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There was no one like Rapid Robert Feller

Dec 16, 2010, 7:53 AM EDT

Bob Feller

Joe Posnanski has the best Bob Feller obituary. Even as people write a bunch more over the coming days, Posnanski’s will be the best because that’s just how it goes when (a) you’re the best sports writer in the business; and (b) you grew up in Cleveland, steeped in Bob Feller as Joe did and was. If you only read one thing about Feller today, read Joe’s take.

I don’t think I have anything to add about the big points of Feller’s life and career that aren’t going to be covered better elsewhere. He was a war hero. And he saw real combat and faced real peril, unlike many ballplayers did. He is undoubtedly in the conversation of the best pitchers of all time. You can’t help but look at his career and wonder how much gaudier the already gaudy numbers would have looked if not for the war. He lost his age 23-25 seasons to combat after entering his peak and pitching lights out the previous three years. It’s not hard to imagine that he would have had three more 24+ win seasons and maybe a couple of 300 strikeout performances to add to an already elite career. Between Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver, it’s hard to point to any pitcher who was better.

The part of the Posnanski obituary that I can relate to the most is the stuff about post-career Feller and — let’s not dull the point because the guy died yesterday — the unequivocal cockiness of the guy.  Except in Feller’s case it was a justified cockiness because unlike whatever flavor-of-the-month NFL wide receiver who comes down the pike, Feller’s claim to greatness was more than legitimate. And for that reason — not just because we’re now mourning him — I don’t have much of a problem with it. Muhammad Ali can get away with calling himself the greatest of all time. Feller could too. Partially because they may have been, but partially because even if it’s debatable, they never doubted it for a minute themselves. Boasting is usually a function of insecurity. Feller wasn’t insecure. He wasn’t boasting to convince himself of anything. There’s something beautiful about that. Not many can pull it off.

Joe mentions that Feller worked hard at self-promotion. That jibes with what I’ve observed living in Ohio for most of the past 20 years. If you were in Ohio and wanted to meet Bob Feller, it wasn’t a big trick. He was always available to fans, be it at Indians games, card shows, grand openings of car dealerships or any number of other events. Such self-promotion could be criticized. In Feller’s case I think it was pretty great. Because thanks to how sure he was of himself you never got the sense that he questioned whether he was overexposed or felt like he was dragging himself out there because someone besides himself expected it of him. And because, again, he was an all-time great. Would that several generations of fans had Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams available to them in such a way. Would that they enjoyed meeting the public the way Feller so obviously did.

I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife. But if there is one, Feller is busy explaining to whichever omniscient being in whom you choose to believe that he was the greatest of all time.  And he’s making a damn good case.

Rest in Peace Rapid Robert Feller.

  1. Lukehart80 - Dec 16, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    My great-uncle used to tell us that he’d played against Feller once in high school. The highlight of the story (for great uncle Clyde) was that while he’d struck out a couple times, he’d made contact and put the ball into play once. As a little kid, I couldn’t understand what was so great about that, why he got such a kick out of it. As I grew up a bit, I understood. The man struck-out Gehrig, Dimaggio, and Williams. It’s not a bad club to be a part of.

    Thanks to Feller’s willingness to talk baseball and sign baseballs with and for anyone, my dad once brought me home an autographed ball from a work trip to Cleveland.

    I’m FAR too young to have seen Feller play, but as an Indians’ fan, he’s always been one of my favorite players from the past. RIP, sir.

  2. buzzball31 - Dec 16, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    Mr Feller was a gift to baseball , to the Navy , and to his family . One could see Rapid Robert in Cooperstown at every event . He even pitched in the ” Hall of Fame Game ” … Mr. Feller was fiercely proud of his membership in the Hall , and of his participation in the ” Turkey shoot in the Mariana’s ” during the second world war . We as fans , and as Americans are fiercely proud of Bob Feller . He WAS the Hall of Fame to players , fans ,and alumni . Goodbye Mr. Feller , You will be missed .

  3. Paul White - Dec 16, 2010 at 8:55 AM

    Sorry to hear about this, he was a larger than life character who made baseball more interesting. Many thanks to Mr. Feller for his service to his country and his many, many baseball stories.

    Regarding his career, yes, clearly Feller was an excellent pitcher, and certainly deserved his place in the Hall of Fame. No argument. But let’s not get carried away with the “greatest pitcher ever” discussion. If he’d stopped pitching at age 29, when his career ERA+ was still 135 and he’d already compiled 55.8 WAR, then he’d be in the discussion the same way Koufax is. Short but dominant career, worthy of being included in that conversation.

    But Feller didn’t stop then. He pitched 8 more years in varying degrees of health and effectiveness, and never came particularly close to the performance of his youth. (ERA+ of 104 from age 30 onward, 3.9 K/9, just 10.2 total WAR in those 8 seasons) All of that dragged down his career numbers to the point that his final career ERA+ of 122 was the same as Jimmy Key’s, his shutout total was surpassed by Luis Tiant, and he managed fewer career strikeouts than Chuck Finley. Nothing shameful in any of that, those were all excellent pitchers. But it does take the edge off the “greatest ever” conversation.

    And the argument that the war years blunted his accomplishments doesn’t carry much weight with me, because I think there’s just as much evidence that the war may have actually lengthened his career. The guy threw over 275 innings at age 19 and then saw his workload go up every year until he joined the Navy. Shortly after his return, he suffered through a series of arm problems that left him essentially a league-average pitcher after age 30. Isn’t it pretty likely that if he’d continued to rack up massive inning totals when he was 23 and 24 and 25, with no intervening years of rest, that he may have suffered those problems even sooner? His awesome 1946 season may have never happened at all if he’d blown out his elbow throwing inning number 370 as a 24-year old.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Dec 16, 2010 at 8:58 AM

      I’ll grant that on the terms of career value. And I’ll admit that I’m being less than precise in my verbiage here, but my take on “greatest ever” with respect to Feller is that, at his best, he was nearly as good as any other pitcher in history at their best.

    • Lukehart80 - Dec 16, 2010 at 9:26 AM

      “Intervening years of rest.”

      I know you’re talking about the specific strains put on the body by throwing a baseball 100-MPH, but you might choose your words more carefully when talking about a guy who spent those years fighting in a war.

      What impact losing almost four full seasons of his prime to the war had on his career is impossible to know, but the man was as good in his 20s as any pitcher in history, his peak is as high as that of any pitcher in history.

      I don’t think he was the single best pitcher ever, but when you discuss the best pitchers, he absolutely belongs in the conversation.

    • kin2parasite - Dec 16, 2010 at 9:19 PM

      yeah your right, war normally helps pitching careers. What a moronic statement! How do you know he didn’t injure the arm during his service? Your the type of guy that if you found a million bucks you’d whine it was in twenty dollar bills and not hundreds! Keep up the good work of makin people feel like crap!

  4. BC - Dec 16, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    Here’s a link to a really well-written commentary by a local radio guy here in Hartford:
    http://wtic.cbslocal.com/2010/12/16/sports-commentary-1216/#more-22201

  5. irreverendsara - Dec 16, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks for linking to this obituary–it is so beautifully written. I’m a native Clevelander, I was born long after Bob Feller was a ballplayer, yet I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t recognize his name. I’ll miss him.

  6. Gobias Industries - Dec 16, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    When I was 16 years old, I was hanging out with a couple friends on a Sunday afternoon when one of them told me that Charlie Hayes was signing autographs at the mall along with “some guy named Bob Feller.” They had no idea who Feller was and although they were Yankees fans, they weren’t too excited about the chance to meet Hayes; but I demanded that my friend drive me over to the mall so I could meet Feller (of course, not until after we stopped at my house so I could spend 20 minutes pawing through my collection to find my retro Feller baseball card for him to sign, and pick up all 11 pounds of Total Baseball so I could brush up on his stats). I had been to the same mall five years earlier to get Roger McDowell’s autograph after waiting on line for two-and-a-half hours. Since Feller was a Hall of Famer, I figured the line would be even longer and it’d be a three hour wait at least. I couldn’t have been more wrong; there was actually no line at all. It made me kind of sad at first to see Feller just sitting there at the table all alone while shoppers were passing him by completely oblivious to who he was. Even Hayes had a half-dozen people on his line. But I got over it pretty quickly once I realized that I would have some one-on-one time with Feller. I had a chance to shake his hand and talk about Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio with him. Easily the best baseball memory of my life and it’s sad to lose him.

    • paul621 - Dec 16, 2010 at 10:51 AM

      I am also lucky to have meeting Feller among my best baseball memories, although this was just two years ago at the Hall of Fame. Got his autograph and shook his hand. I remember thinking at the time, “wow, his hands are huge!” and what that would have meant throwing a baseball. He probably felt like he was throwing a golf ball up there.

    • Richard In Big D - Dec 16, 2010 at 11:09 AM

      The likely reason that you had such easy access to Feller was demonstrated by a story I heard on the radio this morning. A young man and his father were at a card show where Feller was signing. The young man asked his dad if he thought it would be difficult to get something autographed by Feller. With Feller’s eagerness to please the fans with flesh-pressing and signatures in mind, the dad told the son “I think it would be more difficult to find something here WITHOUT Feller’s signature on it”. A testament to his understanding of his importance to the game, and to the idea that, without the fans, there is no Major League Baseball. One of the reasons that there was no line to get his autograph at the mall on the day when you were there, was that just about everybody who wanted it, already had it… Players of today, take note!

  7. florida727 - Dec 16, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    I think one of the best things you could say about Feller is that his autograph on the memorabilia circuit was worth virtually nothing. Why is that a “good” thing? Because Mr. Feller would sign napkins at a kid’s birthday party if asked. He was generous to a fault. Similar to Arnold Palmer, Feller would never deny a fan an autograph. He must have viewed baseball as a genuine gift, and if he could pay the game back in some small way by simply signing his name… he was only too happy to do so. What a genuine national treasure this guy was, and still is. Today’s athletes could learn a lot from him.

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