It’s mighty hard to set major league records when you’re crouched down in a U-boat with bombs bursting around it. But somehow, inexplicably, Mr. Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians managed to do pretty well in that department even though he spent the prime of his career some 3,000 miles from the nearest American League ball park.
Feller was a 16-year-old farm boy from Van Meter, Iowa when he signed with the Indians in 1935. He may have been a little wet behind the ears, but his fastball was that of a hardened veteran.
In a 1936 exhibition game against St. Louis, a then 17-year-old Feller struck out eight batters in just three innings of work. Performances like these became more and more common for the young phenom, netting him the goofy (and somewhat pornographic) nickname “Rapid Robert.” It also earned him comparisons to some of the premiere strikeout pitchers in baseball history, such as one known to most as Big Train.
“He (Feller) was the fastest pitcher I’d ever seen,” former AL umpire Bill Ormsby once said, “Walter Johnson included.”
In 1938, Feller notched a lasting statistic into the record books when he struck out 18 hitters in a season finale at Detroit. The total tied the original record set by Henry Porter back in 1884.
A quick side note, and one of the only knocks on the nearly invincible Feller, was that the Tigers actually beat him in the game in which he fanned 18, mostly because of erratic control. Feller set the dubious record for walks in a season with 208 that same year.
Then he promptly went out the following season and became the first pitcher ever to win 20 games before the age of 21.
In 1940, Feller registered another first. This time spinning the American League’s first ever Opening Day no-hitter.
And then he went off to war for four consecutive seasons of baseball.
He was 22 years old, in the prime of his career, and he already had 107 wins and 1,233 Ks under his belt. But he decided to enlist in the Navy out of principle, and before it became fashionable for ball players to do so. In fact, he was the very first big leaguer to enlist for active duty after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as a gunner aboard the USS Alabama and picked up eight battle stars along the way.
His triumphant return to the diamond in 1946 yielded 26 wins and 348 strikeouts. It was the “Van Meter Heater’s” greatest campaign on the books. Feller’s status in the league from then until his retirement in 1956 was consistently among the elite pitchers in baseball.
He threw two more no-hitters to go along with 12 one-hitters, and he added another 133 wins to bring his career total to 266. He fanned 1,000 more batters to finish with 2,581.
These were all numbers quite worthy of induction into the Hall. And without too much suspense, Feller made it on the first try in 1962.
But still, there are questions that will always linger above Feller’s plaque in Cooperstown:
What could Rapid Robert have accomplished in the four seasons he spent defending his country? Could he have left the 300 wins plateau in the dust? Could he have eclipsed 3,500 strikeouts? Would he now be considered the greatest pitcher in major league history?
We’ll never know. What we do know is that Bob Feller was one of the best damn pitchers to ever toe the rubber.
And he was a hero to boot.