Like the rest of the baseball world, I was saddened by the news of Bob Feller’s passing yesterday at age 92. He truly was an American original, a one-of-a-kind character.
An Iowa farm boy blessed with a blazing fastball that made him a Hall of Fame pitcher, Feller also was a hero in a field much more significant. The day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rapid Robert became the first major league baseball player to enlist in the military. He spent four years in the Navy and earned several combat medals and commendations as a gun captain on the USS Alabama.
He was just 23 when he joined the Navy, about to enter the prime of his baseball career. Conservatively, the war years cost Feller at least 80 wins, but when I asked him about this in an interview in the early 1990s, the always opinionated pitcher quickly stopped me and reminded me how lucky he was to have returned from the war safe and sound. “There are thousands of young men who never came back,’’ he said. “They are the true heroes.”
He threw three no-hitters and won 20 games seven times, but when I inquired about his greatest victory, he replied without hesitation: “Beating Germany and Japan in World War II. None of the 261 games I won in baseball would have mattered without that one.”
Rapid Robert provided me with one of my favorite baseball-playing moments back in the summer of '77 (that's 1977, not 1877 for all you smart alecks out there. ;-)
I was a 22-year-old sportswriter covering the Mets' Class A, New York-Penn League affiliate in Little Falls, N.Y. for the Little Falls Evening Times, and Feller came to town to sign autographs at the ballpark.
Before the game, he took the mound, resplendent in his old Cleveland Indians uniform, and threw four pitches apiece to a handful of local 'celebrities.' I put that word in single quotes because yours truly was one of the designated celebs.
As a sold-out crowd of 3,000 looked on, I dug in. Feller went into his trademark, high-kicking windup and delivered a batting practice offering straight down the pike. I was so excited to be batting against one of the most dominant pitchers of all-time that I almost cork-screwed myself into the ground while fouling the pitch off my right foot.
The crowd roared with laughter.
"Now, we see why you write about sports rather than play them,'' bellowed one of the leather-lunged spectators, who sounded as if he had already imbibed a few too many Utica Clubs.
I turned as red as a St. Louis Cardinal.
Feller's second serving was every bit as good, and I lined a base hit to right field.
I stroked the third pitch to center and the final offering to left.
Three hits in four at-bats vs. the immortal Bob Feller.
I could now tell my children and grandchildren, and anyone else who would listen that I once had my way with a Hall-of-Fame hurler; that I owned Bob Feller. Well, sort of.
Years later, before interviewing him at an oldtimer's game in Buffalo, I mentioned that night in Little Falls to him.
Feller grew defensive.
"Geez,'' he said. "I was 58 at the time and I wasn't throwing hard because I didn't want to embarrass anyone.''
I told him I understood that and that I didn't bring it up to be disrespectful. I just wanted to thank him for taking it easy on me and giving me the thrill of a lifetime.
I wasn't bothered by his response. In a way, it was kind of cool, hearing that kind of fire from a guy in his 60s.
And I thought it was even cooler when I read that he had taken the mound as a 90-year-old a few years ago at the Hall of Fame game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
Once a competitor, always a competitor.
That’s how I’ll remember Bob Feller.
A FINAL ROUND OF BOOK SIGNINGS
If you still haven't figured out what to get that sports fan in your life, may I suggest an autographed copy of one of the 13 books I've published. Here's my upcoming schedule:
* Friday, Dec. 17, 6-8 p.m. - Henrietta Borders (across from Marketplace Mall)
* Saturday, Dec. 18, 2-4 p.m. - Pittsford Barnes & Noble.
* Saturday, Dec. 18, 6-8 p.m. - Eastview Mall, The Bills Team Store, with special appearances by the Buffalo Jills and mascot Billy Buffalo.
On another positive note, we've received confirmation that Wegmans will be selling my latest release, Jewel of the Sports World: The Hickok Belt Award Story.