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On Wednesday night, December 15 2010, baseball legend Bob Feller passed away at the age of 92. He was the last of his generation and a true baseball legend. I am proud to say that I have met him on a number of occasions. The first time was when I was ten years old and he autographed a post card for me. I still have it and have attached it here:
I met him when he made an appearance to a group prior to the opening of the new Cleveland Indians ball park (now Progressive Field, formerly Jacobs Field). My father told me that he took me to see him pitch while he was still playing for the Indians, but I don't remember that since I was a little kid. I saw him throw out a ceremonial first pitch at the opening game at Jacobs Field in 1994 along side President Bill Clinton. The last time I met him in person was at a Cleveland Pops Orchestra concert a few years ago where he was featured in a concert doing a reading of "Casey at the bat" with the orchestra accompanying his reading. He was in his late 80s then and still looked like he could throw a fastball. Last spring at the age of 91, he suited up and joined the Cleveland Indians and their famtasy camp in Arizona. He will be missed.
His career is the stuff of legend and may never be duplicated. He was signed by the Cleveland Indians at the age of 16 for $1.00 and an autographed baseball. He said that his father allowed him to sign with the Indians because they would allow him to leave the team and finish high school in Iowa. He joined the team at the age of 17 after pitching a few games for a local sandlot team. After a couple of relief appearances, he got his first start on Aug. 16 1936 and in his first start, he struck out 15 batters. Later that same month, he set a new single game strike out record by striking out 17 batters. In 1938, he beat his own record and struck out 18 batters in a game at the age of 19.
In 1940 he threw the only opening day no hitter and the first of his three no hitters. That season he won 27 games and the Indians lost the American league pennant by one game to the Tigers. By the time he turned 22 years old, he had already won 100 games in the major leagues.
Then on December 9 1941, Bob Feller became the first major league ball player to enlist in the military during the second world war. He didn't have to enlist since he was exempt from the draft because he was the sole support of his family back in Iowa as his father was dying. He served in the Navy during the war on the cruiser Alabama and saw combat in the Pacific as well as escorting cargo ships across the Atlantic. He gave up four years at the peak of his career to serve his country and said that of all his accomplishments, that was the one he was most proud of.
After the war, he picked up where he had left off when in the 1946 season he won 26 games for a sixth place team and set a new major league single season strikeout record by stiking out 346 batters. His performance tailed off after that, but in 1948 he did win a world series ring as the Cleveland Indians won the world series. In the first game of the 1948 world series, more than 86,000 people jammed into the stadium to see him pitch setting a major league single game attendance record. He lost that game 1 to 0 on a questionable pickoff play.
He retired after the 1956 season and in his career won 266 games. He never played a game of minor league ball and never wore any other baseball uniform other than that of the Cleveland Indians. During the off seasons in the late 1930s, Bob Feller would barnstorm with the great players of the negro leagues. Ironically the legendary Negro league pitcher Satchel Paige became a team mate with him on that championship 1948 team.
After retirement, Bob Feller became the first president of the Major League Plyers Association and supported the players association throughout his life. He was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1962 (along side another first ballot inductee Jackie Robinson). At the time of his death he was the oldest living member of the baseball hall of fame and had been the longest living member of the hall of fame.
When I think about the pampered and spoiled professional athletes of today with all their millions who jump teams all the time, Bob Feller was an anachronism. He never played for another team. He completed more than 2/3 of all the games that he started. Today a complete game is as rare as a no hitter. Today a pitcher is called a "work horse" if he pitches 200 innings in a season. Many times when a pitcher hits 200 innings in a season, he is "shut down" for the season. Bob Feller regularly pitched more then 300 innings in a season. Following the 1949 season when he slumped to a 15 - 14 won lost record, he voluntaily asked for a $20,000 pay cut because of his poor season. Today if a pitcher has a 15 - 14 season, he signs a multi year, multi million dollar contract.
Though his four year military service may have cost him 100 victories and perhaps a career strike out record, he said that he would do it again without any reservations. After the war, he was treated as a war hero. But in his own way, Bob Feller said it best that he was not a war hero. He said "the real heros didn't come home. Survivors came home. I am a survivor." Imagine one of today's pampered, spoiled athletes taking four years out of their career at the prime to serve their country and one gets a true realization of what a class act Bob Feller really was.
When the Cleveland Indians built their new stadium in 1994, they erected a statue of Bob Feller in a pitching pose outside the entrance to the ball park. It is a fitting memorial to a great ball player and perhaps a greater man. That statue is a monument to what a professional athlete should be and how much they can mean to a city and the fans.
It makes me sick when I think about another Cleveland athlete who, like Bob Feller had an enormous talent in his sport. Like Bob Feller, he came right out of high school and dazzled the sporting world with his accomplishments. Yet this present day athlete (who will remain unnamed), instead of playing for the team and city, became a self centered egotistical person who made his "decision" on national television to desert his city and fans to play in a side show. Of course in his day, Bob Feller never was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was in high school with the title "The Chosen One". Unlike Bob Feller, this current athlete will never have a statue of him outside the arena, nor will he be as loved by the fans long after his playing days are over.
Read more about this at this link: http://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2010/12/the_greatest_cleveland_indian.html