Cleveland Pitching Great Bob Feller Dies At 92
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's take a moment now to remember the Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who died last night of leukemia at age 92. He began pitching for the Cleveland Indians as a teenager. And he was still a familiar sight at the ballpark last season. Feller's fastball was considered one of the best ever. And he also made a lasting impact with his push for better player contracts in an era that long predated today's multimillion dollar salaries. Amanda Rabinowitz of member station WKSU has this remembrance.
AMANDA RABINOWITZ: In his day, Bob Feller was as well-known as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. Sporting News named him the greatest pitcher of his time. He's the only pitcher in history to throw an opening-day no hitter. And he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first try in 1962.
But Indians announcer Tom Hamilton says that what really set Feller apart was his loyalty to the game that kept him in an Indians uniform and in the stands, into his nineties.
Mr. TOM HAMILTON (Announcer): You don't go to Yankee Stadium and see Yogi Berra at the games or, when they were alive, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, or any of those great players. They'd come back for Old Timers Game. Bob was there because it was baseball, and it was the Cleveland Indians.
RABINOWITZ: Feller debuted in the big leagues as a 17-year old phenom in 1936. An Iowa farm boy who started playing in a hometown league organized by his dad, he struck out 15 batters in his first game in Cleveland, going on to amass 266 wins over his 18-year career.
But Feller was likely at his peak when he enlisted with the Navy during World War II, the first major leaguer to sign up after Pearl Harbor. Some say he could have won at least 100 more games during the four years he spent in combat.
Feller returned to baseball in 1946, but biographer John Sickels says his focus changed.
Mr. JOHN SICKELS (Biographer): That baseball was just a game, and that he was going to make as much money as he could. And that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
RABINOWITZ: Sickels says Feller was the first player to incorporate himself. He made big money off endorsements, and was the first player to negotiate a clause into his contract that paid a bonus for the extra fans who showed up on the days he pitched.
Bob Feller advocated for more than himself. He was the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and became the first star player to push for free agency and players' rights, a point he underscored on "The Mike Wallace Interview" show in 1957.
(Soundbite of "The Mike Wallace Interview")
Mr. BOB FELLER (Former Pitcher, Cleveland Indians): The baseball structure should take an overhauling and put the ballplayer in a more advantageous bargaining position than he is today. I think it's all going to come out fine and baseball will be bigger and better than ever, and there'll be more ball players, more leagues, more teams and more jobs.
RABINOWITZ: Feller was long retired when free agency finally took hold in baseball in 1976. And in later years, he was critical of what he considered baseball's excesses. The man who pitched 36 complete games in his first season back from the war grew impatient with the limited schedules of today's pitchers.
Mr. FELLER: They got their multi-million-dollar relief pitcher down there. They take the baby off your lap and drop it on his, put him in the lineup. If he blows the ball game, if he loses it, it's not the manager's fault. It's that $2 million relief pitcher's fault. And there's a lot of that going on.
RABINOWITZ: Baseball integrated while Bob Feller was in his prime playing days. And biographer Sickels says Feller was on the field with black players long before that.
Among the business interests he developed around baseball was a barnstorming tour, featuring major leaguers versus stars of the Negro Leagues, including Satchel Paige.
Mr. SICKELS: They were trying to make money, but part of it was also, he felt that the black players weren't necessarily getting a fair chance and that he wanted to sort of showcase it. And seeing those, I think, those exhibition games helped people realize that the Negro League players were just as good as the Major League players.
RABINOWITZ: Cleveland sportswriter Terry Pluto says whatever the issue, Feller was always outspoken.
Mr. TERRY PLUTO (Sportswriter): Guys like Bob Feller looked at not just athletes, but even a lot of society and wondered: What are we complaining about? And he didn't have a lot of patience for them, and was very glad to tell you how you're spoiled and entitled.
RABINOWITZ: For all Bob Feller's businesslike approach to baseball, the sport was his labor of love. He regularly attended Indians' spring training and watched home games from the press box. Most remarkable, he could still throw strikes, mowing down 36 batters at an Indians Fantasy Camp at the age of 90.
For NPR News, I'm Amanda Rabinowitz.
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