But now, as autograph seekers line up at spring training, especially on Bob Feller Day, Rapid Robert has things perfectly organized. Julie Bailey, the executive director of the Bob Feller Museum in Feller's hometown of Van Meter, hands out literature and price lists to those who stand in the heat upon the long and winding queue. A volunteer for the Indians sits around the corner of the table from Feller, tabulating the items to be signed, collecting the cash. Basically it's a bargain: five bucks per signature, with most of today's money earmarked for the museum.
Unlike so many celebrities who brook no social intercourse whatsoever with the poor petitioners they sign for, Feller is engaging, even expansive with all those who provide items for him to inscribe. "Sure," he says, "when you talk to people, it slows it down and you can't make as much money, but I just like to meet people." Boy, does he.
"I know there's a lot of players, they just go like this when they're signing," he says, ducking his head to display his young-style new buzz cut in the bargain. "You only see the tops of their heads." He raps his white noggin. "I think that's pretty rude."
Rude, in fact, is an old-fashioned word that Feller uses a lot. As for Feller himself, in the four hours of today's session, the only time he gets kind of rude himself is when a gentleman hands Feller his own pen--with what appears to be the cursed National League black ink.
Feller snaps up his blue-ink pen, grouses, "I know what I'm doing," and only shows the offender the top of his head.
But otherwise Bob Feller, who is advertised to be so cranky and opinionated, is the model of graciousness with his public. Really, apart from the blue-ink standard, there is only one rule: "I don't do last names." That just gets into too much spelling. Feller would rather shoot the breeze. He reminisces, jokes, inquires, commiserates, even takes it upon himself to volunteer how best to fix a chipped figurine or to repair one that has broken altogether off the Best Western stand. He always has a comment when somebody hands him a glove. Like, "That's a regular butterfly net." Fans with Wilson gloves (as is Feller's own mitt) learn that Feller actually knew Mr. Wilson. It's like the dual-colored seams on the old baseballs: Who knew? Who knew that there was a real live Mr. Wilson who walked the earth in our time? "Sure. Thomas E. Wilson--a fine man."
But then, as he chats away, it emerges that Feller has encountered an eclectic group of people in his life. He met a young naval officer named Richard M. Nixon on the beach at Saipan. He rode around at night with Walter Winchell as he was putting his dot-dot-dot column together. He heard Frank Sinatra sing for tips at a bar named Lucy's in Los Angeles. He went hunting with (here's an odd couple) Jimmy Doolittle and Roy Rogers in Nebraska. And baseball: He saw an ancient Grover Cleveland Alexander pitch for the House of David team. He played golf with Nap Lajoie. He went to Cy Young's funeral. He showed Sandy Koufax his curveball grip. Young to Feller to Koufax. Sometimes Feller sounds like a baseball Zelig. And then, he has been everywhere. He knows landing strips the way most people only know interstates. Bob Feller's a human gazetteer.
"Where you from?"
"You never heard of it, Bob."