Just how fast was Bob Feller’s fastball?
Really, it’s a question that’s been asked of any pitcher before, say, Nolan Ryan’s time. Radar guns didn’t start to be used to measure auto speeds until the late 1940s, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that that baseball coaches and managers started using them to clock pitches (largely because as is the case with any new technology, the cost was prohibitively expensive for private use initially).
So before then, people had to get creative to measure the speed of pitches. Walter Johnson threw a fastball that was timed around 97 mph against a speeding motorcycle in 1914. In 1940, Feller took a similar test, which measured around 104 mph.
But almost exactly 71 years ago, Feller was clocked around 108 mph using the latest technology of the day.
The Indians were in Washington to play the Senators, and a week before the game, Senators owner Clark Griffith announced that a photoelectric measuring device from the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground, used to measure projectile velocity from anti-aircraft guns, would be used to measure Feller’s pitch speed. The machine was set up at home plate and Feller would pitch through it as it measured the pitch’s velocity.
The only problem was that Feller had agreed to nothing of the sort. In his autobiography, Feller said he was on the trainer’s table getting rubbed down for his scheduled start that night when Griffith came in and told him his public awaited. Feller – who later was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the players’ union and became known post-career as a willing participant in paid autograph sessions – said as soon as he got paid, he’d do it. He wanted $1,000, but was willing to take a discount, he said, because Griffith was a good man who’d done good for baseball. He settled on $700.
According to the account in the next day’s Plain Dealer, Feller threw six pitches, with the velocity getting as high as 98.6 mph. But Feller, who’d manned one of those anti-aircraft guns in the Navy in World War II, knew that was terminal velocity. He then got up right in front of the machine, reared back and fired. That was 117.2 mph – the muzzle velocity. The average between the two was 107.9. That year, Feller set what was then a modern record, with 346 strikeouts.
Of course, that was an estimate. The Guinness Book of World Records says the fastest pitcher – as measured by radar – is Aroldis Chapman, who threw 105 mph in 2010.