CLEVELAND -- If you had the chance to sit down with Bob Feller and talk about his incredible American life, he would talk about the moment often. It was a moment that, in many ways, served as the turning point of that life. Bob Feller was driving to his meeting with the Cleveland Indians to discuss his 1942 contract when news came over the radio: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, and for the first time in the then 23-year-old Feller's life, baseball -- the sport that formed his very first memories of growing up on an Iowa farm -- took a backseat. Feller's father was gravely ill, and the young man known as "Rapid Robert" had a deferment from military service and the chance to earn six figures playing ball in '42. But from the moment he heard that news coming across the AM dial, Feller knew he wanted to join the fight. "We were losing that war," he would write in an essay with The New York Times' Alan Schwarz many years later, "and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don't understand, but that's the way we felt in those days." Feller passed away in 2010 at the age of 92. But the Indians, Major League Baseball, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the USS Alabama Battleship Commission have teamed up to keep his spirit alive in a very special way. The Bob Feller Act of Valor Award was introduced Thursday, and its first recipients -- one MLB player, one Hall of Famer and one Navy service member -- will be honored on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, in Washington, D.C. They each will receive a bronze bust of Feller. Every MLB team will nominate one player for the award, and three of those 30 finalists will be announced in a ceremony at Progressive Field near Memorial Day, according to Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' senior vice president of public affairs. "This distinctly unique award," said author Peter Fertig, who created the honor, "will reward those who can measure up to Bob Feller's courage and the strict standards by which he lived his life, every single day." Feller was the first MLB player to sign up for the war effort and is the only U.S. Navy chief petty officer in the Hall of Fame. He served aboard the USS Alabama, which was engaged in an important Pacific Ocean battle, known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," with the Japanese in June 1944. The ship won nine battle stars in its time, including eight while Feller was aboard. Feller missed four prime seasons of his Major League career, but he returned to the Indians in August 1945, just two days after he went on inactive duty from the military. "The pride he exuded representing his country ... he held that mantle stronger, I believe, than he did the Hall of Fame, which he embraced with incredible sincerity," DiBiasio said. "I think he embraced the mantle of serving his country even more. He's the one that was instrumental in the Baseball Hall of Fame including an insignia on the plaques of those players who served in a war. He wanted to make sure everybody who was in that Hall of Fame was recognized for that service." Much like MLB's annual Roberto Clemente Award, players nominated for the Act of Valor Award will be judged on their character and their willingness to assist those less fortunate. But the distinction here is that support of U.S. servicemen and women will be taken into particular account. "The uniqueness of this," said DiBiasio, "is it's the first award connecting baseball and the U.S. Navy." The Navy was quick to embrace the cause of keeping Feller's memory alive, just as Feller was quick to drop his glove and serve his country.