Bob Feller Biography
Blessed with a resilient arm and an overpowering fastball that frequently approached 100 miles per hour, Bob Feller was the most dominant pitcher of his era. Despite missing four full seasons during the peak of his career to join the war effort, Feller compiled 266 victories over the course of 18 big-league seasons, including three no-hitters and a record 12 one-hitters. Many people still feel that no one has ever thrown a baseball harder than the Cleveland Indian Hall of Famer.
Robert William Andrew Feller was born on November 3, 1918 in the small midwestern town of Van Meter, Iowa. Growing up an Iowa farm boy during the 1920s, much of Feller’s childhood consisted of performing household chores and playing baseball. Feller later credited milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay with strengthening his arms and giving him the capacity to throw as hard as he did.
After pitching for the Van Meter High School baseball team, Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball. He made his major league debut with the team on July 19, 1936, more than three months shy of his 18th birthday. Without having spent a single day in the minors, the 17-year-old phenom struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first start in the major leagues. Feller finished the season 5-3, with a 3.34 ERA and 76 strikeouts in only 62 innings of work.
After winning nine of his 19 starts the following year, Feller began to establish himself as one of the American League’s better pitchers in 1938, finishing the campaign with a record of 17-11 and a league-leading 240 strikeouts, and being named to the All-Star Team for the first of four consecutive times. Still, the 19-year-old fireballer was far from a complete pitcher, since he also topped the circuit with 208 walks. Although Feller occasionally experienced lapses in control in subsequent seasons as well, leading all league hurlers in bases on balls allowed in two of the next three seasons, the righthander learned to better control his blazing fastball. Complementing his best pitch with a well-above-average breaking ball, Feller developed into baseball’s best pitcher in 1939, compiling an outstanding 2.85 ERA and leading all A.L. hurlers with a record of 24-9, 24 complete games, 297 innings pitched, and 246 strikeouts. Feller continued his domination of American League hitters the next two seasons, topping the league in victories, shutouts, innings pitched, and strikeouts each year. He captured the A.L. triple crown for pitchers in 1940, leading the league with 27 wins, a 2.61 ERA, and 261 strikeouts. Feller also topped the circuit with 31 complete games and 320 innings pitched, en route to finishing second to Detroit’s Hank Greenberg in the A.L. MVP voting and earning Major League Player of the Year honors. He followed that up by compiling a 3.15 ERA in 1941, while leading the league with 25 victories, six shutouts, 343 innings pitched, and 260 strikeouts. He placed third in the league MVP balloting, behind Joe DiMaggio, who hit in 56 consecutive games for the pennant-winning Yankees at one point during the season, and Ted Williams, who batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox.
At the peak of his powers, Feller became just the second major league player to enlist in the armed forces (Hank Greenberg was the first), joining the United States Navy on December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He spent the next four years fighting the enemy overseas, serving as Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama. Despite being decorated with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars, Feller later rejected the notion that he was a hero, saying: “I’m no hero. Heroes don’t come back. Survivors return home. Heroes never come home. If anyone thinks I’m a hero, I’m not.”
Having survived numerous life-threatening battles with the enemy, Feller was hardly frightened by opposing hitters when he returned to the Cleveland Indians late in 1945. He went 5-3 in his nine starts, compiling a 2.50 ERA and striking out 59 batters in 72 innings of work. Showing few after-effects from his four-year layoff, Feller had arguably the greatest season of his career in 1946. In addition to compiling an outstanding 2.18 ERA and leading the league with 26 wins, Rapid Robert led all A.L. hurlers with 10 shutouts, 348 strikeouts, 36 complete games, and 371 innings pitched.
Feller had another exceptional season in 1947, finishing 20-11 to lead the league in victories for the fifth of six times, compiling a 2.68 ERA, throwing 20 complete games, and topping the circuit with five shutouts, 299 innings pitched, and 196 strikeouts. He got his first opportunity to pitch in the World Series the following year, when the Indians captured the A.L. pennant for the first time since 1920. Feller won 19 games for the league champions, completing 18 of his 38 starts and striking out 164 batters, to lead the league in strikeouts for the seventh and final time in his career. Feller didn’t fare particularly well in the Fall Classic, losing both of his starts while compiling an ERA of just over five runs per-nine innings. However, he was a hard-luck loser in Game One, allowing only one run and two hits in a 1-0 loss to Boston Braves ace righthander Johnny Sain. Nevertheless, Cleveland came out on top in the Series, four games to two, giving Feller the only world championship of his Hall of Fame career.
Feller pitched effectively in 1949 and 1950, winning 15 and 16 games, respectively, before having his last big year in 1951. Having lost much of the velocity on his once-blazing fastball, Feller relied more on guile than ever before to post a league-leading 22-8 record and .733 winning percentage. Although he struck out only 111 batters, the 32-year-old righthander compiled a very respectable 3.50 earned run average and completed 16 of his 32 starts, en route to being named The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year.
Feller never again came close to winning 20 games in his five remaining seasons, but he posted an outstanding 13-3 record during Cleveland’s 1954 pennant-winning campaign. Pitching mostly in relief in 1956, Feller finished 0-4 before announcing his retirement at the conclusion of the season. He ended his career with a record of 266-162, an ERA of 3.25, and 2,581 strikeouts in 3,827 innings of work. He completed well over half his starts and threw a total of 46 shutouts. Feller surpassed 20 victories six times, compiled an ERA under 3.00 on five separate occasions, completed more than 20 games six times, threw more than 300 innings three times, topping 275 innings pitched four other times, and struck out more than 250 batters three times. He led the league in wins six times, strikeouts seven times, innings pitched five times, shutouts four times, complete games three times, and games started on five separate occasions. Feller made eight appearances on the All-Star Team and placed in the top five in the league MVP voting four times during his career.
When asked if there was ever any other pitcher who threw as hard as him, Feller revealed that those players who faced both him and Nolan Ryan at different stages in their careers told him he threw harder than the all-time strikeout king.
Many baseball historians have speculated that Feller would have won perhaps 350 games with well over 3,000 strikeouts had he not joined the military. But the Hall of Famer has often said that serving in the military to protect his country was far more important to him than playing baseball. Still feisty and opinionated after all these years, Feller has frequently voiced his displeasure over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. He has also spoken out against the possibility of Pete Rose ever being inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as the growing inability of starting pitchers to last beyond the seventh inning. Feller, a true American institution, is 91 years old as of this writing – the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.