IT IS DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE WHAT A MARVEL BOB FELLER was when he burst upon the scene in 1936, a callow youth of 17. Many athletes are great. Bob Feller was seminal. In that long-ago time, unlike nowadays, it was unheard of for teenagers to succeed in the big top of athletics. In his first start Bobby Feller struck out 15, one short of the league record. Then, later in the season, he broke the mark, fanning 17, one for each year of his life, in the only professional team sport that mattered then in the United States.
He led the league with 240 strikeouts when he was still a teenager, in 1938. The next year he was best with 24 wins when he was still not old enough to drink. Six times he had the most wins, seven times the most strikeouts, and both of those totals might well have been in double figures had he not spent the heart of his career on a battleship. In 1940 he threw baseball's only Opening Day no-hitter, then went on to earn the pitchers' triple crown: most wins, most strikeouts, best ERA.
Cleveland, of course, took him to its bosom. "I don't think anything had ever happened like Feller," says Bob August, his contemporary and a native of the city who grew up to be a distinguished journalist there. "It was the Depression, and things were pretty bad here, and then this amazing kid came along. What a lift it gave us all. People today who don't know exactly what he did still seem to sense how special Bob Feller was to Cleveland."
To the nation he was as much a sensation as a curiosity. The press called him Master Feller, and General Mills hired the phenomenon to endorse its cereals in tandem with the only minor more famous than he, Shirley Temple. Dutifully he went back to high school after his rookie season. The next spring he made the cover of Time magazine, and in an era when radio meant as much as television does now, NBC radio covered live, in its entirety, his graduation from Van Meter ( Iowa) High.
The boy was also the first athlete to be raised by his father to be a star. Bill Feller was a no-nonsense farmer, working 360 acres by the Raccoon River, but before little Bobby could walk, the father would sit on the davenport, roll a rubber ball to him and then hold up a pillow to catch the infant's return tosses. Bill Feller switched to growing wheat instead of corn because that took less labor, allowing more time for Bobby to play ball. In the winter they threw together on the second floor of the three-story barn, so that the boy could keep that magic appendage of his in shape. Bobby could throw a curve at the age of eight (and it never did any harm to his arm). He was beating whiskered high schoolers when he was still in grade school. When the boy was 13, prefiguring that fictional Iowa field of dreams, father and son cut down about 20 big oak trees and carved out an actual diamond right there on the farm. Of course, they built a real mound. And a scoreboard and a refreshment stand, too, for the wide-eyed visitors who flocked to the farm and paid to see the boy wonder set men down.
The bidding for Feller's services began. The family chose the Indians mostly because they were comfortable with Cleveland's scout, Cy Slapnicka, a no-nonsense Iowan like themselves. The following year, when there was some dispute about whether the Indians had observed the legal arcana in signing the prodigy, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner, was inclined to void the contract and put the lad on the open market. Now understand: Aided by the fact that he even looked like a wrathful Jehovah, Kennesaw Mountain Landis had put the fear of God into everybody in baseball for 15 years. Well, to his face, the farmer from the Raccoon River told the commissioner: Do that, mister, take my boy away from where he wants to play, and I'll haul baseball into court. Landis backed down. Feller never played with anybody but the Indians all his career. His statue now stands outside the team's park. "Bill Feller was one smart Iowa farmer," Bob Feller, now 77, declares.
And so the tree was bent. Almost from the moment he arrived in the majors, Feller was known for speaking his mind, doing it his way. "The Indians never tried to tell me anything," he says stoutly. They knew better. Feller got a pilot's license at the age of 20, when that was risky business. He was the first major leaguer to enlist in the armed services after Pearl Harbor. When the fleet admiral wanted him to leave the war zone and go on shore duty in Hawaii, where all he had to do was pitch for the Navy team, Chief Petty Officer Feller said no thanks, he wouldn't leave his ship.
After the war he battled owners about his right to run barnstorming troupes in the off-season. He was the highest-paid player in the game and the first president of the players' association, fighting for what little they could get then: telephones in the clubhouse, toilets in the bullpen, penny-ante stuff like that.
Feller doesn't profess any jealousy over the great salaries players make today, nor, like a lot of old-timers, does he rail on that the game of his youth was glorious but since he himself retired, it's all gone to hell in a handbasket. Of course, however baseball has changed, pitching has changed the most. Starting pitchers are only that now: starters, like soups or shrimp cocktail. "Yeah, five and fly," Feller snorts. Give the team five innings and go to the shower. In his time he would start (and usually finish) every fourth day, and on the middle day between starts he would either pitch batting practice—"without a screen," he declares, "keeps you alert"—or throw a couple of innings in relief. Today only the rare, hardiest pitchers work so much as 225 innings in a season. In 1946 Feller threw 371 innings for the Indians, then went barnstorming, leading a team of white stars against Satchel Paige and the best Negro leaguers. He and Paige would go two, three innings against each other almost every game. Feller figures he started 26 games in a row, most of them without a day off. So he threw about 450 innings that year, and come the next season he was as fast as ever.
Anne Feller, his second wife, 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. Feller finished with 266 wins. It would have been closer to 350 had there been no war.