An Ode To The True Natural

By: Dave Denatale

Every sports town has its icons.  The players that didn’t just excel, but transcended their particular sports at their particular times.

Indians Great Bob Feller

In Boston, they talk about Russell, Williams, Bird, and Orr

In Chicago, it’s Banks, Jordan, Butkus, and Payton

Here in Cleveland, when I think about true athletic greatness, I think about Jim Brown, Otto Graham, and Bob Feller.

“Rapid Robert” passed away Wednesday evening at the age of 92.  And I can’t help but sit back and admire the wonderful life that Feller led.

Remember the movie “The Natural”?  At the beginning, young Roy Hobbs comes of age as he develops his supernatural baseball abilities while growing up on a farm in the midwest.  His fastballs were so powerful that he could throw the ball through that chalk-drawn target on the wooden fence.

Well in many ways, that was Feller.  He grew up learning the game from his father while working on the family farm in Van Meter, Iowa.  Feller never struck out “The Whammer” at a whistle-stop carnival, rather he fanned eight members of the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 17 in an exhibition game!  Keep in mind, this is the defending world champion Cardinals in their “Gas House Gang” glory years.  By that summer of 1936, Feller became a member of the Tribe.

All he did in his first start with the Indians was strike out 15 batters in beating the St. Louis Browns.  He would fan 17 batters in a game later that year.

Feller would go on to throw three no-hitters, including an opening day no-no in 1940.  He led the American League in wins six times, strikeouts a whopping seven times, and record 266 victories in his career that spanned from 1936 to 1956.

But there is so much more to the story of Bob Feller than just baseball.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Feller became the first major league baseball player to enlist in the military.  He became a chief petty officer in the Navy and volunteered for combat duty aboard the battleship U.S.S. Alabama.  He served as the gun captain for the Alabama for more than two years as the warship protected convoys through the hazardous U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic, fought off Kamakazi attacks in the Pacific, and bombarded beaches to help our troops make landings.

Indians Great Bob Feller

For his service with the Alabama, Feller was decorated with five campaign ribbons and eight stars.  And he gained an invaluable perspective on life as he returned to baseball in the late summer of 1945.  In a column at the website military.com, Feller wrote, “Combat is an experience that you never forget. A war teaches you that baseball is only a game, after all—a minor thing, compared to the sovereignty and security of the United States. I once told a newspaper reporter that the bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama had been the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that, I said, the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial. That’s still true today.”

Like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and other players who went off to war, Feller had four full prime years of baseball taken away from him.  I’ve always wondered how many more wins he might have had, how many more batters he might have struck out, and how many no hitters he would have thrown.

Feller for his part always insisted that he took much more pride about his achievements in the Navy as opposed to those in baseball.  Even so, please don’t ever let me hear people talk about how great Nolan Ryan’s fastball was…or Roger Clemens…or Randy Johnson.  They all take a back seat to Rapid Robert.

He was one of a kind on the mound and in life.  The real Natural.

“I’m still a Navy man at heart. And I’m proud to have served.”

And we are proud to have you as one of our own.  Thank you Bob Feller and rest in peace.

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1 Comment

  1. GREAT article…and I have read MANY today. RIP Rapid Robert…most definetely a charter member of the Greatest Generation indeed.


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