Robert William Feller (Rapid Robert; Heater from Van Meter)
Pitcher; 1936-1941, 1945-56
Height: 6'0" Weight: 185 lbs
Throws: Right Bats: Right
How Acquired: Amateur Free Agent, 1936
Left Via: Released, January 9, 1957
Bob Feller was born in Van Meter, Iowa in 1918, just days before the end of World War I. He grew up on a farm, and when he wasn't taking care of the animals, he was playing baseball with his father, who quickly recognized his son's gifts. Soon Bob had his own baseball field to practice on, and soon semipro clubs would be brought to it to play games on this "Field of Dreams." Feller eventually gravitated towards the pitcher's mound, and word quickly spread about a 15-year-old phenom with a fastball on par with the best the majors had to offer. We tend to project our highest hopes onto young prospects, and here was a prospect who was so young and yet so talented that those hopes seemed unlimited. When Cleveland scout Cy Slapnicka watched him pitch in July of 1935, he quickly saw that, and used his shrewd negotiating skills to get the Fellers (Bob and his father Bill) to sign a contract with the Indians.
This contract didn't really affect Feller right away. He stayed in Iowa, attending his junior year in high school, and basketball during the winter. He didn't report to the Indians until June of the following year (1936). Normally a club that signed a player off the "sandlots" would need to send him to a minor-league club first, but the Indians didn't do that with Feller, and that almost made Feller a free agent after the season. Cleveland had Feller make a couple of appearances with a local semi-pro team, liked what they saw, and rather send him to New Orleans, wanted to make sure his development was managed at the major-league level. But even with his immense talent, would he be able to handle major-league hitters? They answered this question by having him pitch in an All-Star Break exhibition against the St. Louis Browns. Even though he threw only his fastball, and although he struggled with some of the minor aspects of pitching (such as keeping runners on first base) the results were extremely promising, as he struck out eight batters in just three innings of work. That convinced the Indians to bypass sending Feller to New Orleans, and instead told the young pitcher to join the club in Philadelphia.
Feller made some appearances out of the bullpen, then made his first start against the doormat St. Louis Browns on August 23. He struck out the first eight he faced, and finished his complete game with 15 punch outs. Feller was no longer a curiosity; he was a star. He finished the 1936 season in the rotation, and although he did struggle against some clubs, notably the New York Yankees on September 3 (with Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the lineup), the future looked extremely bright.
But the Indians' method of bypassing existing minor-league guidelines placed his contract with the Indians in doubt. Fortunately, commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruled in favor of the Indians in December, largely because Feller wanted to stay with the club. Had Feller wished, he could have become a free agent, with the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox poised to jump on the opportunity.The decision was closely covered by the major media outlets of the day, and most of the major newspapers ran the story on their front pages the following day.
Let's back up a little. In 1936, baseball was the undisputed king of team sports in the United States. College football and boxing were also popular, but nothing came close to competing with baseball in those days. The Sporting News, then a baseball-only newspaper, was one of the most popular papers of any type in the nation. Radio was entering its golden age, and most games were now being broadcast both locally and across the country. Into this maturing media popped Bob Feller, the kid with the almost-mythical arm, and so coverage of the controversy was a national story.
Feller returned to Iowa after the 1936 season for his high school senior year. He reported to spring training in March, with a tutor in tow so that he could keep up with his school work. Meanwhile he worked on his refining his curve and changeup, and other pitching fundamentals. In April Bob appeared on the cover of Time magazine, something usually reserved for national or world leaders, and his May high school graduation would be broadcast nationally on radio. But even as he picked up his diploma, Feller's career was very much in doubt, for in late April he had injured his throwing arm. After numerous tests, Feller was eventually sent to a local chiropractor, who quickly (and correctly) diagnosed the pain Feller was suffering as a dislocated ulna bone. The bone was set back in place, and Feller returned to action soon afterward. There was no lingering effects from the injury. with Feller's fastball and curve just as nasty as ever, and he finished the season with a 3.39 ERA and 132 ERA+.
After the 1937 season, in which the Indians finished 83-71 but well behind the Yankees, manager Steve O'Neill was fired, and Ossie Vitt, a knowledgeable but extremely intense man, was hired to take a talented but underachieving club to the next level. The team did start out the 1938 season very well, but fell apart in the second half thanks to the hitting cooling off and several key injuries. Feller remained healthy, but he too struggled after the All-Star break.
But in 1939, everything fell into place for the 20-year-old Feller, even as tensions between Indians players and manager Ossie Vitt escalated. Feller allowed just 227 hits in 296.2 innings pitched and finished with the third-best ERA in the AL. Credited with an impressive 24 wins, Feller finished third in the AL MVP voting, behind Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx.
The 1940 season couldn't have started any better for the Indians, as Feller threw the first and only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history. Pitching in 40 degree weather at Comiskey Park, Feller eschewed the curve and just went with his fastball, and White Sox hitters simply couldn't catch up. With the no-hitter as a springboard, Feller pitched well all spring, and the Indians were in good position in the AL standings. Feller would throw two more no-hitters, one in 1946 and another in 1951.
Off the field, however, manager Ossie Vitt continued to alienate his players, and though the team was within striking distance of first place, the players went to President Alva Bradley and demanded that Vitt be removed as manager. This might have blown over had not the story leaked to the local press, but the team felt compelled to keep Vitt on as manager even as the players essentially ignored him, and the controversy dogged the club for the rest of the season. The Indians still had a chance to win the pennant on the final weekend with the Tigers in town, but with the Indians down two games with three to play, the Tigers bested Feller and the Indians 2-0, clinching the pennant.
Feller pitched extremely well through the debacle, improving on his impressive 1939 numbers in every category. He threw more innings, struck out more, walked less, and posted a lower ERA. He won the AL pitching triple crown, leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. He finished second in MVP voting and certainly would have won the Cy Young Award had it existed. In fact, the elderly Cy Young himself frequently traveled to Cleveland to watch Feller pitch.
Feller had the best stuff of his day, and possibly the best stuff in history. He struck out over 240 batters for four straight seasons when 120 or 130 strikeouts was a fantastic feat. The late '30s and early '40s was an offensive era, but most batters gave in after two strikes. Feller was striking out batters trying desperately to put the ball in play. Bob was also very wild in the early part of his career, also leading the league in walks three times, but that wildness probably helped his effectiveness on the mound; batters were reluctant to dig in if the pitcher wasn't sure where his upper-90s fastball was going. But Feller didn't just have a fastball; many of his contemporaries, including Ted Williams, rated his curve as a more difficult pitch to hit.
There were a couple attempts to measure the speed of his fastball. Feller took part in a stunt that pitted a motorcycle against his fastball. The motorcycle was allowed a head start, and got up to 86 mph when it passed him, but it didn't beat the baseball to the target. It seems very probable that from his debut in 1936 up to World War II, Feller could throw a fastball at 100 mph or above with regularity.
In this clip, an Army ordinance chronograph was placed at home plate in 1946:
Two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Feller entered the Navy, even though he would have been exempt from serving because of his ailing father and his status as a farmer. After training, Feller was assigned to Norfolk as a physical drill instructor, and also played baseball exhibitions for troop entertainment and morale. By the summer of 1942, Feller wanted to volunteer for combat duty, so he entered naval gunnery school (he had wanted to serve as fighter pilot, but couldn't quality because of a hearing deficiency), and after completion, was assigned to the battleship USS Alabama. He served on that vessel in the Atlantic and the Pacific as the fire director of a gun crew. He saw action in many battles throughout the Pacific theater, including the Battle of the Phillippine Sea in June 1944. Afterward, he would always say that this win (World War II) meant more to him than any wins on the baseball field.
The four-year gap left in Feller's career by World War II is one of baseball's great "What if?" questions. What would that career have looked like had the war not interrupted it? It's possible that another 1,200 innings would have had a cumulative effect on Feller's stuff, ending his prime a couple years earlier, but it's also possible that Feller's arm was strong enough to withstand four more 300-inning seasons. He did throw during World War II in exhibitions, including perhaps 200 innings in 1942, so his arm didn't have a complete rest during the war. Had he pitched those four seasons with no injuries and with his great stuff, he probably would have finished his career just about even with Walter Johnson at the top of the All-Time Career Strikeout list. But that assumes a lot. Even with losing those four prime seasons to military service, Feller had a great career, a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Which, if you think about it, is extremely impressive.
What we do know is that Feller returned to Cleveland in late August of 1945 and started nine games, showing little sign of rust. By this time, he was relying on a slider (which he learned during his wartime exhibitions) as his secondary pitch, but his fastball still had the same velocity. That Feller was able to get in a few games in before the 1945 season ended set the stage for the best pitching season in Indians history.
The 1946 Indians were clearly built around Feller; gone were most of the supporting cast that made the pre-war Indians pennant contenders. Feller responded by pitching an incredible 371.1 innings, a team record. He posted a 2.18 ERA and struck out 8.43 batters per nine innings, both career bests. He threw a no-hitter, two one-hitters, and ten shutouts. He appeared in 46 games, started 42 of them, and completed a team record 36 of those starts.
Feller's season total of 348 strikeouts wasn't just impressive, it was mind-boggling. Over a 50-year span from Walter Johnson to Koufax, no other pitcher ever struck out more than 275 in a season, and it was not uncommon for a pitcher to lead the league with less than 200 strikeouts - as Feller himself did in each of the next two seasons. In the same year Feller led the AL with 348 strikeouts, Johnny Smitz led the NL with 135.
After the war, Feller organized a major barnstorming tour, pitting major-leaguers against Negro League stars. Feller fronted the money for the tour, and became the first player to incorporate himself so that he could get liability insurance. The two teams played 34 games in just under a month, with the tour hitting cities from coast to coast. Everyone made a lot of money; the payout almost matched the winning World Series share that season. Satchel Paige, who was the captain of the Negro League stars, would become Feller's teammate just a couple of years later.
In 1947, Feller injured a muscle in his back during a game against the Athletics. His fastball would never be the same again, though he would be a productive full-time starter for five more seasons. He reinvented himself in the early 1950s, becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower, and by that time, the Indians could afford to use Feller as a complementary player, as their rotation was as deep as any in baseball with Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia as its anchors. He was a spot starter on the great 1954 team, and retired two years later at the age of 37. Five years later, he entered the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, appearing on 150 of the 160 ballots cast.
Feller was always ready with an opinion, and didn't care much for what people thought of it. After retiring, Feller sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace (video and transcript here) and spoke out against MLB's Reserve Clause and argued for free agency:
FELLER: I think during a baseball player's career sometimes if he's unhappy on account of his salary or other conditions, which is not necessarily salary, he should have a chance to make a choice; and I arbitrarily say three years plus an option of two more gives the ball club a couple of years to make that man happy, to trade him to a team of his choice. He has no say-so of what part of the country he plays, with what team, with what teammates, many other things.
In his retirement, Feller became famous for his prolific autograph signing; he charged for his signature, but always had a short conversation with each person. Frank Deford noted:
But otherwise Bob Feller, who is advertised to be so cranky and opinionated, is the model of graciousness with his public. Really, apart from the blue-ink standard, there is only one rule: "I don't do last names." That just gets into too much spelling. Feller would rather shoot the breeze. He reminisces, jokes, inquires, commiserates, even takes it upon himself to volunteer how best to fix a chipped figurine or to repair one that has broken altogether off the Best Western stand. He always has a comment when somebody hands him a glove. Like, "That's a regular butterfly net." Fans with Wilson gloves (as is Feller's own mitt) learn that Feller actually knew Mr. Wilson. It's like the dual-colored seams on the old baseballs: Who knew? Who knew that there was a real live Mr. Wilson who walked the earth in our time? "Sure. Thomas E. Wilson--a fine man."
Feller's relationship with the Indians didn't end when he retired. For years after his retirement, Feller would pitch in the Indians' Fantasy Camps, and at age 90, he pitched in an exhibition against other stars of the past:
On April 12, 2010, Bob Feller, age 91, stepped to the mound at Progressive Field. After saluting the Opening Day crowd, he made sure his footing was good, and threw the ceremonial first pitch. It carried the plate by plenty.
Outside Gate C at Progressive Field is a statue of Bob Feller, showing him in the middle of his iconic windup. After Feller passed away in December 2010, the Indians designed a patch that was to be worn on the following year's uniform. It depicted Feller in that same windup, along with his uniform number (#19). No name was needed.
John Sickels. Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation
Bill James. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
"Bob Feller." Baseball-Reference.com
Indians Career Stats
|1942||Did not play in major leagues (Military Service)|
|1943||Did not play in major leagues (Military Service)|
|1944||Did not play in major leagues (Military Service)|
|162 Game Avg.||3.25||37||31||3||18||3||247||211||89||14||114||167||4||122||1.316||7.7||0.5||4.1||6.1||1.46|
- Hall of Fame: 1962
- AL All-Star: 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950
- AL MVP: 2nd, 1940; 3rd, 1939; 3rd, 1941; 5th, 1951; 6th, 1946; 8th, 1947; 23rd, 1948
- AL WAR: 1st, 1939-9.8; 1st, 1940-9.8; 2nd, 1946-9.6; 4th, 1941-8.1; 7th, 1947-5.4; 9th, 1938-5.2
- AL WAR Pitchers: 1st, 1939-9.3; 1st, 1940-9.9; 1st, 1946-10.0; 2nd, 1941-8.1; 4th, 1938-5.1; 4th, 1947-5.1; 4th, 1950-4.3; 42nd, Career-65.2
- AL ERA: 1st, 1940-2.61; 2nd, 1947-2.68; 3rd, 1939-2.85; 3rd, 1946-2.18; 3rd, 1950-3.43; 5th, 1941-3.15; 10th, 1951-3.50
- AL Wins: 1st, 1939-24; 1st, 1940-27; 1st, 1941-25; 1st, 1946-26; 1st, 1947-20; 1st, 1951-22; 4th, 1938-17; 4th, 1948-19; 8th, 1950-16; 10th, 1949-15; 37th, Career-266
- AL W/L Percentage: 1st, 1951-.733; 2nd, 1954-.813; 3rd, 1940-.711; 4th, 1939-.727; 6th, 1941-.658; 8th, 1946-.634; 8th, 1947-.645; 9th, 1938-.607; 72nd, Career-.621
- AL WHIP: 1st, 1940-1.133; 1st, 1947-1.194; 4th, 1939-1.244; 4th, 1950-1.348; 5th, 1946-1.158; 8th, 1949-1.336; 9th, 1953-1.269; 10th, 1948-1.323
- AL Hits/9 IP: 1st, 1938-7.293; 1st, 1939-6.887; 1st, 1940-6.884; 2nd, 1941-7.452; 2nd, 1946-6.714; 2nd, 1947-6.923; 7th, 1948-8.187; 7th, 1950-8.381; 9th, 1953-8.351; 52nd, Career-7.692
- AL Bases on Balls/9 IP: 10th, 1949-3.583
- AL Strikeouts/9 IP: 1st, 1938-7.779; 1st, 1939-7.463; 1st, 1940-7.333; 1st, 1941-6.822; 1st, 1947-5.900; 2nd, 1946-8.435; 2nd, 1948-5.265; 8th, 1949-4.607; 8th, 1950-4.336
- AL Games: 1st, 1940-43; 1st, 1941-44; 1st, 1946-48; 6th, 1947-42; 7th, 1948-44; 9th, 1938-39
- AL Saves: 5th, 1946-4; 8th, 1940-4
- AL Innings: 1st, 1939-296.2; 1st, 1940-320.1; 1st, 1941-343.0; 1st, 1946-371.1; 1st, 1947-299.0; 2nd, 1948-280.1; 3rd, 1938-277.2; 5th, 1951-249.2; 6th, 1950-247.0; 49th, Career-3827.0
- AL Strikeouts: 1st, 1938-240; 1st, 1939-246; 1st, 1940-261; 1st, 1941-260; 1st, 1946-348; 1st, 1947-196; 1st, 1948-164; 4th, 1937-150; 5th, 1950-119; 9th, 1951-111; 10th, 1949-108; 26th, Career-2581
- AL Games Started: 1st, 1940-37; 1st, 1941-40; 1st, 1946-42; 1st, 1947-37; 1st, 1948-38; 2nd, 19379-35; 2nd, 1950-34; 3rd, 1938-36; 4th, 1951-32; 9th, 1952-30; 54th, Career-484
- AL Complete Games: 1st, 1939-24; 1at, 1940-31; 1st, 1946-36; 2nd, 1941-28; 3rd, 1938-20; 5th, 1947-20; 7th, 1950-16; 7th, 1951-16; 52nd, Career-279
- AL Shutouts: 1st, 1940-4; 1st, 1941-6; 1st, 1946-10; 1st, 1947-5; 2nd, 1939-4; 2nd, 1950-3; 2nd, 1951-4; 5th, 1938-2; 9th, 1948-2; 35th, Career-44
- AL Home Runs: 1st, 1951-22; 2nd, 1947-17; 2nd, 1948-20; 8th, 1949-18; 9th, 1950-20; 10th, 1941-15
- AL Bases on Balls: 1st, 1938-208; 1st, 1939-142; 1st, 1941-194; 1st, 1946-153; 2nd, 1947-127; 3rd, 1940-118; 6th, 1948-116; 8th, 1951-95; 9th, 1937-106; 5th, Career-1764
- AL Hits: 1st, 1941-284; 1st, 1946-277; 1st, 1948-255; 2nd, 1951-229; 5th, 1947-230; 6th, 1940-245; 9th, 1939-227; 10th, 1938-225; 10th, 1952-219; 97th, Career-3271
- AL Strikeouts/Bases on Balls: 1st, 1940-2.212; 3rd, 1939-1.732; 3rd, 1946-2.275; 4th, 1947-1.543; 5th, 1941-1.340; 5th, 1949-1.286; 6th, 1948-1.414; 8th, 1950-1.155
- AL Home Runs/9: 1st, 1940-0.365; 3rd, 1946-0.267; 4th, 1938-0.421; 6th, 1939-0.394; 7th, 1941-0.267
- AL Losses: 4th, 1946-15; 6th, 1948-15; 7th, 1949-14; 9th, 1952-13
- AL Earned Runs: 2nd, 1946-90; 3rd, 1938-126; 3rd, 1941-120; 5th, 1952-101; 6th, 1948-111; 6th, 1951-97l 9th, 1947-89; 62nd, Career-1384
- AL Wild Pitches: 1st, 1939-14; 4th, 1947-7; 5th, 1940-8; 6th, 1936-8; 8th, 1937-5; 10th, 1938-5; 10th, 1941-6
- AL Hit By Pitch: 3rd, 1940-5; 3rd, 1941-5; 4th, 1938-7; 5th, 1947-4; 5th, 1951-7; 10th, 1939-3
- AL Adjusted ERA+: 2nd, 1940-162; 3rd, 1939-154; 5th, 1947-130; 5th, 1950-126; 6th, 1946-151; 7th, 1941-125; 98th, Career-122
- AL Win Probability Added: 1st, 1947-4.8; 3rd, 1948-2.7; 4th, 1950-3.1; 6th, 1946-1.5
- AL Sacrifice Hits: 9th, 1941-10
- AL Putouts as P: 3rd, 1947-17; 4th, 1948-16
- AL Assists as P: 3rd, 1939-44; 3rd, 1947-50; 5th, 1946-47
- AL Errors as P: 4th, 1955-3; 5th, 1939-3; 5th, 1952-3
- AL Range Factor/Game as P: 5th, 1947-1.60; 5th, 1953-1.64
- AL Fielding Percentage as P: 1st, 1950-1.000; 1st, 1953-1.000
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
- 1st WAR Pitchers (65.2)
- 32nd ERA (3.25)
- 1st Wins (266)
- 10th W/L Percentage (.621)
- 39th WHIP (1.316)
- 11th Hits/9 IP (7.692)
- 20th Strikeouts/9 IP (6.070)
- 2nd Games Played (570)
- t-32nd Saves (21)
- 1st Innings Pitched (3827.0)
- 1st Strikeouts (2581)
- 1st Games Started (484)
- 1st Complete Games (279)
- 2nd Shutouts (44)
- 1st Home Runs (224)
- 1st Bases on Balls (1764)
- 2nd Hits (3271)
- t-44th Strikeouts/Bases on Balls (1.463)
- 38th Home Runs/9 IP (0.527)
- 2nd Losses (162)
- 2nd Earned Runs (1384)
- 2nd Wild Pitches (69)
- 2nd Hit By Pitch (60)
- t-9th ERA+ (122)
- 6th WPA (12.7)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader
- t-2nd Pitching WAR (9.9, 1940, 1946)
- 5th Pitching WAR (9.3, 1939)
- t-15th Pitching WAR (8.1, 1941)
- t-30th ERA (2.18, 1946)
- t-2nd Wins (27, 1940)
- t-5th Wins (26, 1946)
- t-7th Wins (25, 1941)
- t-9th Wins (24, 1939)
- t-24th Wins (22, 1951)
- t-39th Wins (20, 1947)
- 6th W/L Percentage (.813, 1954)
- 24th W/L Percentage (.733, 1951)
- t-27th W/L Percentage (.727, 1939)
- t-40th W/L Percentage (.711, 1940)
- 22nd Hits/9 IP (6.714, 1946)
- 27th Hits/9 IP (6.883, 1940)
- 28th Hits/9 IP (6.887, 1939)
- 30th Hits/9 IP (6.923, 1947)
- 39th Hits/9 IP (7.022, 1937)
- 12th Strikeouts/9 IP (9.081, 1937)
- 24th Strikeouts/9 IP (8.434, 1946)
- 39th Strikeouts/9 IP (7.779, 1938)
- 46th Strikeouts/9 IP (7.463, 1939)
- 1st Innings Pitched (377.1, 1946)
- 4th Innings Pitched (343.0, 1941)
- 13th Innings Pitched (320.1, 1940)
- t-21st Innings Pitched (299.0, 1947)
- t-23rd Innings Pitched (296.2, 1939)
- t-43rd Innings Pitched (280.1, 1948)
- t-47th Innings Pitched (277.2, 1938)
- 1st Strikeouts (348, 1946)
- 8th Strikeouts (261, 1940)
- 9th Strikeouts (260, 1941)
- 10th Strikeouts (246, 1939)
- 12th Strikeouts (240, 1938)
- 23rd Strikeouts (196, 1947)
- 2nd Games Started (42, 1946)
- t-4th Games Started (40, 1941)
- t-10th Games Started (38, 1948)
- t-16th Games Started (37, 1940, 1947)
- t-28th Games Started (36, 1938)
- t-40th Games Started (35, 1939)
- 1st Complete Games (36, 1946)
- t-6th Complete Games (31, 1940)
- t-18th Complete Games (28, 1941)
- t-36th Complete Games (24, 1939)
- t-1st Shutouts (10, 1946)
- t-11th Shutouts (6, 1941)
- t-22nd Shutouts (5, 1947)
- t-38th Shutouts (4, 1939, 1940, 1951)
- 1st Bases on Balls (208, 1938)
- 2nd Bases on Balls (194, 1941)
- t-4th Bases on Balls (153, 1946)
- 7th Bases on Balls (142, 1946)
- 19th Bases on Balls (127, 1947)
- t-25th Bases on Balls (118, 1940)
- t-28th Bases on Balls (116, 1948)
- t-42nd Bases on Balls (106, 1937)
- t-26th Hits (284, 1941)
- t-35th Hits (277, 1946)
- t-34th Losses (15, 1946, 1948)
- t-9th Earned Runs (126, 1938)
- t-14th Earned Runs (120, 1941)
- t-34th Earned Runs (111, 1948)
- t-8th Wild Pitches (14, 1939)
- t-21st ERA+ (163, 1940)
- t-29th ERA+ (154, 1939)
- t-37th ERA+ (151, 1946)
- t-14th WPA (4.8, 1947)
- t-42nd WPA (3.1, 1950)