Perhaps the strongest thread between the pitchers is that Feller threw very, very hard—triple-digit hard—and so does Strasburg. The 100 mile-an-hour fastball is baseball’s he-man pitch, and only a select few have been able to throw it. Strasburg was timed by radar guns in college at 103 mph (so far with the Nationals he has topped out at 100). “Rapid Robert” Feller, four inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than Strasburg, had a fastball that would have been clocked above 100 mph if a suitable timing device had existed.
It so happened Feller was timed, first against a motorcycle (it’s true), then by a device borrowed from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. The motorcycle started in center field and roared past Feller at 86 mph as he began his windup. But his pitch reached home plate before the motorcycle—proof, as it were, that the ball was likely traveling in the 100 mph range. In 1946, on a trip to Washington, D.C.’s old Griffith Stadium, an artillery velocity meter—usually used to measure the speed of missiles and rockets—was shipped in from Aberdeen. Before a battery of press photographers, Feller’s pitches were recorded at 98.6 mph by the Army’s machinery, a finding that’s still debated.
The inexact times have since been translated into 101 to 104 mph by today’s standards. Regardless of any recorded or surmised speeds, nobody threw harder than Feller during his day. The same might be true of Strasburg. But throwing heat isn’t enough. Feller eventually developed a sharp-breaking, baffling curve ball. Strasburg has shown he might already have one. He has a nasty change-up, too.
There also is a certain orneriness about Strasburg. Feller had that and still does. Perhaps he learned a bit of it from Walter Johnson, a flame-thrower in an earlier era and coincidentally a Washington ace for decades. Johnson saw Feller pitch once and offered one cryptic remark: “I was a little faster than you.”
Feller remains a prickly curmudgeon today, reminding anyone who will listen that he won 82 games by the time he was Strasburg’s age or that he used to regularly pitch all nine innings (unlike pitchers today) or that the strikeouts he piled up were harder to achieve than they are now.
“It’s much easier to strike out now than it was during my time because when they got two strikes on them they’d put the ball in play,” Feller said. “Now they swing hard three times. They know there’s more money in hitting a home run. Striking out is not an embarrassment today. It used to be an embarrassment during my career.”
Asked if he believes Strasburg will go on to have a great career, Feller says, “It’s too early. He can give me a call when he wins his 100th game.”
It is early. Yet Strasburg already is approaching iconic status. He sells tickets, T-shirts and anything else associated with his name. The Nationals rank near the bottom of the National League in attendance, but not when Strasburg pitches. The home crowds that watch him average more than 37,500. In their other games, the Nationals average about 22,000.
Strasburg is intensely private, and the Nationals have taken great pains to keep him sheltered from the media beast, yet every baseball move he makes has been observed and recorded. After two games he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His last minor league start, in Buffalo, N.Y., on a weekday afternoon, drew more fans than three major league games the day before.
“He has a few things to learn,” Feller says. “He’ll learn. He’s a smart kid, he behaves himself and he doesn’t believe all the hype about him.”
But we can.
Bob Cohn is a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He did not see Bob Feller pitch but he has witnessed Strasburg, and he is a believer.