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RAPID ROBERT Can Still Bring It
Frank Deford
August 08, 2005
Like his legendary heater, Bob Feller comes at you fast and hard--and he's got a lot on his mind
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August 08, 2005

Rapid Robert Can Still Bring It

Like his legendary heater, Bob Feller comes at you fast and hard--and he's got a lot on his mind

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I've traveled more miles, been to more countries, met more people, signed more autographs, shaken more hands, thrown more baseballs ... and spent more time in combat than any other player in baseball history. -- BOB FELLER

RAPID ROBERT, the �minence grise of the National Pastime, wearing his Cleveland Indians uniform, old number 19, makes his way through the fond crowd. Only this year did the Indians start putting his uniform shirt up for sale in their souvenir shops, on the racks alongside those of the current, nondescript Cleveland stalwarts. "Some blood finally got through to somebody's brain," Rapid Robert explains. � The admirers press upon him, especially the ones in the general vicinity of his age.

Normally, he will pause to chat with anyone, particularly if the subject is either baseball or the state of the union, but now he must push directly ahead, for it is Bob Feller Day at the Indians' spring training camp. Little figurines, which are graced by the garish logo of the Best Western hotel chain, and which otherwise portray a youthful Rapid Robert in windup mode, have been awarded to those in attendance. "El cheapo" is the assessment of the figurine model himself. "Nothing like my bobblehead from a few years ago. But, what do you expect? Made by some Ping-Pong player in China."

And on through the elderly throng moves Feller, for he has been designated to throw out the first ball on this, his day. Will the octogenarian flamethrower actually hurl the horsehide from the mound, wonder many of the assembled, from the full 60 feet, six inches? Do not concern yourself about that. At the Indians' fantasy camp a few weeks before, under game conditions, Feller pitched to the 32 oldest players, allowing but two cheap Texas leaguers. This man does not play a customer's game.

"I'm not PC," Feller declares. "My wife is PC, but I am not PC. I always believe in what [baseball commissioner] Happy Chandler told me once: Make your decision, and then never show doubt."

And so, without any display of doubt whatsoever, number 19 ascends the mound in his spikes and, yes, promptly goes to the resin bag. He reaches for it, just as he did in those days of yore when there were none like him in all of baseballiana--the "most electrifying performer since Babe Ruth," as the sport historian Donald Honig identified him.

Now, once again, upon a mound he stands, with the resin bag gently cosseted in his right hand. Yet it is curious, even ironic perhaps, that for a man with as fantastic an arm as God ever attached to a shoulder, the lasting vision of Feller is foremost of his left leg. He raised it so high as he delivered his offerings that it seemed to rise above his cap. Feller says that's terribly exaggerated, that he never kicked as high as people remember, that the memory trumps the reality because when he was on the mound the photographers loved to snap shots of him from ground level, which distorted his motion, made him into some kind of Diane Arbus subject. Maybe. Still, the rising Feller leg must have been a terrifying sight to opposing batters, who knew the ascent of that leg prefaced the appearance of a ball rocketing at them with a velocity that had never otherwise been produced by a human arm.

Ted Williams once said, "Three days before he pitched I would start thinking about Robert Feller, Bob Feller. I'd sit in my room thinking about him all the time. God, I loved it.... Allie Reynolds of the Yankees was tough, and I might think about him for 24 hours before a game, but Robert Feller: I'd think about him for three days."

Up on the mound now, Feller throws down the resin bag. With what grand disdain do the best pitchers know exactly how to discard resin bags! Yet as he stands there, glove on his left hand, it is still Feller's legs that call attention. They are bowed more than ever. He always wore his pants slung low (affecting what the citified Joe DiMaggio called his "plowboy walk"). Now he looks even more like some old cowpoke ready to saddle up. Feller has, with age, lost more than an inch of height and now stands 5' 10�". But even in his salad days he barely reached six feet, weighing perhaps 180 or 185 pounds. There was nothing about him to suggest that he could, very possibly, throw a round object harder than anybody else who ever strode upon God's green earth.

It's weird that way, that the best arms don't look special at all. Pedro Martinez is about Feller's size, and his arm appears, to the naked eye, to be no different than the arm of any Tom, Dick or Harry. The ones who saw him say an Orioles farmhand named Steve Dalkowski could throw as fast as Feller himself (if never very straight), and he was but 5'11", 170. Feller has an ordinary 33�-inch sleeve and a size-10 glove. "You can't really explain it, can you?" he asks. "But by the time I was nine years old, I knew I could throw a baseball faster than anybody else."

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