Feller All-Time Greatest Indian on All-Time Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
A statue stands in a courtyard out in front of Gate C at Progressive Field in Cleveland. It depicts a hero that remained loyal to a much maligned city for 70 years. I don’t call him a hero because he was a Hall of Fame baseball player or because he was the greatest and most beloved Indians of all-time. I call him a hero because he was one. In 1941 Bob Feller was driving back from Iowa after visiting his terminally ill father. He was on his way to sign a new contract with the Cleveland Indians, when a news report came over the radio announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Two days later, Feller became the first American professional athlete to enlist to fight in World War II. The military was willing to give him an exemption from combat due to his fathers ailing health, but Feller would not accept it.
“I told them I wanted to get into combat; wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats and making ball fields out of coral reefs,” Feller said.
He served as a Gun Captain on the USS Alabama until his discharge on August 22, 1945. Feller was decorated with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars while serving on missions in both the Pacific and North Atlantic. Feller was a true American hero.
Starting Pitcher: Bob Feller
Bob Feller was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1936 at the age of 17. He played not a single minor league game, going straight to the big league club and making his debut on July 19th. He pitched in six games out of the bullpen before making his first start on August 23against the St Louis Browns. On that day, he pitched a nine inning complete game, giving up one run on six hits and striking out 15 batters. He would better that feat four starts later against the Philadelphia Athletics. He pitched another complete game, this time giving up only two hits while striking out 17. Those 17 strikeouts tied the Major League record set by Dizzy Dean.
That rookie season brought incredible fame to the young star. He graced the cover of Time Magazine in April 1937 as an 18-year old. His high school graduation was a national telecast on NBC Radio. A candy bar called the The Bob Feller Bar was sold for several years in the late 1930’s. For all the fame, his sophomore season didn’t start out well. He experienced pain in his elbow after throwing a curve ball in his first appearance of the season. The Indians didn’t want to take any chances injuring their young star, and in a move as controversial as the Nationals handling of Stephen Strasburg, Feller was shutdown and did not return to normal pitching duties until July 4.
Feller’s breakout season would come in 1938. At the age of 19, he made 36 starts and pitched a full season for the first time in his career. He completed 20 games and finished the year with 17 wins. He led the American League in strikeouts with 240, and made the first of his eight All-Star games. His biggest moment of the season came on October 2. On the last day of the season, against the Detroit Tigers, Feller set a modern Major League record with 18 strikeouts in nine innings.
The following season, Feller set the American League on fire. He finished the season with a record of 24-9 in 34 starts. He led the league in complete games with 24, innings pitched with 296.2, and strikeouts with 246. He made his second consecutive All-Star game and finished third in the MVP voting.
Feller led the league in wins each of the next two seasons, compiling a total of 52 over that span. He led the league with a 2.61 ERA in 1940, and topped the junior circuit in strikeouts both years as well. He also made his third and fourth consecutive All-Star games.
His domination of the American League was halted in 1942 by World War II. He missed all of 1942, 1943 and 1944 to the war, the prime of his career. He was on top of baseball, was only 23 years old when he left the game to fight in the Pacific. It was a choice he was immensely proud of, and never regretted.
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” Feller said. “A lot of folks say that had I not missed those almost four seasons to World War II — during what was probably my physical prime — I might have had 370 or even 400 wins. But I have no regrets. None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world’s time of need.”
His return to the game came on August 24, 1945. He pitched a complete game and struck out 12 batters in route to a win. In all, he made nine starts in 1945, winning five with 2.50 ERA.
His first full season after returning from the war was the best of his career. He won a league leading 26 games in 42 starts. He led the league in complete games with 36 and in shutouts with a career high of 10. He also led the league with 348 strikeouts, a franchise record, and finished third in the league with a career low 2.18 ERA.
Feller led the league in wins for the fifth time in 1947 with 20. He pitched to a 2.68 ERA, and led the league again with 196 strikeouts. Late in the season, he fell off the mound during a rainy game in Philadelphia. The injury may have been the cause of his drop in strike outs for the remainder of his career.
“My fastball was never the same after that,” Feller said.
From 1948 to the end of his career in 1956, Feller would never again exceed 165 strike outs in a season. He led the league one more time in with 22 in 1951, and made two more All-Star appearances.
For his career, Feller pitched to a record of 266-162 and a 3.25 ERA. He struck out 2581 batters in his 18 year career. He led the league in strikeouts seven times. His three career no-hitters are the third most in Major League history. For all he accomplished, perhaps the greatest testament to Feller is how he was viewed by the greatest hitter of his time. In David Halberstam’s book, Summer of ‘49, Ted Williams was credited with the following quote:
“He was the best, and I wanted to be the best, and three days before he pitched I would start thinking Robert Feller, Bob Feller.”
Photo: Sports Illustrated