Few who have played the game have been so prideful as Feller was for most of his 92 years. And few could back it up so convincingly as he did. Now his crackling Midwestern voice is silent, and today, the day of his passing, it is the game itself that revels in what he was and all he accomplished. Baseball unabashedly boasts about him.
Feller's passing, the result of problems related to leukemia, occurred in the same calendar year as the deaths of fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts and Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Yankee Stadium public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, Tigers and Mariners play-by-play men Ernie Harwell and Dave Niehaus, Cubs hero Ron Santo, New York baseball celebrities Bobby Thomson, Gil McDougald, Ralph Houk, Gene Hermanski, Clyde King and Billy Loes, celebrated pitchers Mike Cuellar, Jim Bibby and Jose Lima, speedster outfielder Willie Davis and brash manager Bobby Bragan.
Robert William Feller, a man's man, a patriot's patriot and model power pitcher, lived more than half his life, 48 years, as a baseball Hall of Famer following an 18-season career with the Indians that was extraordinary even for a member of the game's elite. From his days on a farm in Iowa, he forged an image that featured a strong back, a rigid backbone, Midwestern values and zealous flag-waving. Baseball was secondary, Feller said. And he practiced what he preached, neglecting his career to protect his values and his nation, though he understood the mound and his baseball afterlife were effective forums for his views.
"More impressive than his vast accomplishments on the field was being part of 'The Greatest Generation,'" said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. "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. Bob Feller was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost a great American."
His baseball image stands in contrast to the images of today's players. As the game became less demanding of its participants in the past 50 years, Feller stood out as a throwback to when pitchers finished what they started, routinely moved batters off the plate, hit them if they declined to retreat and ignored pain, fatigue and hitters' resumés. He was a baseball Lombardi.
In all the years that have passed since his prime, the game has developed few others like Feller. Moreover, the country doesn't have many who stand as proudly as he stood, beating his chest relentlessly, not unlike the tom-tom beat in the home parks of his Indians.
Feller was as unyielding on the mound as he was politically. He considered himself a primary representative of the irresistible force, once saying "I threw my best pitch if I needed an out. If it happened to be [the hitter's] favorite pitch, he still got it, and I took my chances. I always liked my chances."
The greatest player in the history of the Indians believed in sweat, firm handshakes and unfiltered speech. When he spoke, his voice filled the room; he seemed to emphasize every word. He apologized as often as he backed off. "No need to if you've got it right," he said in Cooperstown in July.
Feller preferred "steadfast" to "stubborn" as an adjective applied to him, but he hardly shrunk away from the latter. "I am proud of who I am and what I stand for," he said that day in upstate New York. "I'm pretty sure about what this country is and was and what it should be. I don't think I have the wrong idea. I'm behind it, always have been, because it's the best way to live."
* * *
A fastball, known to touch three-digits and called "The Heater from Van Meter," was Feller's primary weapon. It served him well and routinely overwhelmed American League hitters. Born in Van Meter, Iowa, in 1918, Feller made his big league debut in 1936, four months before his 18th birthday and without professional experience. Before the birthday passed, he had won five games, lost three and produced starts of 15, 10, 17 and 10 strikeouts, five complete games, a 3.34 ERA and quite a reputation.
Before his career ended on Sept. 30, 1956, months before the inaugural Cy Young Award was presented, he had won 266 games, struck out 2,581 batters, won 62 percent of his decisions, pitched three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and 44 shutouts and won a pitchers' Triple Crown. He led the league in victories six times and strikeouts seven times.
He produced those numbers despite missing nearly four seasons because of military service. His hitch in the Navy -- Feller enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor -- began after he had led the AL in victories for three seasons -- 24, 27 and 25 in 1939-1941 -- and before he led two more times with 26 and 20 in 1946 and 1947. He won 22 games in 1951, 12 years after the first of his six 20-win seasons. One can only imagine where four more full seasons, even if they were pedestrian, would have put his final numbers.
And as intriguing as his won-loss record remains, consider Feller's remarkable achievements as the game's foremost strikeout pitcher of the era. If not for his time in the service, he might have worn out another letter, K, and left it unavailable for Herb Score, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden, et al. Though he forfeited at least 110 starts, Feller struck out 1,774 batters from 1938-48. No other pitcher struck out more than 1,488 in that 11-season sequence. And the two closest to him in strikeouts pitched almost regularly through those 11 seasons.
Feller's election to the Hall of Fame was all but automatic. He was elected in 1962, his first year of eligibility, his name checked on 93.8 percent of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the fourth highest percentage at the time. Only three position players -- Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, members of the first class in 1936 -- had received higher percentages. Ten others with percentages higher than Feller's have since been elected, beginning in 1982: Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron.
He is the lone Chief Petty Officer in the Hall of Fame, a distinction he relished.
Feller developed his pitching power doing chores on the farm. When he was 13, a tract of the farmland he worked was set aside by his father Bill, who built his first child a baseball field, replete with stands and a scoreboard. It was there where the boy learned his trade and first polished his skills. "What kid wouldn't enjoy the life I led in Iowa?" he once said. "Baseball and farming, and I had the best of both worlds."
Even with his young prowess, Feller was signed by scout Cy Slapnicka for merely a dollar and an autographed baseball in 1936, when he was 17. He left the farm behind shortly thereafter, making his big league debut and the first of his 86 career relief appearances on July 19 in Washington. He walked two and struck out none in a scoreless inning in an Indians loss. He made five more relief appearances, pitching seven innings, walking six and striking out six, before he made his first start, a 15-strikeout, complete-game victory against the St. Louis Browns. He walked four in that game.
Bases on balls were an issue. Feller led the league in walks four times, allowing 208 in 1938. He twice walked 11 in a game, but one instance occurred in a 13-inning start in 1941. He walked eight or more 20 times, eight of them in 1938.
His finest seasons were 1940 and 1946, the latter his first full season after his discharge from the Navy. Feller won 27 games, a career high, in 1940, producing a 2.61 ERA and striking out 261. He led the league in each category and in innings, 320 1/3. And he pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day, the only one ever on an Opening Day, against the White Sox.
His 348-strikeout season came in '46. He started 42 games, completed 36, pitched 10 shutouts and 371 1/3 innings and produced a 26-15 record and career-low 2.18 ERA.
All that success aside, Feller would say his time in the Navy was more rewarding than his baseball career. He did say this: "Baseball in the Navy always was much more fun than it had been in the Major Leagues." And he insisted that he regretted no part of putting his baseball career on hold to serve his country. "Anything else would be selfish," he said.
Moreover, he didn't consider himself a war hero. After his return to baseball in 1945, he said "I'm no hero. Heroes don't come back. Survivors return home. Heroes never come home. If anyone thinks I'm a hero, I'm not."
But a baseball hero? Feller couldn't deny that. And he didn't.