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High-Kicking Pitching Legend ‘Bullet Bob’ Feller Remembered

December 16, 2010 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Bill Livingston for more on the life of Baseball Hall of Famer "Bullet Bob" Feller, a legendary pitcher whose pro career, which began at age 17, was interrupted by World World II service. He died Wednesday at age 92.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a look back at the life of baseball great Bob Feller.

Ray Suarez has that.

ANNOUNCER: In 1936, the Cleveland scout signs an Iowa farm boy named Bob Feller. He’s young, and green, and maybe a little scared, but he can throw the ball with amazing speed.

RAY SUAREZ: Amazing might have been an understatement.

Bob Feller learned to throw that fastball at his family’s farm in Van Meter, Iowa. It earned him the nicknames Rapid Robert, Bullet Bob, and the Heater from Van Meter. It was a blistering pitch, if you could see it.

Once, after he was blown away by a Feller third strike, Yankees’ great Lefty Gomez said, “That last one sounded a little low.”

Bob Feller made his Major League debut at age 17 for the Cleveland Indians on his summer vacation from school. In his first start, he struck out 15, and, weeks later, made it 17, tying what was then the record for the most strikeouts in a single game. From there, he set about humbling the boldest bats in the Major Leagues, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams.

ANNOUNCER: Next year, he kept Hank Greenberg from equaling Ruth’s home run record, while setting one of his own.

RAY SUAREZ: And, in 1938, he set a new strikeout record, 18 in one game, by fanning Detroit’s Hank Greenberg twice on the last day of the season.

Feller had three no-hitters in his career, including the only one ever pitched on an opening day, in 1940. He also pitched 12 one-hit games and led the American League in strikeouts seven times, on the way to 266 career victories, all of them with Cleveland.

That total would have been far higher, perhaps 100 or more higher, but World War II intervened. Feller volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and missed nearly four full seasons in the prime of his career.

Feller told Bob Costas last year he had no regrets.

BOB FELLER, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher: I’m not a hero. Heroes seldom return from wars. Survivors return from wars. But I’m very proud of my military career. And I don’t miss those 100 wins whatsoever.

RAY SUAREZ: He returned to Cleveland for the 1946 season, and helped the Indians capture the World Series in 1948, the last time the club won the fall classic.

Feller was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962 and remained an active and outspoken presence in baseball until earlier this year. He died last night in Cleveland from acute leukemia. Bob Feller was 92 years old.

For more on Bob Feller, the player and the man, I am joined by Bill Livingston, sports columnist at The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

And, Bill, from the stories you have written about Bob Feller, you think, if a novelist wrote this kind of story, you would want it to be true. Was Bob Feller “The Natural”?

BILL LIVINGSTON, The Cleveland Plain Dealer: He was “The Natural” and he was also Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.”

His story is so amazing. And the most amazing part of it is that it’s true. His father built him a baseball field in Iowa with a scoreboard and a small stand of bleachers, and sowed corn and wheat — it was mostly wheat — so he could harvest it quickly and they could play baseball.

And he was “The Natural,” because they didn’t have the nutritional information like today and weight training. He worked on the farm and built up his joints and his strength.

RAY SUAREZ: You have called him one of the most admirable men of an admirable generation. And that’s high praise from a sports columnist.

(LAUGHTER)

BILL LIVINGSTON: Well, I think, when you look at Bob Feller’s career, you have to factor in the war years and the fact that he enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor, when he didn’t have to, into the Navy.

His father was dying of brain cancer, and he was the sole support of his family. And he lobbied militantly against being put in any soft position of morale boosting and playing baseball for the troops, and served on the Alabama, a battleship, for three-and-a-half years as a gunner’s mate, convoys in the North Atlantic, kamikaze attacks in the Pacific.

It was a remarkable thing from a remarkable generation.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill, where would you rank Bob Feller in the pantheon of great pitchers of the past?

BILL LIVINGSTON: That’s a very tough question, because he did miss three-and-a-half years in his 20s, in the prime of his career. He had won 76 games the three previous years.

He won 266 games. Most people think he would have won 70 to even 100 more games, which is, you know, most of the way to 400. If you take that into account, he could have been the greatest of all time. You can’t take it into account because it’s just supposition, but I think you have to realize that what he sacrificed for that was also possibly his life for his country.

RAY SUAREZ: Early pictures of Feller show a boyish face and the body of a big, strong man. Was he a power pitcher before we even used that term? And who would his — who would you compare him to in modern baseball?

BILL LIVINGSTON: Oh, yes, he was.

And he had an interesting theory on that. He — you know, now they make pitchers run, and they think much of it comes from the leg. And that’s probably true. But he felt that the work he did with his shoulders on changing tractor wheels and milking cows and things like that built up immense strength in his wrists and fingers. And he felt that was the key to being a power pitcher, too.

He was part of the line from Walter “Big Train” Johnson, through Bob Feller, to Nolan Ryan, to “Rocket” Roger Clemens. And he wasn’t tainted by steroids, like Clemens is. Those guys are always — particularly Ryan, Clemens — Ryan, Feller and Johnson are always in the discussion for the fastest pitchers ever.

And that was the mystique of it. Even though he had a killer curveball, it was the speed that — that entranced people.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the years, when I have talked with veteran ballplayers, they’re sometimes reluctant to compare themselves to players of other eras.

But it seems like there was no such reticence on Bob Feller’s part. He stayed current with the game and was a student of the game right up until he died, wasn’t he?

BILL LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. He would tell you what Jaret Wright, who was a young phenom pitcher the Indians had in the ’90s, who carried them to the World Series, and they almost won — he was the seventh-game pitcher and left with the lead — what he needed to become better.

He once told me that the Indians — the ’95 Indians, which was a tremendous slugging team, had — it was pretty easy to get some guys, strike some guys out. And he was talking about Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle.

And I said, “How would you pitch them, Bob?”

And he said, “Bust a fastball under their chins and then a slider on the outside corner.”

Well, you can’t bust a fastball under their chins anymore because of stricter rules about head-hunting. And if you could hit a slight slider on the outside corner and place it there every time, nobody would hit you.

But that was Bob Feller. He could do these things, and mortal men couldn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: But it sounds like, even into his 90s, he was still a pretty imposing character physically.

BILL LIVINGSTON: Oh, absolutely.

He was — he — he’s beloved in Cleveland because he didn’t leave. He stayed here in the cold weather. He was very loyal to the Indians organization. He would be in spring training. He would pitch to insurance executives and ad salesmen who got to put on an Indians uniform in the fantasy camp.

He threw a strike from the pitcher’s mound from the rubber to start the 1997 World Series, the first game in Cleveland. And he said: “I’m going to do that. I’m going to throw a strike, and I’m going to throw it from the rubber.”

And he was 79 years old then. I thought he was indestructible. I feel a very sharp sense of loss, even despite the fact that he had such a long and full life.

RAY SUAREZ: He certainly must be one of a dwindling number of men who actually played in the 1930s. With his death, have we lost a connection to that era, the era of Gehrig and Ruth?

BILL LIVINGSTON: Oh, I believe so.

Stan Musial is a — and I don’t know if he — I assume he played in the ’30s. He certainly played in the ’40s. In fact, he had a deferment and didn’t go to war. I think — you know, Bob Feller pitched to Lou Gehrig. He pitched to Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He saw Babe Ruth bat.

It was like — it was like walking into a baseball museum to sit down and talk ball with him.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Livingston, thanks for joining us — Bill Livingston of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Good to talk to you.

BILL LIVINGSTON: Thank you, Ray.