Robert William Andrew Feller (November 3, 1918 – December 15, 2010), nicknamed “The Heater from Van Meter“, “Bullet Bob“, and “Rapid Robert“, was an American baseball pitcher who played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Cleveland Indians. Feller pitched from 1936 to 1941 and from 1945 to 1956, interrupted only by a four-year sojourn in the Navy. In a career spanning 570 games, Feller pitched 3,827 inningsand posted a win–loss record of 266–162, with 279 complete games, 44 shutouts, and a 3.25 earned run average(ERA).
A prodigy who bypassed the minor leagues, Feller first played for the Indians at the age of 17. His career was interrupted by four years of military service in World War II, during which time he served as Chief Petty Officeraboard the USS Alabama. Feller became the first pitcher to win 24 games in a season before the age of 21. During his career, he threw no-hitters in 1940, 1946, and 1951. Feller also recorded 12 one-hitters (his no-hitters and one-hitters were records at the time of his retirement). He helped the Indians win a World Series title in 1948 and an American League-record 111 wins and the pennant in 1954. Feller led the American League in wins six times and in strikeouts seven times. In 1946, he recorded 348 strikeouts, a total not exceeded for 19 years. An eight-time All-Star, Feller was ranked 36th on Sporting News‘s list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and was named the publication’s “greatest pitcher of his time”. He was a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999.
The United States entered World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Feller heard about the bombing while returning from a visit to his terminally ill father at Des Moines to Chicago where he was to sign a new Indians contract. Two days later, he volunteered for the United States Navy, becoming the first American professional athlete to enlist. Originally he tried to enlist as a fighter pilot but failed hearing tests. Feller attended basic training at Norfolk Naval Base and served as a physical fitness instructor there. He also pitched in baseball games hosted by the military. Although he had received a military exemption owing to his father’s failing health, he wanted to serve in combat missions. Feller said, “I told them I wanted to … get into combat; wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats and making ball fields out of coral reefs.” Feller was assigned to the USS Alabama; he had hoped to serve on the USS Iowa, but nearly all servicemen from Iowa had requested a place on that ship, and Feller was not selected.
Shortly before Feller left for combat, his father died of brain cancer in early January 1943. Five days later he married Virginia Winther whom he met while in Florida for spring training; she was a student at Rollins College. After the marriage, Feller returned to service as Gun Captain aboard the Alabama and kept his pitching arm in shape by throwing near a gun turret. Feller and the Alabama crew spent most of 1943 in the British Isles along with USS South Dakota, but in August were reassigned to the Pacific Theater of Operations. Feller’s first taste of direct combat was at Operation Galvanic in November 1943. The Alabama also served during Operation Flintlock while primarily being used as an escort battleship in 1944. Feller participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea before his combat duty ended in January 1945; he spent the rest of the war at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station as an instructor.
When the war ended, Feller was discharged as a Chief Petty Officer on August 22, 1945. Feller was decorated with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars while serving on missions in both the Pacific and North Atlantic, and he was made an honorary member of the Green Berets later in life.
From Baseball in Wartime:
“We have been in about every ‘hellhole’ on the face of the earth. My present set-up has me in anti-aircraft gunnery, which at present is quite active.”– Bob Feller in a letter to Lew Fonseca, American League Director of Promotions 1944
Robert W A “Bob” Feller was born on November 3, 1918 in Van Meter, Iowa. He played four years of American Legion baseball and was signed to a Cleveland Indians’ contract by C C Slapnicka in July 1935, when only 16 years old.
During his first major league start in 1936, Feller faced the St Louis Browns and struck out 15. He won 24 games in 1939, and became the first American League pitcher to throw a complete game no-hitter on opening day 1940.
On December 8, 1941 – the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – Feller enlisted in the Navy. He was sworn in by former heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney, at the Chicago courthouse. He was assigned to the Norfolk Naval Training Station in Virginia, as part of Tunney’s physical fitness program, and pitched for the baseball team. The line-up included Freddie Hutchinson and Vince Smith, and Feller hurled his first game for Norfolk on April 3, 1942, against Richmond University. In three innings he struck out three and allowed one hit. Norfolk won the game, 13-1.
On June 15, 1942, Feller participated in a five-inning baseball game at the Polo Grounds, New York, as part of an all-sports carnival to raise funds for Army-Navy Relief. Feller pitched the Navy team to victory against the Army’s Hugh Mulcahy – allowing three hits and striking out five.
But Feller was not happy. “I wanted to get out of the Tunney program and in to combat,” he told author William B Mead. “So I went to the gunnery school there. And I went on the USS Alabama that fall.”
Feller then spent 26 months as chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew on the USS Alabama (BB-60), a South Dakota-class battleship. “We spent the first six or eight months in the North Atlantic. I was playing softball in Iceland in the spring. We came back in the later part of the summer, and went right through the Panama Canal and over to the South Pacific. We hung around the Fiji islands for a while, and then when we got the fleet assembled, and enough men and equipment to start a successful attack, we hit Kwajalein and the Gilberts and the Marshalls and then across to Truk.”
Feller worked hard to stay in top physical shape while on the Alabama. He had a rowing machine and a punching bag, and did regular chin-ups and push-ups. He would run on beaches whenever the ship was in port and run around the ship when at sea.
Early in 1944, Feller was contacted by Seabee Albert P Pellicore of Chicago, who asked him to play a game against a team composed of the best players on an island in the Pacific. “Bob was in rare form that day.” Pellicore explained in a letter to John P Carmichael, sports editor of the Chicago Daily News, “and pitched exceedingly fine to the delight of the largest crowd ever assembled in these parts.” The “All-Stars.” playing against Bob, lost the game 9-0, with Feller striking out 15. “I write this because I feel the people back home should know about a man who besides his regular line of duty is contributing so much toward the entertainment of all concerned,” the letter concluded.
The USS Alabama returned to the United States in the spring of 1945, and Feller was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, where he coached the baseball team and posted a 13-2 won-loss record with 130 strike outs in 95 innings.
He returned to the Indians in August 1945, and in his debut in Cleveland he beat the Tigers, 4-2, in front 46,477 adoring fans.
In January 1946, Feller set up a three-week school in Tampa, Florida, to develop the baseball skills of returning veterans – both aspiring ballplayers and those with some organized baseball experience. Men paid for their own transportation to the school as well as room and board, but the instruction – by major leaguers – was free.
In 1946, he set a major league record for the most strikeouts in one season with 348. He led the American League in strikeouts for 7 years and by 1951 had hurled his third no-hitter.
His last season in the major leagues was 1956, and Feller was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Talking about his military service some years later on an episode of ESPN’s Major League Baseball Magazine, Feller said “I’m very proud of my war record, just like my baseball record. I would never have been able to face anybody and talk about my baseball record if I hadn’t spent time in the service.”
Not one to be phased by modern technology, Feller participated in an online chat with fans from Cooperstown in April 2005. One of the many questions he was asked was whether he had any regrets about serving in the war? “No, I don’t,” he replied. “During a war like World War II, when we had all those men lose their lives, sports was very insignificant. I have no regrets. The only win I wanted was to win World War II. This country is what it is today because of our victory in that war.
Bob Feller participated in the salute to baseball in World War II entitled Duty, Honor, Country: When Baseball Went to War on November 9 – 11, 2007 at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
In August 2010, Feller was treated for leukemia. In October, he had a pacemaker installed and was diagnosed with pneumonia. In December he was transferred to hospice care where he died on December 15, 2010, aged 92.