Bob Feller taught me how to pitch. Or at least he tried to. When I was a kid, I picked up a used copy of his book, How to Pitch
. I still have it, and the inside cover informs me that it cost me 20¢. It's a thin volume, only 90 pages, but there is quite a bit useful information, especially should I have ever found myself in the unlikely position of having to come up with the perfect pitch to throw to Ted Williams. Alas, the ragginess of my arm never allowed me to put Feller's tips to effective use. It's one thing to know what to do. It's quite another to have the physical ability to actually do it.
Feller died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 92. I suppose one shouldn't be much surprised when a 92 year-old man dies, but until he took ill with leukemia earlier in the year, he was still one helluva a vigorous nonagenarian*. He had some of the best nicknames in baseball—Rapid Robert, Bullet Bob, and the Heater from Van Meter.* Feller was one of the starting pitchers at the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame Classic last year (photo below). Apparently he could still bring it. And unlike a lot of celebrity throwers of a first pitches, the ones who bounce them from forty feet out on national television, Feller always insisted on throwing them from the rubber.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Feller was the Nolan Ryan of his era, a pitcher who threw fast balls that blurred**. Like Ryan, he occasionally had control issues. Not only did he often lead the league in strikeouts, but also in walks and hit batsmen. And like Ryan, the control eventually came.** Feller once threw a pitch that was clocked at 107.6 mph.
Feller became a national sensation in 1936 at the age of 17. He signed with the Cleveland Indians in his junior year of high school, and, as he later put it, spent his summer vacation pitching in the major leagues. His high school graduation in Van Meter, IA, was covered by the NBC radio network. He never did play in the minors.
In the three years (1939-41) leading up to the war, he established himself as the best pitcher in the American League, leading the league in wins and strikeouts every single year, and in ERA in 1940. Even so, when Pearl Harbor was attacked he enlisted in the navy the very next day, the first ballplayer to do so. Given his stature, he could easily have pulled light duty in Hawaii***, but he volunteered for combat duty, and served as an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the battleship Alabama
. He lost almost four full seasons to the war. He returned to baseball towards the end of the '45 season.*** <coughDiMaggiocough>
After the war he picked up pretty much where he left off, and pitched for another 11 years. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. He is the only chief petty officer in the Hall.
He was ahead of his time in many areas, and always outspoken in an era when outspokeness wasn't especially appreciated. In the off-season he barnstormed around the country with Negro League players (he often pitched against Satchel Paige), and was an advocate for integration of the majors. The barnstorming also left him financially independent, so that he did not need an off-season job, a rarity in those days. This afforded him the time to work on his conditioning all year round, another rarity among ballplayers of that era. There's a whole chapter in his book about conditioning. He also spoke out against the reserve system, long before there was a players union.
He did not fade quietly into the background once his career ended. Perhaps the best adjective to describe him was irascible. He often chided modern players over various matters****, and once the internet fully kicked in, it often seemed that the snark "Get off my lawn," was invented for him. And yet even when he was at his most curmudgeonly, a fair reading of his comments would almost always find that he was making a valid point. He became the grand old man of baseball, and he will be sorely missed.**** Most recently it was over the hoopla surrounding young phenom Stephen Strasburg, who has occasionally been compared to Feller. Feller's comment about the young man, who has pitched all of 12 games in the majors, paraphrased, was let's wait till he wins a hundred games or so before doing any comparisons. Not long after that Strasburg blew out his elbow, and required Tommy John surgery. He'll miss most, if not all, of next season.