Bob Feller died last night at the age of 92. Among the things that could be easily argued include that he was Iowa’s most famous athlete, and one of major league baseball’s best pitchers ever.
My first experience with Bob Feller was when I was younger. He stopped in Mason City at a local shop, making an appearance to sign autographs. I went down to see him, but at that age I didn’t understand the concept of former players making some cash from people coming to see them and paying to get an autograph. Feller was known for having a rough edge at times, and I got to see it that day up close when I got a full explanation about how he was there to sign things for a fee, and that I wouldn’t be getting any type of autograph without paying for it. Of course I didn’t understand and thought he was a mean guy at that point, but of course later in life I realized that I didn’t understand the “autograph industry” at the age of 9 or 10.
Fast forward to the months leading up to the Iowa Caucuses in 2004. Feller was part of the campaign of Democrat Senator and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich, and Kucinich knew that having his friend Feller tag along to sign autographs as part of a stop at a Mason City restaurant would be a good thing. Kucinich had a good crowd that day, but I wondered while reporting on the event how many people were there to see the man who wanted to be president and how many were there to see one of their favorite Iowans. And for those who are wondering…no, I didn’t ask for an autograph, and I didn’t remind him of the story of him giving me a lecture on autographs when I was a kid.
I also wonder this morning if today’s athletes would put their career on hold if our country was thrown into a major war like Feller did. Feller was on his way to sign a new contract with Cleveland when he heard the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Feller diverted from his trip to Cleveland and became the first active major league baseball player to volunteer for the service, signing up to serve in the Navy. He served as a Gun Captain on the USS Alabama, earning eight battle stars and five campaign ribbons. He is the only Chief Petty Officer that is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Feller talked about some of his experience of being in the Navy in World War Two in this video from 2008.
Looking at Feller’s stats, it’s obvious that he put country ahead of baseball. Feller won at least 20 games in the three seasons before and the two seasons after the war. I estimate that he would have had about 93 more wins, putting him seventh best ever in career wins with 359. Also in that lost time he should have had about 950 more strikeouts, putting him around 7th to 8th best. In the day of multi-million dollar contracts and egos, I do wonder if today’s athletes would put aside the money and fame of climbing the career stat lists like Bob Feller did in the prime of his career.
Feller kept in great health until recently. He pitched in the 2009 Hall of Fame old-timers game at the age of 90.
The Feller Museum in Van Meter is someplace I have not visited, but must put that on my list of places to go in the near future.