Baseball was only a part of Feller’s remarkable story.
Stirred by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy the following day — the first major league player to do so. He served as a gun captain on the USS Alabama, earning several battle commendations and medals.
Never afraid to offer a strong opinion on any subject, Feller remained physically active in his later years. At the end of every winter, he attended the Indians‘ fantasy camp in either Florida or Arizona. One of the highlights of the weeklong event was always Feller, in uniform, taking the mound and striking out campers, some of whom were 50 years younger.
Another rite of spring for Cleveland fans was seeing Feller at the Indians‘ training camp. Before home exhibition games in Winter Haven, Fla., or more recently in Goodyear, Ariz., Feller would throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Introduced to a rousing ovation every time, Feller delivered the throw with the same high leg kick he used while blazing fastballs past overmatched hitters.
“We have all lost a friend and the nation has lost an icon,” former Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. “Bob was always there with a word of advice or a story. The thing is that they were always relevant and helpful. I will never forget before the first game of the ‘97 World Series, Bob came up to me and patted me on the back and told me how proud he was of me and the team, then gave me a buckeye and said it was for luck.
An eight-time All-Star, Feller compiled statistics from 1936 through 1956 that guaranteed his Hall of Fame enshrinement. He led the AL in victories six times and is still the Indians‘ career leader in shutouts (46), innings pitched (3,827), walks (1,764), complete games (279), wins and strikeouts.
Despite losing his two starts, Feller won a World Series title with the Indians in 1948.
When he returned from military duty in 1946, Feller arguably had his finest season, going 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA and pitching 36 complete games and 10 shutouts. For comparison’s sake, the Indians‘ entire pitching staff had 10 complete games and four shutouts last season.
Feller made his first major league start on Aug. 23, 1936, two months shy of turning 18. He never pitched in the minors, and when the Indians decided to use him in a relief role on July 19, 1936, he was the youngest player ever to pitch in a major league game. Many wondered if the kid — who would later credit his arm strength to milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay — was in over his head.
Using a fastball later dubbed “the Van Meter heater,” Feller struck out 15 — two shy of the major league record in his first game, beating the St. Louis Browns 4-1 — a star was born. Later that season, Feller established the AL record by striking out 17 Philadelphia Athletics.
In 1938, Feller set the major league record by striking out 18 against the Detroit Tigers. The record stood for 36 years before being broken by Nolan Ryan in 1974. By the time he joined the military at 23, Feller had won 109 games and was well on the way to baseball fame.
In his day, nobody threw harder than Feller, who sometimes had trouble with his control. Because speed devices weren’t as advanced as they are today, it’s impossible to gauge precisely how fast Feller threw in his prime. There is famous black-and-white film footage of Feller’s fastball being clocked as it races against a motorcycle said to be traveling at 100 mph.