By John SickelsBob Feller threw his last pitch in the big leagues 50 years ago, but he remains the face of the Indians franchise. His statue greets fans entering Jacobs Field. He's one of three living member of the 1948 World Series Champions. His fastball ranks among the greatest ever in baseball annals. He was among the first players to volunteer for the armed forces after World War II began, and missed three seasons in his prime. He was one the first entrepreneur-athletes, and an opponent of baseball's Reserve Clause years before it was fashionable to be one. He has devoted admirers, and bitter enemies.
So why did it take this long for a biography of Feller to appear? There are a couple of autobiographies out there, most recently Now Pitching: Bob Feller, published in 2002. But Sickels' is the first true biography to appear. As most of you know, John Sickels is the author of a series of prospect books and also maintains minorleagueball.com, a prospect blog here at SportsBlogs.
Feller's upbringing in Iowa is well-known: Bob's father Bill recognized his talent, nudged him towards the pitching mound, and managed his young career until Indians superscout Cyril "Cy" Slapnicka noticed him. Sickels takes the time early in the biography to set up the relationship between Bob and his father, which was a key component in his development into a pitching phenom.
Next Sickels takes on the controversy surrounding the signing of Feller, and how the Indians eased him into the majors as a teenager. Ossie Vitt and the "Crybabies" of 1940 are also examined in-depth. By 1941, Feller was at the top of his game, having lead the league in strikeouts for four straight seasons. He was just 23 years old when World War II broke out.
Feller's stint in the Navy cost him three season at his peak. His time away from baseball also affected him personally; he seemed more open and honest after returning from the Pacific. This frankness would get him in trouble down the road, and is one of the major aspects of Feller that Sickels examines. His well-publicized war of words with Jackie Robinson, his outspoken opinions on baseball labor relations, and many other subjects made Feller both a target for criticism and a highly-public figure in sports. Sickels deftly examines both sides of Feller's controversies, maintaining a neutrality and even-handedness throughout.
Finally, Feller's career statistics are examined using present-day metrics. And suffice to say, his numbers adjusted for era aremind-boggling. For example, Feller pitched in an era where strikeouts were harder to come by for pitchers; his 250 strikeouts in 1941 would translate to 452 in today's game.