were the pitchers and the catchers.” But his mother fared much better than she did the year before. No foul balls came her way and her son dazzled her and the other Cleveland fans in attendance with a no-hitter.
Bob was an 8-time All Star, he lead the American League 6 times in wins, 5 times in innings pitched, 7 times in strikeouts, and was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, receiving 93.8% of the votes.
Feller’s 4 years of military service meant that he won only 266 games and recorded only 2581 strikeouts. If he hadn’t enlisted, he could have won 350+ games and might have struck out nearly 3500. So those of you who look only at his overall numbers and think he wasn’t all that good, remember he voluntarily fought for his country for 4 years during the height of his baseball career. Hardly anyone does that sort of thing in today’s world.
Bob threw out the ball that day in Phoenix when I met him, and he threw what looked like a strike from where I sat. Not bad, as he is 92 years young. So if you run in to him at an autograph signing (he’s very generous with his time) or at the Bob Feller Museum in his home town of Van Meter, Iowa, tell him I send my regards.
Quote and other material from: “Now Pitching Bob Feller,” by Bob Feller and Bill Gilbert, Harper Perennial, 1990
(Editor’s Note: There is a glitch in the Movable Type program that MLBlogs uses for this website. Inserting pictures changes the size of the typeface in the paragraphs before and after a picture. I apologize for the varied type sizes.)