Bob Feller – farm boy, pitcher and WWII Veteran
Bob Feller was an Iowa farm boy, growing up in Van Peter, Iowa, a small town outside Des Moines. Feller became one of the most famous pitchers in baseball history. He played for the Cleveland Indians and was elected on the first ballot in 1962 to Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame. His jersey, No. 19, was retired by the Indians. Nicknamed “Rapid Robert” and “Bullet Bob” because of his pitching speed, Feller always attributed his success on the field to his childhood days on his family’s farm.
In early interviews he said, “When I wasn’t running the tractor, milking cows, picking corn or baling hay, I’d have a baseball mitt in my hand and my Dad and I would be pitching to each other for hours out behind the barn.” His Mom, Lena, was a teacher and a nurse. In the early 30s, his father, Bill, was a big baseball fan and he plowed off a section of their farm for a baseball field so local amateur teams could play there. He named it “Oak View Field.” Bob and his school buddies also played there.
A stand-out athlete but not yet 18-years-old, Bob Feller was the youngest player to sign a Major League baseball contract with Cleveland right out of high school. Feller never played in the Minor League. “I didn’t know much,” he said. “I just reared back and let them go. Where the ball went was up to Heaven. Sometimes I threw the ball clean up into the stands.”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, everything changed and America was at war. On December 8, 1941, Bob Feller, a star pitcher, at age 23, enlisted in the Navy, giving up his lucrative baseball career. He was the first of many ballplayers to enlist because he felt defending our country was the right thing to do.
Bob Feller became an anti-aircraft gun captain aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars during WWII. When interviewed about his heroic war service, he’d respond, “The real heroes didn’t come home.” He was discharged on August 22, 1945, eight days after the war ended. On August 24, 1945, he pitched for the Indians against the Detroit Tigers. His last ballgame was September 30, 1956, when he retired. His career spanned the years 1936-1941 and 1945-1956.
Feller was also a pilot, having taken flying lessons in 1939. In the late 40s, he bought a Beechcraft Bonanza. He’d fly from his home in Gates Mills, Ohio, to the Burke Lakefront Airport, where he’d get on a collapsible scooter to get to the ballpark.
This year, 2011, is the first spring that renowned pitcher, Bob Feller, didn’t travel from his Ohio home to Arizona for baseball spring training. He liked to sit in the press box but never outgrew his love for the game of baseball. He willingly gave out his autograph, when asked. Oldtimers would turn to their sons in the stands, point him out and say in a hushed tone, “That’s Bob Feller. He was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball.” He was dearly missed by players and fans alike who were sitting in the warm Arizona sunshine in Goodyear, Arizona this spring. Some were there last year, and remembered seeing Feller, at age 91, throw out the first pitch of the first game in Goodyear Park to the cheers of the crowds in the stands.
In August 2010, this farm boy, outstanding baseball pitcher and WWII veteran was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away on December 15, 2010 at age 92 at Cleveland’s Hospice. The flag at Progressive Field on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio, flew at half mast in honor of this Cleveland Indians hero. There’s a larger than life statue of Feller in his high-stepping pitching stance behind Gate C at the ballpark. The Cleveland Indians are planning a year-long celebration of his life starting with their Opening Day Ceremonies, April 1, 2011, when the Indians play the White Sox.
Baseball won’t forget you, Bob Feller!
For more information, please see http://www.BobFellerMuseum.org or visit the the museum in his hometown of VanMeter, Iowa.