Teen Phenom Feller Strikes Out His Age as Rookie
Vince Guerrieri | On 09, Sep 2015
On Aug. 23, 1936, Bob Feller made his first start. The rookie fireballer, literally taken out of high school in Van Meter, Iowa, struck out 15 batters and got his first career win (his first major league appearance came a month earlier in relief). Rumor was that the Yankees were willing to pay $200,000 for him.
Three weeks later, he proved it was no fluke – and offered a sign of things to come.
On Sept. 12, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Athletics at League Park, Feller struck out his age in batters – 17 – setting an American League record and tying the major league record.
Feller took the hill against Randy Gumpert on a day the Plain Dealer said was perfect for a fastball pitcher – with an overcast sky and hints of rain. Athletics manager Connie Mack juggled the rotation for the matchup. Gumpert, like Feller, was a rookie, an 18-year-old fresh out of Birdsboro High School, about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia. He had made his debut in June (against the Indians, throwing a 1-2-3 inning in relief) and like Feller had just gotten his first career win at the end of August.
The game, in front of about 6,500 fans – including Feller’s father, started with Feller walking Lou Finney, but he then settled down to strike out the next three batters, leaving Finney stranded at second after a stolen base.
The Indians staked Feller to an early lead when Roy Hughes, who walked to start the frame and then advanced to third on a single by Bill Knickerbocker, tagged up and scored after Earl Averill flied out. Two batters later, Knickerbocker came around to score. The Indians never trailed after that.
Feller tacked on two more strikeouts in the second inning, bringing his total to five, but got a little wobbly in the third. He walked Finney again, who again stole second, and then walked Wally Moses. A single to center by Chubby Dean scored Finney and moved Moses to third. Feller struck out Bob Johnson, but a double steal scored Moses and moved Dean to second. Feller struck out Pinky Higgins to get out of the jam and end the inning.
But the Indians came right back in the bottom of the third. With one out, Gumpert gave up back-to-back walks to Knickerbocker and Averill, but Hal Trosky grounded out. A grounder by Roy Weatherly to shortstop Rusty Peters appeared to end the inning, but Peters airmailed the throw, and both Knickerbocker and Averilll came around to score. With the damage done, Odell Hale was thrown out at first to end the inning, but Feller had a two-run cushion again – and he’d need it. He walked nine. He threw a wild pitch and hit a batter, and the Athletics were able to steal seven bases on him.
But getting on base was the hard part. He only gave up two hits, and the fourth was the only inning without a strikeout by Feller, and he once again struck out the side in the sixth. The Tribe pushed one more across in the seventh, when a double by Averill scored Hughes.
Feller was a full-blown phenom. He returned to Iowa for his senior year in high school (graduation was carried live on television) and went on to baseball immortality – interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
The other teenage hurler? Well, Gumpert also served in World War II, but after 1936, he didn’t find his way back to the majors for a decade. His main claim to fame? Serving up Mickey Mantle’s first home run in 1951.