By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Oct. 27, 2019
The Rev. David Polich ministered to a parish in Harlan in the 1980s. A baseball fan, Polich often talked the sport with the retired farmers in his flock, many born during the first decades of the 20th century.
One ballplayer captured their fancy more than any other: Bob Feller, the Van Meter native who rose from an Iowa farm to become one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history.
“To people of that generation, he was a rock star before there were rock stars,” Polich said. “He was Pope John Paul II, Elton John and Michael Jordan all rolled into one.”
Today, more than 60 years since he threw his last pitch and nearly a decade since his death, Feller’s memory may have faded some against the unrelenting atrophy of time.
Still, Feller, who died in 2010 at 92, remains an unquestionable Iowa legend.
The origin story of Feller, who would’ve turned 101 years old Nov. 3, reads like something out of a Superman comic — except, of course, that Feller’s rise to fame occurred in 1936, a full two years before Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1.
Feller wanted to be a shortstop. He copied the batting stance of Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals second baseman.But an injury to one of his teammates forced Feller to take up pitching at 15. His catcher was often Nile Kinnick of Adel, another Dallas County kid with outstanding athletic talent who was about 4 months older than Feller. Kinnick would win the 1939 Heisman Trophy as halfback for the University of Iowa.
Within a year, pro scouts flocked to see his blazing fastball, which spun and moved like few had witnessed before.
Feller played in a national baseball tournament in Dayton, Ohio, when he was 16. Teams offered him contracts on the spot.
They were too late — an Iowan had already gotten Feller’s signature.
Cyril Slapnicka, a Cedar Rapids native, was a scout for the Cleveland Indians. He pitched 10 Major League games for the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates with the distinction of going seven years between Major League starts.
Slapnicka signed Feller for $1 and an autographed baseball.
“I knew he was something special,” Slapnicka said, per the Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia published in 2004. “I didn’t know then that he was smart and had the heart of a lion, but I knew that I was looking at an arm the likes of which you see only once in a lifetime.”
Iowa was in the grips of the Great Depression at the time of Feller’s ascension to the majors.
“The dust settled so thickly on the pastures that cows would not eat,” wrote author James Hearst.
Grasshoppers chewed the wood of farm tools and houses like a Biblical plague. Rain refused to fall. Cornfields withered.
“On the Fourth of July, the corn was as tall as the wheel on the cultivator,” J. Bruce Haddock told Iowa Public Television for a 1995 documentary. “And by a month later it was as though someone had pulled it back into the ground.”
Iowans needed someone to distract them from the misery that had plagued rural America since well before the 1929 Wall Street market crash.
Feller was that man.
Feller’s debut for Cleveland was inauspicious on July 29, 1936. He was 17 years, 8 months and 15 days old, to date the 17th-youngest player to make his major league debut.
He pitched a single inning of relief in Cleveland’s 9-5 loss at the Washington Senators. He struck out one and walked two.
Feller made his first start the next month, on Aug. 23. Veteran Danny Galehouse warmed up for the Indians in case young Feller struggled.
He did not.
Feller struck out 15 over 9 innings. He allowed six hits, one run and four walks en route to his first professional victory. Three weeks later, Feller fanned 17, tying the single-game record at the time, set by Dizzy Dean.
He complied a 5-4 record in 14 games as a rookie for the Indians, striking out 76 in 62 innings.
Sportswriters started using colorful phrases including “Bullet Bob,” “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” to describe Feller.
A star had emerged.
Feller appeared on the cover of Time magazine in April 1937 before the season began. In his first start of the season on April 24, Feller hurt his arm throwing a curveball, a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Browns.
Feller gave up all four runs in the first inning, but still managed to work six innings and strike out 11. He also faced his boyhood hero, Rogers Hornsby, the Browns’ player/manager.
Hornsby worked a walk in the first inning and scored a run. Feller got him out two more times, including a second-inning strikeout.
Feller spent most of April and May rehabbing his shoulder. He graduated from Van Meter High School that spring, and NBC Radio covered the event live.
Feller went on to strike out 150 in 148⅔ innings over 26 games that season with a 9-7 record. In 1938, he struck out 240 with 17 wins; still only 19 years old, he made the first of his eight All-Star appearances.
Feller was 21 years old, a man in full, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day 1940. It remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history.
His season proved to be one of his best ever. Feller won the pitching triple crown by leading the league in wins (27), strikeouts (261) and earned-run average (2.61).
He struck out more than 240 batters a year between 1938 and 1941, was an all-star each year and finished in the top three of MVP voting 1939-1941.
But on Dec. 7, 1941, strikeouts became meaningless.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. Feller returned to Iowa to visit his terminally ill father.
Then he enlisted in the Navy, becoming the first professional athlete to do so. He inspired many of his fellow ballplayers to quickly follow suit.
“Bob once told me the most important thing he ever did was enlist in the Navy,” said Jerel Merical, who helped curate the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter from 1995 to its closing in 2014.
Feller wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he failed the hearing test. He trained at the Norfolk base and served as a fitness instructor.
He requested posting aboard the USS Iowa, but nearly all servicemen from Iowa had asked to be placed on the ship named after their home state.
Feller didn’t make the cut.
Instead, he became a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama in 1943. Shortly before he left for combat, his father died of brain cancer.
The Alabama eventually led Feller to the Pacific Theater, where he and his shipmates fought in battles to capture Gilbert and Marshall Islands.
Feller also participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which crippled the Japanese aircraft carrier abilities.
Feller was discharged from the service in August 1945, decorated with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
Feller deflected any praise for his efforts in the war.
At a luncheon for civil leaders in Cleveland, the Plain-Dealer reported Feller said of his Naval service: “The real heroes didn’t come home.”
In 1946, his first full season back from the Navy, Feller won 26 games and struck out a career-high 348 — still the fourth highest tally in American League history.
Though the means for measuring pitch speeds were primitive, Feller was recorded throwing the fastest pitch in history clocked at 107.6 mph in 1948. In 1974, Houston Astro’s Nolan Ryan is said to have hit 108.1 mph, but both figures are disputed due to measuring irregularities.
In 1948, Feller played a small role in the final public appearance of Babe Ruth, the great slugger for the New York Yankees and masterful pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. On June 13, the Yankees retired Ruth’s No. 3. And Ruth, stricken with cancer, could barely stand.
Feller, who was warming up to start for the Indians, Feller’s teammate Eddie Robinson loaned Ruth Feller’s bat to lean on. Ruth died that August.
Feller and the Indians lost that day’s game, but went on to win the American League pennant and the World Series.
The Boston Braves’ hitters roughed up Feller in his two World Series starts. He lost both and allowed eight runs, half of the total scored by the Braves in the series.
Still, Cleveland its first World Series title since 1920 — and its last to date. It’s now the longest current drought by any team in the majors by 31 years.
During the victory parade in Cleveland, Feller was quoted as saying: “This is as good as being president.”
One of Feller’s teammates on the 1948 title-winning team was 41-year-old Satchel Paige, a longtime pitching star of the Negro Leagues who finally got a chance to play in the big leagues.
Feller knew Paige from way back. When Feller was 16, he pitched against Paige, then 29, in an exhibition game in Des Moines. Feller admired Paige’s pitching prowess, but he also noted the profitability of the 1930s-era barnstorming squads.
In Feller’s era, ballplayers needed to have winter jobs to support their families. Although Feller was an unquestioned superstar, his career earnings amounted to about $500,000.
By comparison, today’s average Major League salary is $4.4 million, and the league minimum is $555,000.
So Feller and Paige went on an offseason barnstorming tour in 1946. They played 36 games across the country, drawing about 250,000 fans and making history by being the first teams to travel between cities by plane.
The tour took place the winter before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in April 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Indians made Larry Doby the first black player in the American league that July.
Feller was ambivalent about integration of the majors and the plight of black players in general. It “was their problem,” he once said of black players not being allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites.
Yet he wrote effusive praise of Paige in Sports Illustrated, arguing the Negro League star should be in the Hall of Fame.
By intent or otherwise, Feller helped puncture the color barrier erected by another Iowan, 19th-century star Cap Anson of the Chicago Cubs. Anson was one of the most popular and respected players of his era.
Anson refused to play against dark-skinned players and persuaded other clubs to follow suit and influencing minor leagues to stop signing black players.
Coincidentally, Robinson and Feller were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the same year: 1962.
Feller and Cleveland reached the World Series again in 1954, but he did not pitch and the Indians lost to the New York Giants. Feller went 13-3 that season, then went 4-8 over his final two years in Cleveland before retiring in 1956 at age 37.
He finished his career with a 266-162 record with 2,581 strikeouts. He’s one of only six players to throw more than two no-hitters, and his 12 one-hitters ties him with Nolan Ryan as the most in MLB history.
In retirement, he sold insurance and supplemented his income by appearing at card shows and other events where he sold his autograph.
Feller could be generous and prickly in the same motion. He chaffed if someone suggested pitching greats like Johnson or Ryan threw faster than Feller in his prime.
He became good friends with rival Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox hitter. Williams said he would start thinking about how to hit Feller three days before he faced him, more than any other pitcher he battled. Feller spoke highly of Williams’ play and his service in both World War II and the Korean War.
But close observers noticed a slight tension.
Feller “was still competitive,” said John Liepa, an Iowa baseball historian and retired Iowa State University and DMACC professor. “He would say great things about Williams or other players that appeared with him, but you could sense he still thought, ‘I could take you.’ That was just the essence of Bob Feller.”
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.