But then, when the games were over, everything crumbled because of something he couldn't control. It drove him batty, but there wasn't anything he could do, and all the big money he had made as the highest-paid player in the game, all his rainy-day security, drip-dripped away until about all Rapid Robert had left was that mythical arm. So he would travel the country, flying his own plane, driving rental cars, working the sticks-- Bob Feller Pitches Tonight!--a lounge act, tossing up a few to tank-town anchormen and politicians before minor league games, signing autographs, even working the dank clubhouses, trying to peddle insurance policies to the bush leaguers. "I was licensed in 39 states," he explains. He booked his circuit himself in the off-season, using his experience from his barnstorming tours with other major leaguers. For more than three decades he did this, 80 or 90 dates in his best years. He flew 10,000 hours, he says, not giving up his license till he was 75 years old.
Meanwhile his superstar contemporaries--and there were only three of them mentioned in the same breath as Rapid Robert--had, each in his way, become comfortable aristocracy, certified as icons. DiMaggio: always in his sleek, silvery suits, Mr. Coffee, and ... nation's Most Famous Widower. Williams: fishing, bloviating, doing as he damn well pleased, and the devil take the hindmost. Musial: Stan the Doyen of St. Louis, holding court at his restaurant, the National League grandee. And then there was Feller, alone with his arm, on the road, playing all the places he never had to work as a pro, because then he had been the child prodigy and come straight to the top. In some ways he had to live his life backward, the bushes after the big time. But it was a living. His creditors all got paid. His three boys all got their college educations. He found a new wife at church. Slowly, he got it back.
"I'm not complaining," the old man says stoutly. "I had the shorts. Lots of people have had the shorts."
When ballplayers began to realize that their signatures had a value other than the merely sentimental, autographing turned commercial for those who labored at signing as surely as it had been for the sharpies who had brokered these scribbled wares. This offended many citizens who otherwise were capitalist-Americans; there was the sense that providing negotiable autographs, gratis, was as much a part of an athlete's obligation as playing the games. Feller, who had always had a reputation for appreciating the mercantile, was in the vanguard of those who charged for their signatures. Soon, intimations that he was greedy, which had first surfaced when he ran his barnstorming tours with a fine regard for every dollar, resurfaced.
He remains unapologetic. "An autograph is a commodity," he declares. "You can sell it. You can give it away. Or you don't have to produce it." And so he has turned them out, as he boasts, in greater numbers than any man who has ever graced a diamond. When someone proffers him a pen, Feller looks offended, as if he'd just as soon go out without his trousers as without a pen. "I never go anywhere without one in my pocket," he announces. In fact, at official autographing sessions he comes armed with a variety of pens, selecting the best one for the various surfaces he inscribes: balls, photographs, postcards, books (primarily Bob Feller's Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom), programs, figurines, bobbleheads, whatever.
This is important: He never signs in black ink, only in blue. "Blue is the American League color, black the National League," he explains with definitude, as, indeed, he makes most statements. "Ninety-nine percent of the people don't know that." Yes, what exactly accounts for that difference, the black and the blue? Well, Feller explains, when he first came up in the '30s, the two leagues had different balls. The National League ball's laces were black intertwined with the red, the American's blue and red. Besides Feller, what man alive remembers that? But that is why, when Rapid Robert autographs, it is invariably in blue ink. (If you have an authentic Feller in black ink, it would be like a philatelist having a misprinted postage stamp.) And this is how he signs his name:
H O F '62
The third line is short for Hall of Fame, 1962--the year that he was inducted at Cooperstown (with, of all people, Jackie Robinson, arrghhh). Bobby Doerr and Phil Rizzuto are slightly older immortals than Feller, but no living legend exceeds his 43 years of residence in the Shrine. He returns to Cooperstown every summer, signing away along with many of the other diamond divinities, gritting his teeth that Pete Rose is usually bivouacked nearby on the main drag, gaily signing for the Philistines who flock to his sullied presence.