The star pitcher was driving his snazzy new Buick Century from his home in Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago to negotiate his contract for the following season. The car had two “luxuries” of that automobile era, a radio and a heater. He was happy to have the heater because this was a cold afternoon in early December. But when he turned on the radio, his mood - and future - changed immediately.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on what President Franklin D. Roosevelt described memorably as “a date that will live in infamy” the next day when he asked Congress to declare war against the Axis powers: Germany, Japan and Italy.
The pitcher, undoubtedly the best in the major leagues, was Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, who at 23 had won 76 games over the past three seasons. Hearing of the attack, he turned the Buick around and headed back home. Soon he called Indians general manager Cy Slapnicka, waiting for him in Chicago, and said he would not be available for the 1942 season.
Two days later, Feller enlisted in the Navy, the first active major leaguer to enter military service in World War II. He was sworn in by Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion, who was in charge of the Navy’s physical fitness program.
All of this happened more than six decades ago, but Feller is still around, and this is a big month for the erstwhile “Rapid Robert,” who turned 90 this week.
The Indians have scheduled a big birthday party for the greatest player in the franchise’s 107-year history. Another celebration will be held at the Bob Feller Museum in his hometown, and he will join other survivors of the war for a panel discussion organized by the American Veterans Center at the Renaissance Washington Hotel on Friday at 2 p.m. (To register for “MLB in WWII,” call 703/302-1012, extension 227, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“I’m happy to be coming back to Washington,” Feller said last week from his home. “I always enjoyed playing there.”
That’s understandable since the famous fireballer usually toyed with the frequently lamentable Senators. He also hit the headlines here in 1946 when the Navy set up an electronic device at home plate - an early equivalent of today’s radar guns - to record the speed of Feller’s famous fastball: 98.6 mph.
Also on hand for the discussion will be fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, plus Jerry Coleman and Lou Brissie. Relatively few World War II veterans are still with us, but those who are recall their military service proudly.
For Feller, turning his car around and reporting for duty in the Navy at a salary of $80 a month was what today would be called a no-brainer.
“We were losing the war,” Feller has explained. “We needed heroes … we needed men.”
The Japanese attack united a nation that had been divided on the question of entering the European conflict that began Sept. 1, 1939. This was what author Studs Terkel later termed “The Good War,” meaning one whose necessity and purpose was unquestioned.
“We were outraged about Japan’s attack and what Hitler was doing in Europe,” Feller wrote in his 1990 autobiography, “Now Pitching, Bob Feller,” co-authored by Washington writer Bill Gilbert. “We didn’t just fight to protect ourselves. We wanted to take those guys on and beat the living hell out of them.”
Feller could have avoided service because his father was dying of cancer and Bob was listed as the sole support of his family. Instead, he sought action. After serving briefly in Tunney’s physical fitness program, he volunteered for gunnery school. Eventually, he became chief of an anti-aircraft gunnery crew that fought in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Feller, who made his major league debut at 17 in 1936, missed three full seasons and most of a fourth serving in the Navy. When he retired in 1956, he had won 266 games. If not for his military service, he likely would have approached 350 victories.
“But you know, I don’t care about that,” Feller said about his numbers. “We did what we had to do.”
Bob Feller indeed was a hero - but less so on the baseball field than off.