Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 19 – Bob Feller
Bob Toth | On 15, Mar 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 19 days
If you ask Clevelanders which player was the best to wear the number 19 while representing the city in a sporting event, chances are you will get a lot of answers naming former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar as their pick.
No knock on Bernie, but he doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the best 19 possibly to play the game of baseball, Bob Feller.
Cleveland is, after all, a “Browns Town”, so undoubtedly most fans of the Cuyahoga would instantly recall Kosar in brown and orange three decades ago before remembering one of baseball’s greats, who last took the mound 60 years ago. Feller’s place in the game did not end with his retirement following the 1956 season, but carried on as he worked as a liaison and ambassador of the game and as the face of the Cleveland Indians franchise until his death in 2010.
Feller is often remembered for his results on the mound, beginning with the Indians as a 17-year-old Iowa farm boy in 1936, but was also beloved for the personal selfless sacrifices he made by giving up nearly four years of his playing career in his early and mid-20’s. When he enlisted in the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, days before he was set to turn 23, he was walking away from a baseball scene that he had dominated from the center of the diamond. He had finished in the top three in the AL Most Valuable Player voting in 1939, 1940, and 1941. In each of those three seasons prior to his service, he had led the American League in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts. Twice he was the league’s leader in complete games, shutouts, games pitched, and games started, and once led the league in ERA. He was an All-Star from 1938 to 1941 and was already holding the single-season Indians record for strikeouts in a season with his 261 in 1940. His 18 strikeouts of the Detroit Tigers in an October 2, 1938, game established a new modern single-game record (later broken by Steve Carlton with 19 in 1969). Only current Indians starter Corey Kluber has matched that number in a regulation nine-inning game since for Cleveland.
Feller returned from the war late in the 1945 season and found his way back to baseball, appearing in nine games for the Tribe to close out that year. Despite having not pitched in a Major League game since the end of the 1941 season, he averaged eight innings a start and logged seven complete games in total. His 7.4 strikeout rate was a notch better than his 7.3 rate during his four All-Star seasons before the war effort.
His best season may have come in his first full season back in 1946. He led baseball in most major pitching statistics and destroyed several club records in the process. He went 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA on the year, with the wins tally leading the MLB. He also topped the league by pitching in 48 games, starting 42, throwing 36 complete games, and pitching ten shutouts. He struck out 348 batters in 371 1/3 innings on the mound. The innings pitched total, starts, and strikeout marks remain the best numbers in franchise history, while his ten shutouts were matched by teammate Bob Lemon in 1948, a special season for Feller and the Tribe.
“Rapid Robert” was an All-Star in 1946 and repeated in 1947 when he again led the AL in wins (20) and shutouts (5) and led baseball in starts (37), innings (299), and strikeouts (196). But in the final year of his 20s, the 1948 season posed many challenges for the legend as he entered his tenth season on the mound.
After throwing two complete games and a shutout in the first month of the season, control and the long ball became pressing issues, as did his performances against the New York Yankees and while pitching at home at Cleveland Stadium. He walked 22 batters and only struck out 17 in May while going 3-4 with a 4.13 ERA in seven starts. In June, he was 2-4 in eight games (seven starts) with 25 walks and an unusual nine home runs allowed. In July, he had an ERA of 5.76 in ten games (eight starts) and went 3-4, walking 33 against 30 strikeouts and giving up another six home runs. He sat out the All-Star game, drawing the ire of Yankees skipper and AL manager, Bucky Harris.
In September, the team was in the thick of the AL pennant race, battling with Philadelphia, New York, and Boston for much of the season. It had become a three-team race with Philly falling back and New York finally fell in a head-to-head series late in the month with the Red Sox. With Lemon underperforming some down the stretch after a breakout season on the mound, it was Feller who put the team on his back and carried them to the club’s second World Series by going 6-1 with a 1.66 ERA in nine September starts, throwing six complete games and a shutout in the process. He struck out 53 batters against 20 walks and gave up just one home run.
After the Indians won their one-game playoff against the Red Sox to clinch the pennant, they stayed in Boston to take on the Braves. Feller made two starts in the postseason and was dealt losses in each, including a tough 1-0 contest skewed by a controversial call at second base that led to the winning run late in the contest. The Indians would take the series in six games.
While Feller would see his team return to the biggest stage of all six years later, he was a non-factor in that series as the Indians were swept in four straight by the New York Giants. He never saw the mound.
Feller salvaged a largely frustrating ’48 campaign and saw his workload and results decrease over the next couple of seasons. He went 15-14 in 36 games (28 starts) in 1949, striking out just 108 batters. He made the final All-Star team of his career at the age of 31 in 1950 and went 16-11 in 35 games (34 starts).
In 1951, he led a strong rotation, joined by Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn, to the brink of the pennant, ultimately falling five games short of the Yankees. A tough 7-10 road trip in September was capped by the Tribe dropping five of their final six games to close out the season, all after holding the AL lead in the third week of the month. “The Heater from Van Meter” was 22-8 and owned the top win mark in the league for the final time of his career.
Feller’s use and results lessened after that season. He was 9-13 with a 4.74 ERA in 30 starts in 1952, followed by a 10-7 record with a 3.59 ERA in 1953. On the memorable ’54 team, he was 13-3, but made just 19 starts over the course of the season. He was used more as a reliever than a starter in 1955, making eleven starts and 14 trips in from the bullpen while going 4-4. They would mark the final wins of his career as he would go 0-4 in 1956, starting four games (with two complete games) and relieving 15 times.
He finished his 18-year career with a mark of 266-162 (.621 winning percentage) with a 3.25 ERA in 570 games. His win total and strikeout mark (2,581) have had few challengers over the years by fellow members of the Indians organization, and both numbers may stand the test of time in an era of free agency and expanded, specialized bullpens. In addition to those numbers, he also is credited with three no-hitters, including the only one pitched on Opening Day in baseball history.
The Indians retired his number 19 in 1957, the first number that the club permanently removed from circulation. He was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot eligible in 1962 after receiving 150 of 160 votes possible (93.8%). The Indians recognized him with a statue in his honor at the team’s new home, then named Jacobs Field, in its inaugural 1994 season.
So with no offense to Bernie – Cleveland loves you – but Feller will always be the city’s greatest 19.