The World Just Seems A Little Duller

The world just seems a little duller today, as one of the more interesting figures in baseball history (and one of the handful of Hall of Famers I have met) has died at the age of 92.

Bob Feller won 266 games in a major-league career that spanned from 1936-56. He led the AL six times in wins, five times in innings pitched, and seven times in strikeouts. And he’s one of the game’s all-time leaders in interesting factoids:

— Feller reached the major leagues four months before his 18th birthday, a farm boy out of Van Meter, Iowa. In his first major-league start (after six relief appearances), he struck out 15; four starts later, he struck out 17.

— He threw so hard that it required a motorcycle to measure it. Seriously. In the days before radar guns, somebody came up with the bright idea of having a motorcycle speed up behind Feller at 100 mph. He was supposed to release the ball at the instant the motorcycle passed. It didn’t work perfectly, but they somehow determined that Feller threw 104 mph.

— In 1940, he threw a no-hitter on Opening Day, the only pitcher in history to do so.

— He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, the first major-leaguer to sign up in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

— He missed nearly four seasons during the war. Considering he won 25 games in 1941, then 26 in his first full season back, he likely missed out on nearly 100 victories.

— Feller often spent the offseason barnstorming with a team of major-leaguers playing against Negro League all-stars. A quote I found on the Cleveland Plain Dealer Web site: “Bob gave the Negro League players respect and exposure by playing against them after World War II.”

— And he could be as cantankerous as a pit bull.

In 1997, Feller visited Salem-Keizer for an appearance at the minor-league ballpark there. I got to spend about 90 minutes with him for a one-on-one interview the afternoon before the game. From the column I wrote for the Statesman Journal:

What’s that they say? You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy?

It has been six decades since Bob Feller left the family farm in Van Meter, Iowa.

There have been 11 presidents since he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns as a 17-year-old in his first major-league start.

The color line has been erased since he threw an Opening Day no-hitter in 1940, the only one in baseball history.

So, what does a Hall of Fame pitcher do during an off day in Salem? He goes to see Marv Ferry, president of the Caterpillar Tractor Collectors Club.

“He has a lot of beautiful tractors — Caterpillar Crawlers,” Feller said after a trip to the Oregon State Fair. “The ones he has over here are absolutely sensational.”

Feller, of course, didn’t come all the way from his Cleveland home just to see tractors. He came to sign autographs and throw out the first pitch at Thursday’s Volcanoes game. But if there are some tractors thrown into the mix, well, he’s happier than a pig in slop.

Feller, you see, has quite a collection of tractors himself — 37, to be exact, including 33 Caterpillars dating back to 1926. They’re a reminder of his roots, of the life he grew up with but knew he wouldn’t grow old with.

“I never had any idea of being a farmer,” Feller, 78, said during an interview in his room at Quality Inn. “I never had any idea of not being a major-league ballplayer. I never gave it a thought that I’d ever fail.”

So, where does Feller rank among pitchers? In addition to leading the league in wins and strikeouts every year, he also led four times in walks. He led “only” once each in ERA and winning percentage. He wasn’t quite Walter Johnson, but he was a heck of a lot better than Nolan Ryan.

Any evaluation of Feller must give him some credit for the years he spent in the Navy. He still was a great pitcher during those years; he just wasn’t able to compete in the major leagues. That’s much different from when somebody is injured, because when somebody is injured, they aren’t a great player.

At a conservative estimate, Feller lost 75 wins during the war. That would put him right on the cusp of the 10 winningest pitchers in history.

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