On this date (April 16) in 1940, 21-year-old Bob Feller threw the first – and still only – Opening Day not hitter in MLB history. That makes this an appropriate day to reflect on just how talented the pitcher, who would become known as “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” was.
Bob Feller was very good – very early. He didn’t just go directly from high school to the major leagues; he went to the major leagues while he was still in high school. In fact, he earned a share of the major league single-game strikeout record before he earned his high school diploma.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. If Van Meter, Iowa native Robert William Andrew Feller wasn’t born to be a baseball player (BBRT would argue he was), he certainly was raised to be one. Feller’s father William was an avid baseball fan and started tutoring Bob at a very young age and, by the time Bob was twelve, Feller’s father had built a baseball field, complete with scoreboard and bleachers, on the Feller farm. The field was called Oakview Park and was home to the Oakviews, a team (including Bob Feller) of semi-pro and high school players. In Feller’s formative years, he played not only for the Oakviews, but also for the Adel American Legion team, the local Farmers Union team and his high school team.
In 1935, Feller, sixteen-years-old and still in high school, was signed by the Cleveland Indians – reportedly for one dollar and an autographed baseball. The next year, Feller made his major league debut as a 17-year-old, pitching one scoreless inning in relief on July 19, 1936. In his first six games, all in relief, Feller totaled eight innings pitched, giving up 11 hits, seven runs, eight walks, and notching nine strikeouts. Despite those stats, the Indians felt the youngster – who had shown a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve – was ready for his first major league start. It came on August 23, 1936, against the St. Louis Browns. In that initial start, Feller threw a complete game 4-1 victory, giving up six hits and four walks and striking out 15. The teenager suffered a pair of losses (to the Red Sox and Yankees) before evening his record at 2-2 with another complete game win over the Browns in which he fanned ten. Then, on September 13, Feller bested the Athletics 5-2, throwing a complete game two-hitter, walking nine, but striking out seventeen – which, at that time, tied the MLB single-game strikeout record. Feller finished the 1936 season with a 5-3 record, 3.34 ERA and five complete games in eight starts. He walked 47 and fanned 76 in 62 innings. And, of course, he had yet to complete high school.
In his first start of the 1937 season (April 24 against the Browns), the teenage phenom – who had been featured on the cover of the April 19, 1937 issue of Time magazine – came up with a sore elbow. Feller ended up pitching six innings, striking out 11, in a 4-3 loss and didn’t appear in another game until mid-May, then was shelved again until June 22. The break did give Feller time to complete high school (his graduation was broadcast live on NBC Radio). He finished the year, 9-7, 3.39, with 106 walks and 140 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings. Not bad for an 18-year-old, but the best was yet to come.
From 1938 to 1941, Feller won 93 games (44 losses) – making the All Star team all four seasons and leading the AL in wins three times, ERA once, complete games twice, shutouts twice, innings pitched three times, and strikeouts all four seasons. At the end of the 1941 season, Feller had 107 major-league victories. And, he was all of 22-years-old.
In that four-season span, Feller also set a then major league record for strikeouts in a single game (18 versus the Tigers on October 2, 1938) and threw the previously noted Opening Day no-hitter. Note: That 1940 opener was an omen of what was to come, as 1940 proved to be, perhaps, Feller’s greatest season. He led the league in wins (27), ERA (2.61), complete games (31), shutouts (4), innings pitched (320 1/3), and strikeouts (261) – finishing second to Hank Greenberg in the MVP voting.
The career of Bob Feller – baseball’s most rapidly rising comet – was, however, about to be interrupted. Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, Feller became first professional athlete to enlist in the U.S. armed forces; eventually serving as a Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama. Feller was discharged from the Navy in late August, 1945, having missed 3 ½ MLB seasons. He immediately rejoined the Indians and finished up the season with a 5-3, 2.50 record, completing seven of nine starts and striking out 59 in 72 innings.
In his first full season after his discharge, Feller picked up right where he left off before the war, leading the league in wins (26), complete games (36), shutouts (10), innings pitched (371 1/3) and strikeouts (a then MLB-record 348), while posting a 2.18 ERA. In the first three full seasons after his post-war return, Feller led the league in wins twice, complete games once, shutouts twice, innings pitched twice, and strikeouts three times. Makes one wonder what Feller would have done without the war-time interruption. You can get a pretty good idea when you consider that, in the six full seasons surrounding his military service, (three before/three after), Feller’s average season was 24-12, 2.80 ERA, 26 complete games, five shutouts, and 239 strikeouts.
Ultimately, Rapid Robert Feller finished an 18-season career with 266 wins, 162 losses, a 3.25 ERA, 3,827 innings pitched, 279 complete games, 44 shutouts and 2,581 strikeouts. He made eight All Star teams, threw three no-hitters (12 one-hitters), led the AL in strikeouts seven times, wins six times, innings pitched five times, shutouts four times, complete games three times and ERA once.
Just how good was Bob Feller? In his December 15, 2010 obituary, the New York Times described Feller like this: “Joining the Indians in 1936, Feller became baseball’s biggest draw since Babe Ruth, throwing pitches that batters could barely see — fastballs approaching 100 miles an hour and curveballs and sinkers that fooled the sharpest eyes.” The statistics back that assessment up and so do the hitters. Accomplished batsmen from Stan Musial to Joe DiMaggio to Ted Williams have described Feller as one of the best – if not the best – pitcher of his time. In DiMaggio’s words: “I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he (Feller) does. And his curveball isn’t human.”
Finally, I would be remiss to not note that I was privileged to meet Bob Feller at a minor league baseball game (long after his retirement as a player) and he was a true gentleman who retained his love for (and insight into) the game and his appreciation of the fans (no one was denied an autograph or a smile that day.)
Bob Feller – very good, very early, very long. And, very much missed.
I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT