CLEVELAND (AP) — Teenage pitching sensation, World War II hero, outspoken Hall of Famer and local sports treasure. Bob Feller was all of them.
One of a kind, he was an American original.
Blessed with a right arm that earned the Iowa farmboy the nickname “Rapid Robert” and made him one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Feller, who left baseball in the prime of his career to fight for his country, died Wednesday night. He was 92.
Feller, who won 266 games in 18 seasons — all with the Indians — died at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday night of acute leukemia at a hospice, said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians vice president of public relations.
Remarkably fit until late in life, Feller had suffered serious health setbacks in recent months. He was diagnosed with leukemia in August, and while undergoing chemotherapy, he fainted and his heart briefly stopped. Eventually, he had pacemaker implanted.
In November, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and recently released into hospice care.
Even as his health deteriorated, Feller continued doing what he loved most — attending Indians games deep into last season.
“Nobody lives forever and I’ve had a blessed life,” Feller said in September. “I’d like to stay on this side of the grass for as long as I can, though. I’d really like to see the Indians win a World Series.”
Feller, in fact, was part of the rotation the last time the Indians won it all — in 1948.
Fiercely proud and patriotic, Feller’s life was much like one of his overpowering fastballs. He seemed unstoppable, whether on the mound or in conversation. Feller, who broke into the majors at the tender age of 17, could always bring the heat.
“Bob Feller is gone. We cannot be surprised,” Indians owner Larry Dolan said in a statement. “Yet, it seems improbable. Bob has been such an integral part of our fabric, so much more than an ex-ballplayer, so much more than any Cleveland Indians player. He is Cleveland, Ohio.
“To say he will be missed is such an understatement. More to the point, he will not be missed because he will always be with us,” he said.
Feller was part of a vaunted Indians’ rotation in the 1940s and ’50s with fellow Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. He finished with 2,581 career strikeouts, led the American League in strikeouts seven times, pitched three no-hitters — including the only one on opening day — and recorded a jaw-dropping 12 one-hitters.
Feller’s win total remains a Cleveland team record, one that seems almost untouchable in today’s free-agent era. His numbers would no doubt have been even greater had his career not been interrupted by World War II.
The first pitcher to win 20 games before he was 21, Feller was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1962, his first year of eligibility.
The Indians retired his No. 19 jersey in 1957 and immortalized the greatest player in franchise history with a statue when they opened their downtown stadium in 1994. The sculpture is vintage Feller, captured forever in the middle of his patented windmill windup, rearing back to fire another pitch.
“When you think Cleveland Indians, you think Bob Feller and vice versa,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “He was a genuine patriot and a big-time Hall of Famer. Boy, he loved the Indians and we all loved him back.”
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.
“More impressive than his vast accomplishments on the field was being part of ‘The Greatest Generation,'” Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said. “Bob served our country for nearly four years during the prime of his career. Bob was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost a great American.”
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.
“I don’t think that Bob ever believed in luck, just hard work and an honest effort. I will miss Bob very much. He was my friend,” he said.
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.
Born Nov. 3, 1918, near Van Meter, Iowa, Robert Andrew William Feller was 16 when he caught the eye of Indians scout Cy Slapnicka.
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. No pitcher in the AL fanned more in a nine-inning game until Nolan Ryan in 1974. By the time Feller joined the military at 23, he 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.
Feller once said he was clocked at 104 mph.
Even in his later years, Feller could recall pitch-for-pitch duels with great hitters like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He said his biggest thrill in the game was when he returned from the military to pitch a no-hitter against New York at Yankee Stadium.
“I had been away four years and people were saying I was washed up,” Feller said. “They had a right to say it, too, since few come back after being away so long. But this game proved to me that I was still able to pitch.”
He always credited his father, Bill, with encouraging his baseball ambitions.
“My father kept me busy from dawn to dusk when I was a kid,” Feller said. “When I wasn’t pitching hay, hauling corn or running a tractor, I was heaving a baseball into his mitt behind the barn.”
Feller said the greatest hitter he ever faced, without question, was Williams, although Williams had only a .270 average against him.
“I was a little luckier against him than the others,” Feller said. “But he beat me in more games than I care to remember. Joe DiMaggio was the only right-hander who hit me consistently. The fellow who hit me best, though, was Tommy Henrich, the Yankees’ old reliable.”
After retiring from baseball, Feller worked in the insurance business, but he never got completely away from the game. In 1981, he returned to work for the Indians as a spring training pitching coach and in the team’s public relations office.
As recently as last season, Feller was a fixture in the press box at Progressive Field. Sitting in the media dining area before games or in the same seat during them, he would offer his thoughts on any current event and, of course, his assessment on the Indians.
When Washington’s Stephen Strasburg made his second start in Cleveland, Feller refused to get caught up in the hype.
“Check back with me when he’s won 100 games,” he said.
Cleveland’s chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America recently asked the Indians to turn Feller’s press box seat into a shrine area.
Feller didn’t care for crowds and didn’t particularly enjoy interacting with fans, but he often attended memorabilia shows to sign autographs for a nominal fee. Sometimes gruff, Feller would sign his autograph and listen as fans asked him questions and posed for pictures with an iconic man who meant so much to them.
Feller was critical of contemporary ballplayers. He viewed them as spoiled and felt they didn’t work as hard at their craft as he and his peers. Feller never softened on his stance that Pete Rose, baseball’s hits leader, should remain banned for betting on baseball.
Feller, who lived in Gates Mills, Ohio, is survived by his wife, Anne, and three sons, Steve, Martin and Bruce.
The Indians said details on a public memorial service will be announced in the near future.