The Greatest Loss In Indians History
Bob Feller: 1918-2010
Bob Feller: 1918-2010
Indians Ink
Posted Dec 16, 2010


Bob Feller, the greatest player in Indians history, has died at age 92. He passed away at 9:15 p.m. Wednesday night from acute leukemia. The Indians, and baseball, will never be the same. Feller was more than the team's very best pitcher and most legendary player. He was the face of the franchise and its finest ambassador for 75 years, since he burst on the scene as a 17-year-old farmboy in 1936.

"Bob Feller is gone. We cannot be surprised," Indians owner Larry Dolan said in a statement. "Yet, it seems improbable. Bob has been such an integral part of our fabric, so much more than an ex-ballplayer, so much more than any Cleveland Indians player. He is Cleveland, Ohio."

Feller was always remarkably fit until mid-summer, when he confided to friends in the Indians' press box that he was worried about his health for the first time.

"I just don't have the old get-up-and-go," he said. "I think it's my heart. I'm going in to get checked."

Instead, Feller, who had regular medical checkups, was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent a couple of weeks of treatment and was back at Progressive Field with a familiar spring in his step.

"The doc said this is not a good thing for anybody to have, let alone a 91-year-old man," said Feller, who turned 92 on Nov. 3. "But I feel good right now, best I have in months. The good thing is Cleveland Clinic is the best in the business. I'm in good hands.

"Nobody lives forever and I've had a blessed life. I'd like to stay on this side of the grass for as long as I can, though. I'd really like to see the Indians win a World Series."

Feller was a member of the Indians' last world championship team in 1948. Long before and for decades afterwards, he was Cleveland's most recognizable athlete. He was the greatest young player in the baseball history -- and without question its finest spokeman ever.

Feller set strikeout records and won five games at age 17 after making his debut on July 17, 1936, then RETURNED to high school. His graduation ceremony was broadcast nationwide on the radio. He was a media celebrity then as large as any in this day and age.

Feller struck out 15 in his first start, beating the St. Louis Browns, 4-1. Later that season, he set an AL record by striking out 17 Philadelphia Athletics.

He did it with an overpowering fastball, crackling curve, and just enough wildness to put fear into opposing batters.

"Everybody talks about the fastball, but a good curve is the best pitch in the game if you've got it to go with the heater," Feller said. "Years after my fastball left me, I could still get guys out with the curve."

In 1938, he fanned 18 -- the Major League record until Nolan Ryan whiffed 19 in a game in 1974.

Feller won 266 games and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. As proud as he was of that accomplishment, he said it wasn't nearly his finest.

"Serving four years in World War II for my country is by far the best thing I ever did," Feller said this past summer. "It is better than any no-hitter, anything anybody has ever done on a baseball field. Ever."

Feller became the first pro ballplayer to enlist for duty in World War II, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He served on the USS Alabama and missed four prime seasons, which certainly would have been enough for him to surpass the cherished 300-victory plateau.

"Big deal," said Feller, known for his bluntness. "How about all those fellas who never came home, never had a chance to see their families again, never had a chance to start new families? What's any baseball game compared to that?

"That's what today's generation doesn't get. They just don't understand and never will because they weren't there. Thousands of great Americans died for them. I was there. It wasn't fun. I'm not ashamed to say how many times I cried myself to sleep. We all did. Stop and think about that the next time you're upset over a ninth-inning loss."

In his first full season after returning from the war, Feller had one of the greatest individual seasons in history in 1946. He went 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA, 36 complete games and 10 shutouts.

Overall, Feller pitched three no-hitters, including the only one on an opening day in 1940, and 12 one-hitters in a career that lasted through 1956. He was a member of eight All-Star teams, led the AL in victories six times and is still the Indians' career leader in innings pitched (3,827), strikeouts (2,581), wins, (266), complete games (279), shutouts (46) and walks (1,764).

He also signed thousands upon thousands of autographs. A running joke among Cleveland fans was that the most prized item of sports memorabilia was a baseball NOT signed by Bob Feller.

In later years, Feller sat at his customary seat in the Indians' press box and signed photos, cards, baseballs, you name it -- all for free. When a local charity asked him to sign a bowling pin this spring for a raffle item at a tournament, he remarked, "I think I've put my name on a million items, but never one of these."

Last week, after Feller was moved into a Cleveland hospice, the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America renamed its Man of the Year Award in his honor. First presented in 1946, Feller won the award in 1951.

The writers and Indians will leave Feller's spot in the third row of the press box unchanged in his honor. A plaque will be placed upon the working area as a shrine and the seat will be empty in his honor.

Feller assumed a new persona as he aged. He never quit offering blunt and sometimes unpopular opinions on all subjects, but became a grandfatherly icon. He graciously posed for photos, began signing more items for free, and gave countless talks all over the world on baseball.

Feller met 13 U.S. Presidents, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. In his younger days, he kept company with Hollywood's biggest stars. In later years, he regularly was asked to give motivational speeches to businessmen and the military. The day after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he was at the Pentagon, signing autographs for free, speaking to shaken government workers and boosting their morale.

He wasn't always as affable. Down on his luck shortly after retirement as a player, he began signing to scrape up some money and live off his fame. He remarried, worked as an insurance agent, but never strayed far from baseball. He became a spokesman for the game, travelling the world to promote it. He kept charging for his signature, but put the money into the Bob Feller Hall of Fame Museum in his native Van Meter, Iowa.

He kept active by working on his collection of tractors, some dating back to 1920.

He also found time to pitch every day, whether it was on his boyhood farm in Iowa, his home in subrurban Cleveland, or at spring training. He loved to play catch and always found willing catchers. Last February, he was again at the Indians' Fantasy Camp, throwing to batters. On Opening Day in Cleveland, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

It was a perfect strike, another opening-day perfecto.

Hall of Famers Bob Feller, left, and Yogi Berra share memories before a recent exhibition game.
Bob and fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra share a story at the Indians' spring training camp in Winter Haven, Fla., in 2007. "Yogi has been my pal for years. He caught me in a lot of All-Star games. He's great for baseball."

So was Bob Feller.


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