Bob Feller, who finally got the hook from the great manager in the sky Wednesday after a remarkable 92 years on the planet, was as well known to me as most of the older members of my family.
Bob Feller in 1938, early in his major league career.
Though his pitching genius was developed with his father at their Iowa farm, once he hit Cleveland at age 17, "Rapid Robert" took over the town.
My father — a fervent Ohio sports fan — was standing on the sidelines when Feller threw his first warm-up pitches for a semi-pro club at old League Park. Soon after, Feller took the mound for the Cleveland Indians. In an 18-year career interrupted by his World War II service, Feller became the most dominant right-handed pitcher baseball had seen. He was a fireballer — a strikeout artist — and he threw three no-hitters before he was done.
But Dad, who died in 2008, would have been quick to tell you that Feller also completed 12 one-hit games. That total shares a major league record. And I would argue that it's harder to stay on your game and throw a one-hitter after you've had your no-hitter broken up than it is to throw a no-hitter in the first place.
Growing up watching the frequently terrible and generally discouraging Indians teams of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I was more than happy to turn my eyes from the present and let Dad guide me through the Cleveland sports glory years. Feller was right up there with the football greats Paul Brown and Marion Motley in Dad's Pantheon. And Dad was not really a hero worshipper. One of the guys who never quite made his A list was the all-time NFL great Jim Brown ("He gets tackled by one man too often. Motley never got tackled by one man.")
Still, he loved Feller. One of his great regrets was that Feller never won a World Series game. The Indians did win it all in 1948, but Feller lost the only game he pitched, 1-0. That lone run scored after what many Clevelanders believed was a blown call on a pick-off play at second base. If Dad were still with us, he'd jump out of the recliner and show you how it all went down.
Feller was on the roster for the 1954 Series, when the Indians came off a record-breaking 111-win regular season to fall in four straight games to Willie Mays and the New York Giants. But he didn't pitch, largely because the Indians had so much confidence in the younger arms that had carried the squad all year. Could an appearance by Bullet Bob have turned the tide? We'll never know, but Dad could make a convincing argument.
I finally met Bob Feller at a card show in Cleveland in the early 1990s. My brother-in-law Ray and I took Dad to surprise him. Dad was able to tell Feller that he remembered those first pitches back when Feller was still just that Iowa farmboy — "the Heater from Van Meter." I'm sure Feller heard that sort of story about himself virtually every day, sometimes from people who were NOT there. Guys with four different nicknames get that kind of attention. But his graciousness meant the world to Dad (and to me).
That card show was not the last time I saw Bob Feller, though. And I'm happy to say that the last time I saw him was the first time I ever saw him pitch — at least in person.
The first year the Nationals played ball in Washington, D.C., I happened to be at the park on a night when some large group from Iowa was in attendance. Feller was there to throw out the first pitch. The typical routine is a soft lob to the catcher from well in front of the pitcher’s mound, a handshake and half-hearted applause.
Not Bob's style. He climbed to the pitching rubber, stared down the full 60-feet-six inches toward the Nationals' catcher, managed a fair approximation of the windup and kick that had terrified some of the game's greatest hitters — and threw a perfect strike.
If you run into me in my declining years (which some say have already begun) I'm sure I'll be happy to tell you that story ... and jump out of my recliner to show you how it all went down.
(Todd Holzman is a senior editor at NPR.org.)
Update at 8:35 a.m. ET. On Morning Edition today, Amanda Rabinowitz of WKSU in Kent, Ohio, reported about Feller's phenomenal career and the effect he had on the game:
On 'Morning Edition': Feller's impact on the game