Posted: Thursday March 31, 2011 1:00PM ; Updated: Friday April 1, 2011 10:03AM
Mel Antonen

Baseball world -- and his widow -- pauses to remember Bob Feller

Story Highlights

Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher, died on Dec. 15 of leukemia at 92

Feller was married to his wife, Anne, for 36 years and they were best friends

A private ceremony is Thursday and a public one Friday before the Indians' opener

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Bob Feller
Bob Feller finished his career with a 266-162 record and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.

GATES MILLS, Ohio -- Anne Feller still goes to the local post office to sort through mail and it is only when she realizes that what she's searching for will not be there that tears come to her eyes.

"I still look for his letters, but then I know that he's gone and there isn't going to be any more,'' Anne says. "Whenever he left home, he'd write me letters saying that he missed me. Sometimes he would return home before the letters arrived. They were always special and I have them all.''

Those letters represent the private musings of her late husband, Bob, to whom she was married for 36 years and who may have been better known to the world as Rapid Robert, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who died of leukemia at age 92 in a Cleveland hospice on Dec. 15. He was buried near in his home in a private ceremony, but as a new baseball season begins on Thursday, Feller will once again be back in the spotlight.

Opening Day has always been associated with Feller, at least since 1940, when he threw baseball's one and only no-hitter in the first game of the season. While 12 of the majors' 30 teams are kicking off their seasons on Thursday, there will be a service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, that will include remarks from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, Indians owner Larry Dolan and Bill Tunnell, who represents the USS Alabama, the battleship that Feller served on with the Navy during World War II. Taps will be played, and the congregation will sing Navy hymns and the national anthem.

On Friday, when the Indians open their season before a sellout crowd in Cleveland against the Chicago White Sox -- the same team Feller no-hit 71 years ago -- they will honor the legendary pitcher in a pre-game ceremony that will be a public celebration of his life.

Anne will present the ceremonial first pitch by walking the baseball to the mound. All Indians players will wear Feller's No. 19 on their pre-game uniforms, and there will be a black band above Feller's retired number in the outfield. Throughout the season, the Indians will continue honoring the franchise's most memorable player.

"We had a wonderful life," says Anne, who was Feller's second wife. "He was my best friend. He was always appreciative of what he had.''

Feller grew up pitching a baseball against a barn on a farm near Van Meter, Iowa. He was blessed with a blazing fastball that made him a national celebrity as a 17-year-old rookie in 1936 and baseball's biggest star since Babe Ruth. Feller went on to win 266 games in 18 years, all with the Indians, though he missed the 1942, '43, and '44 seasons and most of 1945 due to his service in the Navy during World War II. In 1962, Feller was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame and at his death he was its longest-tenured member.

Ann, who grew up in Waterbury, Conn., didn't follow baseball, but she got to know many Hall of Famers, from contemporaries of Fellers' like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to more modern players such as George Brett and Carlton Fisk.

Williams and Feller were especially close. At breakfast, Williams used to eat bacon off Anne's plate if she didn't eat it fast enough. The two former ballplayers made appearances and signed autographs on behalf of each other's charities, and they were best of friends, even if they couldn't stop arguing. They'd argue everything from who owed whom an appearance to prices in the stock market.

"They never got anything settled," says Anne. "There was always something to argue about. They'd argue about the stripes on baseball socks, whether they were high enough, or something like that. Who knew you could argue about something like that?''

Anne picks up a picture of Feller, DiMaggio and Williams and can't hold back the tears. "I look at them now, and they are all gone," she says. "I can hardly say it.''

All three of those men were Hall of Famers whose careers were interrupted by service in World War II. Feller told Anne stories about his experiences during the war -- like how he had to sweep the decks after a battle, how the soldiers had to sleep with their guns and helmets beside them, how the men would see kamikaze airplanes coming at them and how the ship would try to zig-zag to get out of the way.

"I don't understand how a ship could get out of the way,'' Anne says. "The Alabama was a sinister-looking warship with guns all over the place. Bob was not a person to be frightened. He just knew there was a job to be done.

"He didn't talk about it in too much detail, because he knew how blessed he was to be able to come home and play baseball. He always said the real heroes were those that didn't get to return. Out of all the things he accomplished, he was most proud of what he did in the war. And, I'm very proud of what he did too. Four years is a big bite out of one's life.''

At their home on his acreage in suburban Cleveland, Feller kept a world map on a wall so he could show visitors where he fought during the war. He and Anne traveled frequently in retirement but despite his many journeys, Feller never lost touch with his rural Iowa roots. He was in Gates Mills' July 4th parade and played Santa Claus at Christmas. He drove a pickup as well as a Jaguar. He had a thermometer outside his front door from Roy Manders and Son, a Hampshire breeder since 1915 in Adel, Iowa.

He loved flowers and planted red, white and blue petunias in his garden as well as hollyhocks, because that's what his father, Bill, planted back on the farm in Iowa. He played with his black cat, Felix, and often gave the cat a ride to the barn in his pickup.

"The cat has been waiting each day between the barns looking for Bob, but a few days ago gave up and realized he was gone,'' Anne says.

Bob's daily routine started with reading newspapers and eating breakfast with Anne. Then, he would spend a good part of the morning in the barn, fiddling with his beloved tractors -- "He could spend hours looking at tractors,'' Anne says. "He had a magazine that would tell him where all the tractor shows were in the country" -- one of which was a replica of the one his father used to scrape his first baseball field back in Iowa. "Sometimes I like to start them up just to hear them purr,'' Feller used to say.

He'd feed deer in his yard, sprinkling food on the ground and talking to the deer in a baby-like voice. "Here Bambi. Nice Bambi, good to see you Bambi.'' And, every day, he'd grab a rubber ball from behind the light switch in the barn and throw it against a basketball backboard nailed to a tree.

"He always wanted to keep his arm in shape so that he could be ready to throw out a first pitch whenever any one asked,'' Anne Feller says.

Throughout their house, there are memories of Bob. In the kitchen, there are hundreds of blue pens in a basket on the counter (Bob always signed only in blue because that was the color of the American League and black the color of the National League) as well as baskets of baseballs and a horse collar with bells from his Iowa farm. There are also a couple of dozen glass milk bottles, including one from J & J Farms in Beatrice, Neb., another from Cream Top Creamery in Kalamazoo, Mich., and another from the Cooperstown Dairy, "For Mothers who Care.''

"He liked those because they reminded him of the farm, of home,'' Anne says.

In the office, there are Navy caps and Indians caps, pictures of Caterpillars, Rickbacker cars and U.S. presidents, and framed copies of Feller's appearances on the covers of Time (April 13, 1937) and Newsweek (June 2, 1947).

Stacks of books are everywhere. There are ones about Harry Truman and Charles Lindbergh. There are books entitled, My First Tractor, and Life Stories of Men Who Saved Baseball, and Atlas of the Ocean. There's a machinery handbook, and magazines from farm sales in Iowa as well as the Gas Engine Magazine.

There's also a baseball signed by Feller to his wife, "To Little Dear, from your Bobby, 2010.''

"He used to call me his Little Dear,'' Anne says. "He signed that for me in July.''

Bob was incredibly healthy -- he never took any medication in his life and Anne says that she can only remember a couple of colds and headaches. But last August, Feller was diagnosed with leukemia and took chemotherapy treatments as an outpatient. He eventually had heart problems and pneumonia.

"Leukemia was a big, bad word, but he was good and still walking,'' Anne says. "One day, he was driving his pickup and he came into the house. He said, 'I don't feel right.'''

A few weeks before he died, Feller asked to go home. "He just wanted to go home, sit and look at his barn. That made him feel peaceful.''

His hospice room had a view of Lake Erie. Each day, Anne kept him company as he lay in his hospital bed. She'd leave, at Bob's suggestion, late in the afternoon so she could be home before dark.

They always parted with Feller touching the cheek of her face.

On a wintry afternoon on Dec. 15, Anne said good-bye to Bob, but when he didn't have the strength to rub his hand on her cheek, she helped him. She figured death was near. She kissed him.

"I think we knew that was our last kiss,'' Anne says.

About 9:30 that night, Anne got a call saying that her husband had died.

Feller, the longest-tenured member of the Hall of Fame when he died, was buried in a shirt with blue and white stripes and a maroon tie. He wore a blue blazer with a Hall of Fame insignia on it, one that he wore so much, the sleeves were frayed.

"That was his favorite one,'' she said. "Life will never be the same around here. We were married 36 years and had only few tough months at the end. I'm so thankful Bob didn't have a lot of pain. He died quietly and peacefully. I have to focus on the positive, that he had a good life, that he was blessed so richly. But half my life is gone, and I miss him so much.''

She still goes to visit him, of course. During one trip to his grave not long ago, Anne found an unmarked baseball. "There was nothing on it,'' she says. "That was touching. It was a symbol of what Bob meant to people. I'm very proud of that.''

Mel Antonen lives in Washington, D.C., and is a baseball analyst for Sirius-XM Radio.
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