World War II Hero, Baseball Hall-of-Famer
Baseball is timeless. A Game played 50 years ago still is relevant today. You can read a box-score form 1912 and it still makes sense. The continuity of the game is very traditional. It spreads from word of mouth, from dad-to-son, and then the next generation. Bob Feller was born when Woodrow Wilson was President and we had not yet returned the Doughboys home from WWI.
When he passed away in 2010, his life had spanned 16 different Presidents. He was a a true war hero whose war experience is as rich as his experience on the baseball field. He saw a lot, and he shared a lot. I hadn't began to write my book nor was it an idea in my head at the time. But I recorded my conversation with Feller and supplemented it with a lot of notes. The combination of these things enabled me to put together his account of the war and a few gems from the diamond.
Bob Feller autographs are a dime-a-dozen. This might be bad for collectors but its says a lot for the man. From the time I was a teenager, Feller signed autographs and talked with the kids. I met him numerous times but certainly didn't expect him to remember me. I probably had four autographed balls and numerous autographs in my scrapbook whenever Bob came through Houston. I ran into him at sports card shows, the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, at Heathrow Airport, and at various baseball venues - both major and minor leagues. In all, I have 21 Bob Feller autographs as he had no problem signing multiple items.
Bob Feller Museum, 2001
I was in Iowa in 2001 during a blizzard but was determined to go to The Bob Feller museum. The roads were practically empty in the near white-out conditions. So through the snow I could see the feint outline of the sign. His daughter in law was the only one there and there was no way anyone else was going to get there that day. But I began talking to her about Bob Feller, and just reciting stats on quotes and biographical information and she seemed genuinely surprised. "...I don't even know this and I WORK here!"
The opportunity to talk to a Hall-of-Fame player and the lessons they might have were invaluable to me. So there is tantalizing more to his story than I recorded in either 2001 or in 2004.
I was taking pictures while I was walking around the small museum. While noticing the baseball bats and gloves and game worn uniforms, she called me over to the front desk and handed me the phone. "Sir, I understand you are a big fan of mine. I appreciate that." Once again, my path had crossed with Bob Feller.
And thus began about an hour long phone call where he told me things about him that weren't terribly well known at the time. He talked to me more about his service in the military than his baseball career. Feller, a captain, spent four years serving as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Alabama – which earned him six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
When he was just 16, he pitched his first pro-baseball game, striking out 15 batters. He was so good, he started his baseball season as a pitcher and first-baseman on his HIGH-SCHOOL team, and finished the season with the Cleveland Indians. He never played one day in the minors.
In 2004, I got to escort him to Minute-Maid Park with his son as we walked from the Convention Center to watch the all-Star Game. He handed me that ridiculous looking cowboy hat because he felt 'silly' wearing it. (It had been given to him just a few hours prior and he carried it around the whole time) Plus, with me being a Texan and all, he thought I would like it. I still have that hat. While walking to the ballpark, I finally told him about that winter day three years earlier and wondered if he recalled talking to a hardcore baseball fan that day on the phone.
He remembered it well and lit up. "..So YOU are that guy?" I don't know if he was more impressed with me knowing so much about his career and all, or whether I was more impressed that he had almost total recall of that wintery day. "...You don't know how bad I wanted to drive to the museum that day, but the weather was so bad." He remembered the occurrence. ''It's great meeting a fan who is familiar with my name, but even better to have a fan really know what I did on and off the field.''
I asked him about his legendary fastball, somewhere around 100mph, and how he conditioned his arm to handle that year-in-and-year-out. He told me just how to stretch, how to finish a pitch without straining your shoulder...these are gems I pass on to my 14U-Baseball team now. ''Today's pitchers are just as good as the great ones I played with, but they are not brought up the same way. I expected to finish every game I started. Hell, the MANAGER expected you to finish what you started!'' He continued, ''....A relief-pitcher in the 1940s might just as well have been a mop-up guy with a washed out arm. In 1946, I started 42 games. Do you know how many I finished? Try 36. And I don't know what it is about pitchers, but I remember the 6 games I didn't finish more so than the 36 that I finished.''
The 1940 season opened up against the White Sox in Chicago. Despite the fact it was opening day, the weather kept the crowd down to around 15,000.
Things got dicey in the ninth. With two outs, Feller walked Sox shortstop Luke Appling, one of the American League's toughest hitters. The 10-pitch at-bat ended when, according to DiBiasio, Feller consciously decided to try his luck with the next guy."I just decided to walk him, because he was fouling balls off and off and off," DiBiasio recalled Feller telling him. "It was a 1-0 game. He said, 'Screw it, I'll just get the next hitter.'
Turns out, Feller got by the next batter -- Taft Wright, whose hard-hit ground ball necessitated a diving play by second baseman Ray Mack, who knocked it down, whirled and threw a bullet. ''I couldn't throw that day. I felt awful, it was cold and i couldn't grip the ball. To this day, I don't know how the Sox didn't score a hit that day.''
One of the items in the museum he wanted me to see was his bat. ''...When Babe Ruth said his goodbyes to the fans and fellow players there wasn't a dry eye in the house. You could see Ruth was fragile, unlike his playing days. He was having problems standing upright that day and I instinctually grabbed my bat and he used it to hold himself up. ''
Babe Ruth Used Feller's Bat to Prop himself up with during his retirement speech Ruth Says His Goodbyes
Baseball and America are at a crossroads. The game has become a microcosm of a nation trying to find its collective destiny. Feller details his life in the military and in baseball in an unconventional and interesting manner. Feller is to be remembered as one of the most accessible hall-of-famers that you could have ever hoped to meet. Here is his story.
''I was driving from my home in Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago to discuss my next contract with the Cleveland Indians, and I heard over the car radio that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I was angry as hell.
I was already a six year veteran and had over a hundred wins to my credit. But the moment Pearl Harbor happened, I didn't think twice. It was just something we did. When out GM came out to discuss my contract, I told him what I did. I was one of two players to volunteer for the military after Pearl Harbor. The other was my good friend Hank Greenberg. Most of us didn't need to be drafted or coerced into signing up for the war. We were all indignant at what the Japs did and what the Germans were in the process of doing in Europe.
I remember a teacher of mine telling me about what Neville Chamberlain did when he went to visit Hitler. ''Appeasement'' she said. ''It didn't work in the Great War, and it won't work in this next one either.'' She was talking of course about World War I being the 'Great War.'' That's all we ever knew it as. And it was anything but 'Great' unless you came out of there alive. And even then....even then...
Captain Bob Feller
I wanted to join the Navy. You have to remember that in the 1940s, people who wanted to see the world did so by ship, not by plane. I wanted to see the world. I was good with guns too and unafraid of combat. I also knew Gene Tunney, the boxer, and he was in charge of the Navy's physical training program. Eventually I was assigned to a battleship, the USS Alabama as a gun captain a 40-mm antiaircraft mount and we had a crew of 24.
We went to the North Atlantic first. One of our first stops and one of my favorite places was Iceland. Unbelievable! I had never seen such a wild looking terrain in Iowa. The colors were vivid, there was motion in every living plant and animal, and we saw whales too! We organized a softball game at 9:00 at night in the middle of summer. It didn't get dark until well past midnight. How beautiful the scenery was! I thought the rest of the world was something to look forward to. Was I ever let-down too.
The boys wanted me to pitch to them and I stayed in shape. There were several guys who were good enough ball players to catch my fast-ball. So it was a great way to pass the time as we sailed out in the pacific. We ended up in the Philippines where we bombed the heck of the beaches in order to provide air-cover for the amphibious vessels.
At one point, a team of ''All-Stars'' was assembled to play my first baseball game in months. I think it was 1944. We won 9-0 and I think i struck out everyone I faced. But it was all in good fun too. If it could contribute to the cause, I would do it.
We fended off kamikaze attacks and two bombs that hit our ship in the Marianas. Then we went through a terrible typhoon too. To a man, we were all ready to fight at any time. You end up in a brotherhood with the boys that is similar to that of a baseball team.
I think they should reinstitute the draft. That's what made me so angry about yesterday. (The day before was the Homerun derby and the event was halted because Muhammad Ali made an appearance and players from both sides broke rank and went over to meet with him) Why in the hell should everyone give hosannas to a draft dodger and a coward?
Military training is a good discipline to learn anyhow. You do get to see the world, but much of it is a hell-hole. Fiji was rather nice, unspoiled by civilization.....Even in the Philippines - the coral colored seas were beautiful. But the cities - now those were hell-holes. Every time we'd go to port, it seemed like we were in a disease-ridden polluted overcrowded mass of flesh. Like a lot of things, paradise can be a clever disguise for a hell-hole.
As far as military service goes, I am no hero. Heroes don't come back. When you come back you're not a hero, you are a survivor. I have been blessed to have a good life but nothing was ever given to me.
I remembered my first game back after the war. It was late in August of 1945 and I was very rusty. We won the game but I didn't impress anyone really. I knew it would take a lot of dedication and work to get back in playing shape. And who could have guessed that 1946 would be one of my best seasons? It was great playing against so many others who gave up years and money to help the cause.
As far as baseball goes, I have several stories worth sharing. I was fiercely competitive. We were putting a licking on Washington and old Dutch Leonard. He was one of the best liked guys in the league and we were winning by a lot of runs. We get to the seventh inning, i have 14-16 strikeouts, gave up three meaningless hits and walked a couple. We get runners on first and second and I laid down a bunt. The players just let it roll until it stopped. Oh the Senators were hollering at me something fierce. The next batter hits a fly ball that moves the runners ahead of me. A run scored and the runner on second took third. With me on first and second base open, I just took it. Stole the bag.
This time Dutch comes out to second and says to me, ''Bob- I am old but I have a good memory. I real good memory.'' So the next week we are facing the Senators again, but this time we are in Washington. Big Bobo Newsome was pitching and I came to bat in the second inning. Bobo knocked me on my ass. The next pitch, inside and high. Now remember, we didn't have helmets and I was getting angry. On 2-0, Bobo throws the third pitch, a whistler right under the bill of my hat. Now I am furious. ''You bum, you had three shots at me, now give it up!''
The next pitch hits me right in the upper back. ''THUD'' Oh did that ever take the wind out of me. I finally got up and caught my breath and Bobo and I had some words. Finally he says to me, ''Bob, I wanted to hit you then, and I am going to want to hit you every time you hit from now on. I don't care what the score is, I am coming at you Bob. And see those boys over there, (pointing to his dugout) they are going to hit you, and everyone I know is coming after you. So get used to it boy!''
Well, I decided discretion was the better part of valor. I came up to hit the next time and I wasn't anywhere near the plate. I mean, I was halfway out of the box and the first pitch Newsome throws me is this slow arching curve ball that scared the daylights out of me. After I got up, the umpire just laughs and calls a strike. I saw two more curves and struck out every at bat the rest of that game. Dutch and I made up and had a good laugh about it, but I never thought Bobo was all there in the head!
Then there is one that involves Old-Timers games. I still play with a fire in my belly. I don't care if you are a hundred years old, you play to win. Not every one of my peers appreciated this. Joe DiMaggio was one of them. Without a doubt, DiMaggio was the greatest all-around player of his era. No one touched Ted Williams as a hitter, but really, Joe did everything so well and so balanced too.
Throughout the sixties we played in old-timers games but rarely did I actually get to pitch to Joe. He'd invariably get an old team mate like Whitey (Ford) or Don (Larsen). These guys would groove it in there to Joe because Joe insisted on it. Well in 1971, he tried that with me at a game in Atlanta.
Joe had a hard time leaving the game and his pride was such that he insisted on being called the ''Greatest Living Ballplayer'' by the press and the PA announcers. It irked us too. Was he better than Willie Mays? Was he better than Koufax? Was he better than Frank Robinson or Hank Aaron? And yet, throughout his life, you had to reference him as ''The Greatest Living Ballplayer.''
So before the game he comes up to me and says, ''Hey Bob, just lay it in there for me.'' I was bothered by this. Why should I do this for you, i asked. ''Bob, he said while puffing on a smoke, '...the fans don't come to old-timers games to watch you strike people out. They come to watch me hit.'' Well Joe, NOT today my friend.
So he comes to the plate and I could see he was nervous. He put a helmet on, and Joe NEVER hit with a helmet. He was truly afraid. By then I was very overweight, hadn't been on anything other than a weak treadmill in weeks and broke a sweat flipping the channels on my tv. Joe on the other hand was pencil thin and cut a great figure even at his age.
After swinging at two pitches and missing, Joe stepped out and glared at me. ''Are you kidding me?'' he asked. The catcher was Joe Garigiola who looked helplessly at DiMaggio. The next pitch - a curve ball - was my favorite curve ball of all time. Joe buckled and took a weak swing and muttered something to Curt Gowdy, the sportscaster who was calling the game from the field. I asked Gowdy what he said and he looked at me and said, ''you really want to know? He said that you were the biggest ass he ever knew.''
And you know something....Joe would never again appear in uniform and play in an old-timers game. He was far too proud to ever get shown up again and in the end, the fans really were the losers. We made up, well, sort of. I knew Joe was a veteran like me, and he gave up the same prime years that I did. So deep down there is mutual admiration and respect.
I never had an agent. I shook hands on my deals. The pitchers of today have all kinds of clauses in the contract that keeps them from pitching a certain number of innings, whatever. Some pitchers today would have been fun to watch when I played. I'd like to see Pedro Martinez knock down Mickey Mantle and then see what would happen next.
Roger Clemens would be great in any era of baseball, no mistake about that. But I was lucky enough to meet Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb and others. There wasn't a nicer guy than Johnson. Did you know he went on to politics after his career ended? Cobb was not particularly friendly and he could be rude too. But when he came into the clubhouse, you know it. He was loud.
Sometimes people ask me about a dream match-up. I have often thought about it and concluded that if there was one pitcher I would like to face, it has to be Ryan. He's not the greatest by any means, but he is smart. I wonder what it would be like to see a pitching matchup between myself and Nolan Ryan. Who would win? I would. I know I would. But it would still be great to see.
I was on-hand when Opening Day happened at Jacobs Field. It is such a great ballpark. Now I was one of the few who liked Municipal too. I felt like it was gigantic and it really affected me to walk out of the dugout and onto the field. Any ballplayer knows the feeling, its just something that you cannot quite describe.
Randy Johnson was pitching against the Tribe. Here we were, on an opening day in a brand-new ballpark and Johnson is just ripping the Indians apart. Strikeout after strikeout after strikeout. He was a machine. He doesn't even look like he is throwing as hard as he does. We were getting into the sixth inning and Johnson still hadn't given up a hit. I began to panic.
That opening-day no-hitter that I threw was a record that I wanted to keep. So I violated every rule of baseball one could, talking about the no-hitter, mentioning it everywhere I could. I even went into the ESPN booth where Chris Berman was calling the game. He made the mistake of handing me a headset and asking me what i thought of the new ballpark. ''Well Chris, I love the park and can't believe The Big Unit is tossing a no-hitter!'' And just like that, Sandy Alomar breaks it up with a liner to center. Whether its baseball, or a game of checkers, I play to win, always and forever too!
In the end baseball is just a game. It's not important as your country. It's not as important as your faith. It's not as important as your family. It's not as important as your own ideas. But beyond that, it's as important as you make it out to be. I got lucky....sure did...I got to play a game I loved and make a good living at it, and i got to serve my country with distinction and honor. I was willing to give my life for this country - then - and now. I wouldn't hesitate if they needed me, but I truly hope we never get in that kinda shape where they need a guy like me! But I am saying that there isn't a man more brave who wears that American flag on their uniform.
Well it sure was nice to talk with you. I'll talk to just about anyone who will listen. I think baseball is a great game and every boy should learn to play. You learn about what your limits are, how to work together and how to communicate with one another. The friendships you make never die, even when the friends you make do.****