RIP: Bob Feller: 1918-2010
Hall of Famer Bob Feller passed away last night at the age of 92, stricken by cancer and pneumonia.
His accomplishments on the field were legendary, of course: 266 wins, six 20+ win seasons, 2581 strikeouts, led the league in strikeouts seven times, in innings five times, in games started four times, in complete games three times, in ERA just once. He came to the major leagues as a 17 year old phenom off the farm in Iowa. His final career stats would certainly have been more impressive if he hadn't served in World War Two.
Feller was the hardest thrower of his generation and also had an excellent curveball, and while he had problems with walks, his command was still good enough for him to dominate. He had a particularly amazing season in 1946: 371 innings, 48 games, 42 games started, 36 complete games, 10 shutouts, and 348 strikeouts. His pitch counts that year were murderous, and indeed he wasn't quite the same afterward. His velocity began to decline in '47, and while he remained an above average pitcher until 1952, even commentators at the time knew that '46 had taken a toll.
Feller's activities off the field were just as intriguing as the ones on the field. He volunteered for the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor, even though he had a draft exemption and wasn't required to serve. He further volunteered for combat duty, serving as an anti aircraft gunner aboard the battleship Alabama. He was an extremely active barnstormer, and his activities with barnstorming against Negro League players helped set the stage for integration. He was the first player to incorporate, and was the most aggressive player of his generation in regards to endorsements, something which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He was a leading figure in establishing labor rights and pensions for players.
Feller was a complex personality. Some people loved him, some people hated him. I wrote a biography of him seven years ago. This was not an "authorized" biography; I was free to write whatever I wanted about him, but he did extend me his cooperation. I interviewed him three times for the book, and he graciously answered every question I put to him, in fact giving me some information that he'd never previously revealed to other writers.
I can't say I knew him well on a personal basis, but I talked with him enough to see both sides of his personality. Feller's persona dominated any room. He could be very pleasant, gracious, honest, and kind. He could also be irascible, tactless, prideful, and abrasive. Sometimes he was all of these things at the same time. When I introduced my then-five year old son Nicholas to him, he said "hello" very kindly to my son, shook his hand, then commented somewhat grumpily to me and my wife, "he's a cute kid, but needs a haircut."
Feller could be both very generous with his money and very aggressive about acquiring more. He had a bitter public feud with Jackie Robinson and was accused of racism more than once due to comments that at best were insensitive. But at the same time he refused to allow vocal racists on his barnstorming squads, supported the signing of Satchel Paige by the Indians, and was the first well-known baseball figure to call for integrating the Hall of Fame with Negro League players.
One never knew exactly which Bob would show up on any given day, but you always knew where you stood with him: he was brutally honest about his thoughts and opinions, sometimes too honest. As he got older, these traits became more prominent, but that is a normal part of life. All in all, he was neither as All-American-wonderful as his admirers felt, nor as out-and-out obnoxious as his detractors saw. He was merely human.
Rest in peace, Robert William Andrew Feller. You were one of a kind.