Remembering “Rapid Robert”
The numbers are staggering:Â 266 victories, over 3,800 inningsÂ pitched, 279 complete games, twelve one-hitters–all while missing nearly four seasonsÂ due to military service.Â Oh, he was also a World War II hero (gun captain on the USS Alabama), World Series champion, and an eventualÂ baseball Hall of Famer.Â Â When I first heardÂ about the death of legendary pitcher Bob Feller last week, I immediately thought, ‘Man–there was a guy who did it ALL.’Â He was a cherished sports icon in Cleveland, for sure; elsewhere, he was sometimesÂ thought of as being a bitÂ stuffy, grumpy, and a bit full of himself.Â One thing was never debated, though:Â the man could flat-out PITCH like few others EVER have.
I look back on Feller’s 1946 season with Cleveland and just say ‘Wow.’Â People were wondering before Feller’s first start that year if the guyÂ could ever be a dominant starting pitcher again.Â Yes, he HAD pitched effectively in nine gamesÂ after returning from the service in 1945, but the question stillÂ remained:Â Could he ever shake off the extendedÂ military-stay “rust” and be a 20-25 game winner onceÂ again?Â Feller’s answer:Â 26 wins, 36 complete games, 371 innings (you read that correctly) and 348 strikeouts.Â Yes, Bob Feller never DID have a problem answering critics throughout his lifetime.Â And when he spoke, he made SURE he was heard.
I met Bob Feller for the only timeÂ back in 1980 atÂ a WestÂ Haven Whitecaps (Eastern League) game; he was thereÂ during a promotional tour–available to signÂ autographs for the first few innings.Â Â I was in collegeÂ at the time and was keenly aware of the man’s legendary status–mostly due to my Dad having alwaysÂ told me that Feller and Sandy KoufaxÂ were the best pitchers he’d ever seen (ironically, my Dad knew the woman who’d laterÂ becomeÂ Feller’s second wife–Anne Gilliland–and carried her books to school on occasion as a youth).Â I justÂ HAD to get a ball signed by him that evening; it’s notÂ often that you’re in the company of trueÂ baseball royalty.Â I had also known that Mr. Feller could be a bit stand-offish and gruff; how would he react when I reached the front of the line?Â Should I say something?Â What would I say?Â When I finallyÂ handed him the ball to be signed, I recall nervously saying, “Mr. Feller, it’s an honor to meet you–and my father STILLÂ says you’re the best pitcher he’s ever seen.”Â I remember himÂ replying something like, “Thank you,Â kid–was your father a Cleveland fan?”Â I think I was too nervous to answer at that point and my friend,Â Bob–who accompanied me to the game–proceeded to engage in some small talk with the legend.Â It didn’t take longÂ for Feller to realize that we were true baseball fanatics asÂ my friend and IÂ proceeded to startÂ reeling offÂ some famous Indians over the years.Â Â Then, while exchanging handshakes, our jaws nearly droppedÂ whenÂ Feller said, “When I’m done here, boys, I’ll come look for you in the stands and we’ll talk more baseball.”Â I didn’t fall down/pass outÂ at the time–but I know I came close.Â Would baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller REALLYÂ seekÂ us out and spend some time with US?Â I had my doubts as we returned to our usual,Â behind-the plate bench seats.
Two innings later–almost inconspicuously–Feller and an aide entered the ballpark seating area; we waved at him and he simply pointed back at us.Â Without hesitation, he walked up the stairs and took a seat next to us; yeah, the game suddenlyÂ became secondary.Â I kept thinking/wondering:Â Â So THISÂ is the ornery, uncooperative man with the questionable personality?Â I didn’t see it–not THAT night.Â I recall usÂ talking about some modern-day players, how the game has changed over the years, then finally asking him who wasÂ the toughest hitter he ever faced.Â He replied, “Ted Williams was the best hitter–but DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich always gave me more trouble.”Â After another few minutes of stimulatingÂ conversation among ‘the three Bobs’Â (he also talked about his military record–which he took greatÂ pride in), Feller excused himself–lamenting, “Well, guys, I have a flight to catch–a pleasure meeting you.”Â The autographed ball is still displayed in my bedroom; I gaze at it from time to time and rememberÂ that specialÂ conversation from 30 years ago.Â Yeah–I always smile.
My Monday Night Sports Talk co-host Tony DeAngelo on Feller:Â “I had to laugh when he (Feller)Â went to the Baseball Encyclopedia once and asked them to put In the Service of our Country next to theÂ names of playersÂ who missed timeÂ during the war; they told him it would beÂ an ‘inconvenience’ to do so.Â Feller thenÂ remarked ‘Inconvenience?Â What do you think it was for me getting bombed and shot at on an aircraft carrier every day?’Â And this cameÂ from a man who did hisÂ running and throwingÂ on the boat between attacks.Â Yes–what an inspiration for those who will choose toÂ listen.”
Yeah, I guess there was only ONE Bob Feller–”Bullet Bob” back in the day.Â Â Again, many fans/colleaguesÂ didn’t care for the man due to his disdain for the modern-day player (he consider them spoiled–and hadn’t earned what they reaped); they also considered Feller egotistical–on the verge of being boisterous.Â Yes,Â perhaps it came down to which Bob Feller you met on a particular day.Â I’m justÂ glad I was able to meet the Bob Feller who simplyÂ enjoyed talking baseball with two “pie-eyed” young men on a summer eveningÂ a few decadesÂ ago.Â I’ll prefer toÂ remember him in a positiveÂ way the rest of my life, too.
Rest in peace, “Rapid Robert.”
Bob Lazzari is an award-winning sports columnist for both Connecticutâ€™s Valley Times and NY Sports Day, where his â€œSports Roundupâ€ column is featured weekly. He is a member of the Connecticut Sports Writersâ€™ Alliance and host of â€œMonday Night Sports Talk,â€ a cable television show on CTV/Channel 14 in Connecticut.