Bob Feller… a baseball legend from an earlier era… Hall of Famer whose statistics pale in comparison to other pitchers. But therein lies the story.
He grew up on a farm in Iowa, but his future wouldn’t remain in that soil. Rather it was on the pitching mounds found in major league ballparks all across the country.
Bob Feller was just shy of his eighteenth birthday when he made his major league pitching debut for the Cleveland Indians. The year was 1936.
In six seasons, Rapid Robert, as he was nicknamed, had won 107 games. Just 23, he was the toast of baseball.
Yet fifteen years later, when he retired at the age of 38, he would have added only 159 more victories. Looks like a mediocre career for the one-time sensation. But the statistics simply don’t tell the whole story. Time to dig behind the facts.
Even before Spring Training of the 1942 season, the advent of the United States entering World War II caused great upheaval in baseball’s major leagues. Bob Feller could have stayed out of the service at that time because his father was dying. Bob would have become the sole support of his family.
But two days after Pearl Harbor, Feller’s signature was on his enlistment papers. He had joined the Navy. He wanted to be in the fight.
Bob Feller had a distinguished Naval career serving on ships for most of the war. He received many medals, but he lost almost four years of baseball.
Feller was not a perfect man. It isn’t hard to dig up his character warts. But no one can question his patriotism, love for country, and willingness to sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy.
Many called Feller a hero when he returned. He said he was no hero. The heroes were the men and women who didn’t come home. They were the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio, three of the greatest hitters of the 40s and 50s, said that Feller was by far the best pitcher they ever faced. His 99 mile per hour fastball and wicked curve ball caused them many sleepless nights. Most baseball statisticians have said Feller would have added well over 100 victories and 1200 strikeouts had he competed during the war seasons.
Even so, in those postwar years, Bob Feller contributed to one of my favorite Indian highlights… the winning of the 1948 World Series. It would be the last time the Cleveland Indians would be called World Champions. But even then, Feller’s star power was being eclipsed by shortstop/manager Lou Boudreau.
Feller was not the only player who answered the call of our country. It is not to elevate him at the expense of others, something he would have detested. It’s simply to recognize that statistics don’t always tell the whole story.
We have many baseball statistics in recent years that are wildly inflated because of steroid usage. The cheaters profited from greater statistics, but at the same they destroyed their reputations and stained the game of baseball. They aren’t getting any calls from the Hall of Fame. One can only hope that the Hall will permanently lose their number.
It isn’t a coincidence that modest numbers, when compared to those of other Hall of Fame pitchers, didn’t prevent Bob Feller’s elevation to that elite group. In fact, over 95% of the sportswriters who voted elected him on the first ballot.
Memorial Day 2016 has come and gone. The flags have been removed from the cemetery grounds. Summer has begun, and baseball is in full swing.
And yet it is good to look back to thank all of those who served and are serving in our military, and especially those who sacrificed their lives.
It is also important to remember those who did not put self above service… and thus honored their country.