Quite a ‘Feller’ from the Greatest Generation

Sometimes things happen so close together you almost have to link them, or at least think about them together.

Within the past few days former Texas Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee signed a 5-year, $120-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lee has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, especially in the post season.

Last Wednesday, Hall of Famer Bob Feller died at age 92. In his era Feller was the best pitcher in baseball. No debate.

Like Lee, Feller also switched employers, representing a significant change in his finances.

Feller left the Cleveland Indians to accept a job which paid $114 a month.

Let me explain. This isn’t really about baseball.

Robert William Andrew Feller came from a farm outside Van Meter, Iowa.

Later in life some big city type mused that it must have been boring growing up like he did.

For four years this was Bob Feller’s ‘mound,’ a gun emplacement on the USS Alabama. For four years this was Bob Feller’s ‘mound,’ a gun emplacement on the USS Alabama. Feller, who was not shy about anything, his own talent included, snorted “I had the two best things in the world, farming and baseball.” He could throw a fastball, perhaps, faster than anyone who ever lived. A primitive machine of the time once clocked him at 108.

They once had a race between Feller’s fastball and a motorcycle at full speed. They cut a small hole in a target and placed a camera behind so it could film the ball and bike simultaneously.

But there’s no photo of the event from that angle. Feller’s fastball went through the hole and destroyed the camera. “I was aiming at it,” he explained.

Oh, and he beat the motorcycle. Easily.

The Cleveland Indians signed him at age 17. In his first exhibition game Feller fanned 8 of the 9 St. Louis Cardinals he faced, a lineup which had recently won the world series.

In his first real major league game he struck out 15. Three weeks later he fanned 17, the American League record at the time. Feller was seventeen!

By age 23 he had 107 wins and 1,233 strikeouts. Then something happened.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

On Dec. 8, 1941, Bob Feller joined the U. S. Navy.

It wasn’t a “celebrity signup.” He volunteered for combat and was assigned to a gun emplacement on the USS Alabama. He served four years, became gun captain, earned four battle stars. Then he went back to playing baseball.

Feller ended up with 266 wins and went to the Hall of Fame. Had he not served four years in the Navy, he would have easily had 360 wins.

But for the rest of his life the one sure way to make Bob Feller mad at you—granted, that wasn’t particularly difficult—was to bring up those “missing” years.

He didn’t consider them missing in any sense of the word. In fact he would dismiss the “what if?” question with a wave of his hand, glare and explain:

“That’s what we did!”

The “Greatest Generation” in four words. That’s what we did.

Bob Feller had a lot of opinions about baseball and I didn’t agree with all of them.

Which, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all. When it came to what was really important Bob Feller was more than a Hall of Fame athlete, he was an American.

It’s what he did.

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2010-12-23 digital edition

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