Baseball Loses A Legend In Bob Feller

Within the last hour, it moved across the wires that legendary Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller passed away at the age of 92.

Bob Feller signs an autograph in April at what turned out to be his last public autograph session at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa. Photo by Hayden Goethe

Feller was diagnosed with leukemia back in August and has had health problems recently. But for the vast majority of his 92 years on this planet, he remained a pretty sharp guy. I told a co-worker tonight that if I live to be that long, I can only hope that my wits stay with me as long as Feller’s did.

The great thing about Feller – thanks to a combination of pitching dominance and longevity – was his ability to reach out to generations of baseball fans. Prior to his leukemia diagnosis, he was still very active at autograph sessions and card shows. He was a regular at TwinsFest – the January autograph even that the Twins host – and at his Bob Feller Museum in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa. More on that in a second.

But as great of an ambassador to the game of baseball as he was, what can’t be overlooked was how filthy good he was on the mound.

“Bullet Bob” burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old with the Cleveland Indians, which was the team he spent his entire 18-year career with. It’s believed Feller threw 100 mph, though the methods used to measure that back in his day probably wouldn’t be accepted today. Let’s just say he threw really, REALLY hard.

Between 1938 and 1948, Feller played seven full seasons, interrupted by his service to this country during World War II. And during those seven seasons, he led the American League in strikeouts in every one of them.

He struck out more than 2,500 batters in his career and won 266 games with an ERA of 3.25. Had it not been for WWII, who knows how much better his career numbers would look. He missed out on prime years in his mid-20s.

But the great thing about Feller – his ability to put it in perspective – is that he used to say he had no regrets about missing time in the big leagues. Those of us who haven’t made a sacrifice like that need to hear that.

And many people who met Feller during his later years probably heard him say that.

When planning what’s become my annual ballpark swing this past year – this time we went to Kansas City and St. Louis – I noticed that on the way was Van Meter, Iowa. And in Van Meter is the museum that honors the “Heater from Van Meter”, that being the Bob Feller Museum.

And as my luck would have it, during that April trip Feller himself was scheduled to be signing autographs on the very day that my friends and I would be driving through town. I was obviously pretty excited to find this out. According to the museum’s website, that would turn out to be Feller’s final public signing appearance at the museum.

So upon arrival at the museum in the tiny town just off Interstate 80 near Des Moines, I picked up a photo of a young Feller and waited in his line. When he walked out of a back room to take his place, he got a pretty good ovation from everyone there (I have to believe the population of that town must double or triple on the days he’s there).

When I finally reached Feller’s table after having paid for an autograph ticket, I asked him how he was doing and gave him the photo to sign. He proceeded to tell me the story of the photo shoot when that photo was taken. No doubt he’s told that story about that very photo about a bajillion times. But he’s done a bajillion autograph signings, so he told it again anyway. It was nice to not be pushed through the line like you often are.

That’s not to say money wasn’t a big motivator in the autograph sessions. I’m sure it was. But I think he really did like telling those stories. He realized people like myself – at least those of that weren’t autograph hounds dragging suitcases of bats and balls behind them throughout the museum – paid as much to get the autograph as we did to talk to him. We shook hands, and that was it. It was a real thrill.

Baseball lost a great ballplayer Wednesday, and an even greater ambassador.