The answer: On December 7, 1941, this ace of the Cleveland Indians and the winningest pitcher in the American League, was driving to meet with his general manager to sign a contract for the 1942 season and decided to enlist in the Navy. The question: Who is Bob Feller?
That changed the minute he heard on his car radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Feller showed up for his meeting, where he announced his intention to enlist in the United States Navy. Which he did, on December 9. Although many players, including eventual Hall of Famers, enlisted in the military, Feller was the first.
Bob Feller’s Heroism
Baseball players often are described as heroes. In Game 4 of the 2010 World Series, when Roy Oswalt came in to pitch the 9th inning, I was imagining the headlines if the Phillies managed to win. Oswalt had started the game a couple of days before, and was scheduled to start another game in another couple of days. Winning Game 4 wasn’t his job, but he wanted to win a World Series, if pitching in relief in between starts was what it would take, he was willing to do it.
That’s modern baseball’s idea of a hero. A guy who risks injury by pitching on his day off, and still taking the ball on his scheduled day.
That’s certainly commendable, but really, what Oswalt did was being a good teammate.
Bob Feller put his very life at risk.
What Bob Feller walked away from
For a little background. Feller was a superstar 23-year-old pitcher who’d already won 107 games in the majors. Wins are a crude measure of a pitcher’s quality, but a pitcher who wins 107 games by age 30 is considered very good, and is going to be a very wealthy man.
Feller’s fastball was already the stuff of legends. In 1941, Feller’s fastball won a race with a motorcycle traveling at 100 miles per hour. One game, opposing pitcher Lefty Gomez stepped up to bat against Feller. Feller started his windup, and Gomez lit a match and held it up. “What’s the matter,” asked the umpire. “Can’t you see Feller? Do you think that will help you see his fastball?”
Gomez replied, “I can see Feller just fine. I want to make sure he can see me.”
Calling the Bob Feller of 1941 a superstar was an understatement. In 1941, if any man alive stood a chance of breaking Cy Young’s record of 511 wins (still unbroken) and/or Walter Johnson’s record of 3509 strikeouts (which stood until 1983), it was Feller.
Feller gave that up to pull a Pat Tillman.
Initially, the Navy utilized him as a physical training instructor. But that wasn’t what he wanted, and he volunteered to go to gunners’ school. Soon the fireballing pitcher was firing real bullets out of 40mm antiaircraft guns aboard the USS Alabama. He received five campaign ribbons and eight Battle Stars and achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer before his honorable discharge in 1945.
Bob Feller’s return to baseball
He returned to baseball and pitched 9 games at the end of the 1945 season. For the next two seasons he returned to immortal form, sustained an injury at age 29 that reduced his abilities to that of merely a typical Hall of Famer, and he retired after the 1956 season, aged 37 years, with a total of 266 wins and 2,581 strikeouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1961, on the first ballot. Nobody knows what would have been if he hadn’t given three prime years to the war effort, but he wasn’t bitter. When asked which of his victories was the greatest–he won 266 games and threw three no-hitters, including the only no-hitter ever thrown on opening day–he never hesitated. “World War II,” he always said.
He was healthy enough at age 90 to pitch in an exhibition game in June 2009, but his health deteriorated rapidly this year. It was a strange development, as it seemed he would be around forever. He died December 15, 2010.
A lot of baseball players get the title of “hero” for doing little more than what they’re paid to do. Not Bob Feller. He earned it.