Bob Feller

1918-2010

Bob Dolgan / Special to The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio ó Bob Feller, the brilliant pitcher who is the only Cleveland pro athlete to be immortalized with a statue, died Wednesday night of complications from leukemia at age 92. Feller died at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday night, according to Bob DiBiasio, the Indians vice president of public relations.

The Hall of Famer hurled 266 victories, most in Indians history, from 1936 to 1956, despite losing almost four years at the peak of his powers after enlisting in the Navy during World War II.

Before free agency, great players such as Feller could spend their whole careers with one team. Feller spent most of his life with the Indians. He put on an Indians uniform for the first time at 17 when he made his big league in 1936. He was still wearing one as late as June,

The Indians have had great players throughout their history, but none greater or more enduring than Feller. He was always around the ballclub. Spring training never officially began until he walked into the press room and told reporters, "It's time to go put on my monkey suit."

During the season, he was a fixture in the press box at Progressive Field for home games. When he wasn't, he was touring the country signing autographs and making speeches. He was always on ... always Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer.

Feller died in a local hospice after entering the Cleveland Clinic last week with symptoms of pneumonia. He endured a series of health problems since being diagnosed with myeloid leukemia in August. After receiving chemotherapy for the leukemia, Feller had trouble with vertigo. In October, he had a pacemaker installed. The pneumonia developed after Feller was diagnosed with thrush, an infection of the mucus membrane lining the mouth and throat. Feller, weakened because he couldn't eat, became more susceptible to pneumonia.

Lou Boudreau, his teammate and manager for much of his career, called Feller one of the five best pitchers in baseball history. In the baseball centennial year of 1969 he was voted as major league baseball's greatest living right-handed pitcher.

Feller was baseball's foremost pitching prodigy. From the time he came to Cleveland at age 17, he was a sensation with his blazing fastball and biting curve. He was just wild enough to frighten batters. His 208 walks in 1938 are still the big league record.

In 1939, he became the first pitcher of the 20th century to win 20 games in a season before he was 21 years old. By the time he was 22, he already had three 20-game seasons and 109 victories, another mark.

He was almost immediately known as The Strikeout King, or Rapid Robert. At one time he held the records for most strikeouts in a game (18) and season (348.) His fastball was once timed as high as 105 miles an hour with the primitive measuring devices of his era. The high-kicking hurler threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters, both baseball records at the time of his retirement.

Stopped White Sox

Feller fired baseball's only opening day no-hitter on April 16, 1940, when he stifled the White Sox in Chicago. On April 30, 1946, he no-hit New York in Yankee Stadium, stopping a powerful club that had future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Phil Rizzuto in the lineup, along with sluggers such as Tommy Henrich and Charley Keller.

If Feller was a superstar before, that game pushed him into legendary status. His roommate, pitcher Steve Gromek, demanded another room because all he was doing was answering phone calls for Feller, most of them commercial offers.

From that time on, Feller, one of the first athletes / businessmen, roomed by himself.

He achieved his third no-hitter on July 1, 1951, when he beat Detroit, 2-1, at the Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

In the late 1940s Feller ranked with DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial as the highest-paid players in baseball, all around $100,000. At one point, he was considered the game's top drawing card and received a bonus based on attendance.

Feller, who had learned to fly an airplane in 1939, bought a Beechcraft Bonanza in the late 1940s and would fly the small craft from his home in Gates Mills to Burke Lakefront Airport for Indians games. Then he would get on a collapsible scooter and drive to the nearby ballpark.

A real American hero

Justice B. Hill writes on czarjustice.com:

Feller was unlike some famous athletes who jilted this city, discarding its affections so cavalierly, he never did. Feller was all that was good about athletes from the golden age of sports. To those men, fans mattered; an athleteís standing in the publicís eye accounted for something; it wasnít all about the benjamins or the Nike ads or the starlet on his arm.

Nobody can doubt he was an American hero, though most people would ascribe his fame to his ability to throw a baseball harder than anybody else in his generation. Feller was mindful of the fame that gift from God brought him; he was proud of it. His ability to throw a baseball drew crowds to him and earned him a plaque in Cooperstown.

But Feller was more than just a baseball player. He volunteered during World War II. He fought for his country. 

Yes, his name will be revered in baseball circles forever, but fans do him an injustice when they forget who Bob Feller was: an American hero in the historical sense of the word.