Anne Feller says, "For all he accomplished in baseball, and all that baseball means to him, I still think Bob's more proud about his service in the Navy." When Feller himself meets an inquisitor, the very first thing he says is, "Now, did you find out about my time in the Navy?" Maybe, as some suggest, Feller has to hold his service in such high esteem because it cost him so much of his career; he has to justify that time lost. After all, few in baseball sacrificed more to war than Rapid Robert Feller did--though none, of course, matched Harvard Eddie Grant, who was killed in World War I. Feller finished with 266 wins. It would have been closer to 350 had there been no war.
In fact, no one served more willingly, and no one seems to have fewer regrets, than Feller. He was driving his fancy new Buick Century (with expensive accessories: radio and heater) from Van Meter to Chicago on Dec. 7, 1941, to meet with Indians officials and sign his new contract. On old Route 6, just after crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa, he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He decided right then that he would sign up. Right then. He was sworn in on Dec. 9--never mind before any other ballplayer, before any other celebrity in the land. He could have had a deferment, too, because his father was terminally ill, and he was the sole supporter of the family.
Feller wanted to be a fighter pilot but couldn't qualify because his high-frequency hearing was deficient--from growing up, he thinks, in proximity to so many noisy tractors and hunting guns. Instead the Navy assigned him to a physical fitness program, but he volunteered for combat and was put aboard the battleship Alabama. There, as chief of a gun crew, he first saw action in the Atlantic and then, most extensively, in the Pacific, where the Alabama fought from the Gilbert Islands and the Marshalls to Truk, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam and, finally, the great sea battles off the Philippines. When he finally was rotated back to the States, in '45, he told a reporter, "Baseball and malted milks and a duck-hunting trip are the things that fellows want to come back to when this thing is over."
Feller himself came back to all that and a bride too. He had met Virginia Winther one spring training when she was attending Rollins College. She was so pretty, so gracious, so bright, so perfect for the star of the heartland. They married in January 1943 when he came home on emergency leave because his father had died. Their first son, Steve, was born in '45, and then a second, Marty, in '47. Virginia was given a blood transfusion after that birth, but someone goofed up and she received the wrong blood type. The mistake often means death; in her case she survived, but she suffered pernicious anemia. For that various medications were prescribed, and Virginia fell under the thrall of both amphetamines and barbiturates. She and Bob would remain married till 1971; indeed, they would have a third son, Bruce, in 1950. But it was never the same again. "The problem was just always there," Feller says forlornly. The problem was that he was now married to a drug addict.
The situation would have been daunting for anyone. For Feller, so imbued with old-fashioned values, so convinced that hard work and dedication could surely solve any human failing, the frustration grew even more vexing. But even with all the help he sought for Virginia, the trips to the Mayo Clinic, the pleadings, the prayers, she would not or could not be cured. Feller tried to keep up appearances, but the whispers began, even as more and more money went out. More prosaically, Virginia's dependency, her unpredictability, her extreme mood swings, had to affect Feller's preparation for games. Often she would be up, wandering the house, at all hours of the night. "I probably pitched better on the road," he says, "because then I wasn't so distracted." But even then, he couldn't altogether escape. Before one trip, to prevent Virginia from overdosing, he took her pills and hid them about the house--just enough to satisfy her addiction. Then, regularly, he would call her up and tell her where the next batch was hidden.
Altogether, he estimates that her condition cost him many hundreds of thousands of dollars. When he finally divorced Virginia in 1971, she took the great house they lived in outside Cleveland too. That is why he had the shorts; that is why he started barnstorming the country, showcasing that Excalibur of an arm that all the rubes had heard about, but had never seen back before TV.
It was, of course, also before radar guns that could measure how fast a ball actually moved. A couple of primitive efforts were made to gauge how fast Feller actually threw. In 1941, for example, a motorcycle going 86 mph roared up behind him and tried to beat his pitch to the plate. The pitch won easily. Deduced from that: Feller threw at 104. At Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium on another occasion, with somewhat more sophisticated equipment borrowed from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Feller's speed was measured at 98.6 mph (which, with modern methodology, would be in the 101-102 range). That was in '46, when he'd lost a smidgen off his fastball. Certainly any reasonable assessment would be that Master Feller threw a baseball above 100 mph when he first came up--especially since in those blue-seam days, Feller says, the American League ball was aerodynamically better for speed (as the higher black-seamed National League ball was for breaking pitches). If anyone, Bob Feller was one human being who could, as they say, throw a hole through the wind.
What Feller lost off his fastball during the war was negligible. The 1946 season was his best for strikeouts--348--as he went after Rube Waddell's record and fell one short. But in the fateful year '47, when his wife became addicted, Feller also lost the magic touch, that indefinable edge that set him above all the other fireballers. He knows exactly when it happened: in June in Philadelphia, at Shibe Park, on a Friday the 13th. He was mowing the A's down with fastballs. Of the first 10 batters, he struck out eight, and he was so overpowering, "I began thinking about 20," he says. Nobody had ever done that before. Then, with two strikes on the next man, a guy named Barney McCosky, Feller's catcher, Jim Hegan, called for a curve. On the breaking pitch, that high left leg came down slightly differently, and when it hit loose dirt that Feller hadn't touched before, he slipped just a bit, and something in his back tore. Just enough.
"That day I was as good as I ever was," Feller says, "but I never had my best fastball after that."
Of course, he was hardly finished. He would win another 120 games, leading the Indians to their last world championship the next year, 1948. That was largely because he had developed a fabulous curveball. He would work on it on the road, perfecting his motion, flinging a ball into the pillow on his hotel bed. Feller even thinks that, in his whole career, he struck out more men with his curve than with his heat. One time old Walter Johnson watched Feller pitch and decided, "I was a little faster than you."