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Bob Feller and American Legion Baseball

How a shy youngster started on the road to major league greatness

Featured in Baseball
Bob Feller and American Legion Baseball

Editor's note: This column, penned by Bob Feller, originally ran in a 1963 issue of The American Legion Magazine. It has been reproduced here in its entirety in recognition of Feller, who passed away Dec. 15 at the age of 92.

The Major League Baseball season opened in April, but for me the real call of "Play Ball" comes just around this time of year. June, the "bust-in’ out all over" month for American Legion Baseball, is the time when countless thousands of youngsters put on their uniforms and prepare for some of the most exciting, enjoyable experiences of their lives.I know. I cut my baseball eyeteeth on American Legion Junior baseball 32 years ago. Today, at 44, I’m still in the program, more engrossed than ever. As a member of the board of directors of the Cleveland Baseball Federation, I’m chairman of the American Legion division and take pride in the fact that we have 120 teams, each composed of 15 boys, 18 years old and under. Currently, we’re getting ready for another big year.

A member of Variety Post 313, I asked for the job and enjoy traveling from field to field, watching the games. Now and then I stop to pitch batting practice, and I treat the boys as big leaguers, mixing curves with fast balls – well, a 44-year-old Feller fast ball. If the boys get a kick out of this, the feeling is mutual.

All of them will be better citizens because of their American Legion Baseball experiences. Some of them will become big leaguers. Study the rosters of the present major league teams. They’re loaded with American Legion Baseball graduates.In the 1962 baseball season, 286 of the 500 major league ballplayers came out of American Legion Baseball.

I have a trophy in my den, prominently displayed, that reads:"Presented toBob FellerThe FirstAmerican Legion BaseballGraduateEnshrined in Baseball’s Hall of FameCooperstown, N.Y.July 23, 1962"

It was given to me by the American Legion National Americanism Commission when I appeared at its annual finals in Bismarck, N.D., last year. I’m extremely proud of the trophy. I may have been the first Legion Baseball graduate in the Hall of Fame, but I won’t be the last. When American Legion grad Yogi Berra becomes eligible, he’ll get in. So will many, many others.

Truthfully, I feel I should have given the plaque to The American Legion, rather than receiving one from it. Baseball has been extremely good to me and it was the Legion program that gave me the opportunity to play organized ball. I have been trying to repay the Legion in my own way ever since – by running the program in Cleveland, by making speeches, by helping in any manner I can. Just for the record, I asked permission of this magazine to write – without a fee – of my experiences in American Legion Baseball. I did so in gratitude. I mention this because if any of the thoughts and phrases sound corny, it’s just the Iowa farm boy in me coming out. All of this is sincere and from the heart. Even for offers of large sums of money I never endorsed anything I didn’t believe in, or use.

The mind is funny. Often we see movies in which the story is told in flashbacks. You know, the hero looks at a picture and suddenly it reminds him of an incident in his past. The scene fades out and the memory becomes alive.

Frequently this happens to me. The memories of boyhood are the most vivid and they come soaring back to me easily. In Cooperstown, when I was installed in the Hall of Fame, George Rulon was at the ceremonies. He’s The American Legion’s assistant director of the Americanism Division under which the baseball program falls. As I stood there awaiting the induction proceedings, his presence suddenly sent me back to those wonderful days in American Legion ball. The same things happened to me many times in the majors. Often I pitched before stands crowded with Legionnaires who were attending American Legion conventions in Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia – almost every city in the American League circuit. I’d see the Legion caps all around and immediately I’d find myself thinking back to the days when men wearing those same caps were building my baseball foundations.

I found that I wasn’t the only one who was stirred. One day I came back to the Cleveland Indians’ bench and mentioned to catcher Jim Hegan, "All these men remind me of the days I played Legion ball. I can shut my eyes and see myself the first time I walked into the Legion hall." Hegan, now a coach with the N.Y. Yankees, chuckled. "You’re not along, Bob," he said. He explained that his mind was doing flashbacks, too, and later he told me about the days he played for Lynn, Mass., on a team that went on to the National Championship.

It would not be true to say I received my first real baseball education in the Legion program. It seems I had been crazy about baseball ever since I began to walk, and my dad encouraged me. After the chores were done, we played catch on our farm in Van Meter, Iowa. When it got too dark, we’d move inside the barn, where Dad had strung up lights. Later Dad plowed up a section of land, leveled it off and made a ball field. The adults in the neighborhood would come around and eventually Dad put a team together to play nearby communities on our farm. I carried a glove, ball and bat everywhere I went, even to Bible school, in a Bemus-A grain sack.

I love to play shortstop, going deep for grounders, grabbing them backhand and firing to first. But all my play was confined to the schoolyard or the farm. Nothing organized.

In 1931, when I was 12, my dad said, "Son, I’ve been talking with Les Chance. Both of us think you’re ready to play American Legion ball."

Mr. Chance was the rural mail carrier. He would chug up to our farm in his Model-T Ford and deposit the mail in our box. I can shut my eyes and see him now, a stocky man, just a little on the plump side, with a friendly grin. He had a fine sense of humor and laughed easily. Whenever I think of American Legion ball, I think of Lester Chance. A World War I veteran, he organized and coached the American Legion team at Adel, Iowa. I still can hear his pleasant laugh. Whenever he rode up to our farm with the mail, Mr. Chance and Dad would talk baseball, and apparently they did some talking about me.At first I rebelled at enrolling in the Legion program. I was terribly shy, and unaccustomed to meeting strangers. I said to my dad, "Let’s wait until next year."

He smiled tolerantly and said, "Son, you’ll have lots of fun playing for Mr. Chance. And besides, I’m going to help him with the team."

Adel is about 10 miles from Van Meter. It’s the Dallas County seat and at that time had a population of about 1,100. The road was all gravel, winding along the Raccoon River, the same river that ran through our farm. Those 10 miles contain exactly 23 turns. I counted them that day, trying to take my mind off facing so many strange people.

The American Legion hall was upstairs over the firehouse at Adel. I clutched my dad’s hand tightly and tried to pull back. I recall it all so clearly. He talked softly, encouragingly and somehow he got me to the top of the stairs. I was prepared to turn and run back, but I saw Mr. Chance’s beaming smile of welcome and my immediately fears melted.

Lester Chance, the father of three daughters, had a warm, winning way with boys. He knew baseball, but he knew more about us. I signed up and he announced immediately, "We’ll meet at the park in the cool of the evening for our first workout."

"Fine," I thought. On the field I would feel more at home. It was a good diamond, carefully kept, and I was placed at third base because my arm was one of the few strong enough to make the throw to first. In that first workout, I had five thumbs on each hand. But Mr. Chance had infinite patience. I slowly began to blossom.

We had just an ordinary team that year, in fact we lost more than we won. I played third, short and second. I didn’t figure as a pitcher. But it was here that I did my baseball growing up. If it wasn’t for Legion ball, I don’t know where I would have learned the fundamentals. My dad’s farm team was made up chiefly of adults, and they came around to play the game, not to teach it.

I began to lose my shyness in the Legion league. Competitive sports are an ideal way to bring a boy out of his shell; they break down barriers, and provide the groundwork for lasting friendships. Several of my teammates on that first Legion team became my lifelong friends.

We would travel to the games, some as far as 20 miles away, in Mr. Chance’s Ford, a vehicle which was prophetically appropriate – several years later the Ford Motor Co. aided The American Legion in its sponsorship of Junior Baseball, giving it a big boost. We called Mr. Chance’s flivver the "Banana Wagon," because he always kept it supplied with bananas for after-game refreshment.

Of course, his Ford couldn’t carry the full team. My dad, who also coached and kept score, took the overflow in our Rickenbacker. On rare occasions we’d stop for an ice-cream cone after a game. As much as I like ice cream to this day, the taste of those cones never has been duplicated.

Our catcher was Nile Kinnick, who later became an all-American quarterback at the University of Iowa and the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1939. Kinnick, a highly intelligent person, went to Adel High, a rival of Van Meter High, my school. I would never have had the pleasure of playing with him if it hadn’t been for American Legion ball.

Even during baseball season, he was crazy about football. He would bring his football to practice, drop-kicking and passing it during idle moments. Wisely, Mr. Chance never tried to dissuade him, and Nile went on to football greatness. Nile and I were Legion teammates for two successive years. When I learned that he lost his life during World War II, trying to land his crippled plane on an aircraft carrier, it was as though I had lost a brother.

Shortly before the start of my second season in Legion ball, my dad said, "Mr. Chance and I have been talking it over. You have such a strong arm, we think you could become a fine pitcher."

I said I preferred short, explaining, "A shortstop plays every day and a pitcher doesn’t." But since I was told I would play the infield for the Adel team when I wasn’t pitching, I didn’t mind. We didn’t win any championships, because it was hard to beat the bigger Des Moines teams, but we had a decent season.

From then on, it was pretty much agreed: I was primarily a pitcher. I felt a special confidence on the mound. Moreover, I realized I wanted to be a pitcher. At 13, I had found my position.

The next season, 1933, I switched to the Highland Park American Legion Post team in Des Moines. In those days the program was not nearly as well organized as it is now. Territories weren’t designated or rigidly controlled.

It was tough to leave Mr. Chance, but, as I recall, he suggested that a few of us join a better team. It seems to me that his Adel club dropped out that year so that we could move up. That’s the kind of man he was. (I was thrilled for him upon learning that his 1949 team reached the state finals, and when he invited me to the banquet honoring his boys, I eagerly accepted.)

Mr. Chance died three years ago. His last request was that his ashes be spread on the Adel diamond, on a direct line from home plate to center field. This was done by his sons-in-law. Even in death, he wanted to remain close to the program which had been a major part of his life. From such dedication American Legion Junior Baseball has flourished.

My dad helped coach the Highland Park team. I pitched and played second. We had a good club, but a pitching shortage kept us from reaching the state finals. This was the first year I began getting newspaper write-ups as a pitcher – I was managing to strike out 15 to 18 men a game. Thinking back, it seems I had better control at 14 than I had in the majors. Or it could have been that the boys were afraid my fast ball would hit them and they swung at anything in self-defense.

The following year, 1934, was my final in Legion play. We played for the Valley Junction Post – Valley Junction is now West Des Moines – and we had an outstanding, well-balanced team. This time we made it to the state finals. That is, we thought we did. We had to play Indianola to determine the regional representative. We met at their park and a tremendous crowd gathered. I pitched and that was one day I really had it. Only one Indianola player reached second.

When the final out was made, we ran off the field jubilantly. "On to the finals," we shouted, and it was agreed we would be heavy favorites to win the state title.

Next day came the stunning news: "Valley Junction Disqualified." A re-examination of our birth certificates, necessary for all finalists, revealed that one of our players was too old for Legion play by exactly two days. Somehow his parents had misconstrued the eligibility date. It didn’t matter that this boy had gone hitless all season.

A few of our players cried. It was difficult for boys of our age to rationalize away heartbreak and anger at such a moment. Our coaches and followers too, were deeply disappointed. But the older, wiser heads among them made us see the issue squarely. We had broken a rule and had to pay the consequences. It was a valuable lesson of life. We must play and live according to the rules. Each of us matured a little from the experience.

There are some theorists who insist too much stress is place on winning in American Legion Baseball and similar endeavors, and that a permanent emotional scar is left on a youngster when his team loses. I don’t buy that.

If this were true, competition would be eliminated at birth. Aren’t children competing for attention the moment they’re born? Don’t they compete when they make their first trip to the sandbox to see who makes the best mudpie, or in second or third grade spelldowns?

Baseball is a contest. The object is to win and I don’t believe it is normal or desirable to accept defeat with a shrug. I’ve seen major leaguers rip off their uniforms and kick over water buckets after a loss.

Understand, I’m not trying to encourage emotional outbursts. But I believe the strong desire to succeed is a positive quality. Competition is the vital part of our democracy, the force that has made our nation grow. American Legion Baseball provides a healthy ground for the competitive spirit, a ground where you must play according to the rules, learn how to be a winner – and a loser as well. You will learn from the lessons of defeat how to achieve victory next time. I firmly believe that the experience we had in our final year of American Legion ball made all the boys on the Valley Junction team better equipped to face future bumps.

"To keep the rules, keep faith with your teammates, keep yourself fit, keep a stout hear in defeat, keep your pride under victory .... " This is part of the American Legion Junior Baseball code, and from my personal knowledge, I can tell the 1,800 boys who play in our local league that these are not idle words.

What impresses me most about the Legion’s baseball program is that it is so truly American. It contains all the principles which are basic to democracy. Here are grown men, soldiers and sailors who have been through wars, handing bats and balls to youngsters so they can play a fun game – a game which not only fosters friendships, develops coordination and good health habits for boys, but helps break down social barriers and makes for a more closely knit community.

On one American Legion team, for example, you can have the banker’s son, the industrialist’s son, the gardener’s son, the fireman’s son and the ball player’s son. No one pays attentions to how much money the boy’s father has, his social standing or his religion. Rich or poor, he’s judged on how he performs in open competition. Where else is there a more practical training ground for democracy?

There is a new neighborliness, too. Getting together at the ball games is almost as easy for grown-ups as for the youngsters. The banker and the gardener stand side by side cheering the same team.In contrast, consider what happens in a totalitarian country. There, the ruling class is generally made up of old war heroes who put guns or shovels in the hand of their youth and let them dig their own graves.

I remember as a boy talking with the men who wore Legion hats. I learned from them about World War I, the horrors of it, about the bloody battles, about their friends who died. I also attended the parades, saw the flag raised at post affairs, and obtained a much more dramatic concept of America and what it stands for than what I did in history books.

All this helped me when I enlisted in the Navy, Dec. 9, 1941. I think I had the war in a more realistic perspective than seamen who hadn’t grown up among Legionnaires. I knew it would be a long war, a bitter, bloody one. I wasn’t as impatient as many of my mates, and I didn’t gripe about the fact that it was cutting into the prime of my baseball career.

I knew there was danger of death daily, but I knew there was a job to do, a job that had to be done to keep our nation strong at the risk of grave personal sacrifices. I’m sure Nile Kinnick felt as I did.

What gripes me about some groups in our own country is that they scream about all the rights and privileges belonging to them. These groups are always the most vociferous, yet they assume no responsibilities or obligations, support no charities or worthy causes, and do nothing constructive to maintain the freedoms they enjoy.

On the other hand, it’s heartwarming to see an increasing number of our major corporations follow the Legion’s example and become involved in programs designed to make our youngsters grow into better citizens. I’m partial to sports because I know what they did for me and I can see what they’re doing for my three sons.

Our eldest son, Steve, now 17, reminded me of myself as a boy. He was painfully shy. My wife, Virginia, and I saw baseball bring him out of his shell, just as it brought me out of mine.

Virginia applauds the boy’s baseball participation if for no other reason than that it takes them away from the TV set. I’m lucky I was born before TV. If there had been television in my childhood, perhaps all I would have done was milk cows and watch the box. Maybe I wouldn’t have become a pitcher. In this TV age, the American Legion Baseball program assumes great importance than ever. It helps entice the boys from the one-eyed monster and those shows of violence, and provides them with needed healthy recreation and exercise.

In addition to the many physical and mental benefits I received from American Legion play, there was one that firmly shaped my destiny. It exposed me to a major league scout.

I was being scouted while pitching for Valley Junction – and I didn’t know it until a year later. It developed that an umpire for our Legion games, Bill McMahon, was a sub-scout for the Cleveland Indians. This meant he would send reports to the Cleveland office of likely prospects. At the end of the season he turned in one about a 15-year-old farm boy who had a strong right arm.

The report caused Cy Slapnicka, the Indians’ chief scout, to come our and see for himself. I signed at age 16 and was pitching major league ball the following year.

What happened to me will happen to many Legion players this year. The majors are hungry for talent. Every Legion player is scouted. That umpire behind the plate may be another Bill McMahon.

My dad, of course, was thrilled that I became a ball player. Still, as much as he enjoyed the game, he never once mentioned it as a possible career. He provided the proper baseball environment, but he never forced the game on me. We played baseball together because it was fun. That I became a big-leaguer was purely bonus – a wonderful one, I admit. To me, my father was the greatest man who ever lived.

I mention this because I have seen fathers take the fun out of the game for their sons. They push the boys to the point of harassment. Some of them become so vicariously involved, they can’t watch the game objectively. They argue with the umpire, the manager and, worst, with their own sons. This is a danger, and a wise parent avoids it.

Having been involved in virtually every facet of the Legion baseball program, may I offer a few tips to make it more enjoyable, worthwhile experience?

TO THE PLAYERS

  • Know the rules. Read and study as many books as you can on fundamentals.
  • Concentrate on one position, but be prepared to play another when necessary.
  • Work on your playing weaknesses, rather than on your strong points.
  • If you’re a pitcher, cover your arm at least to the elbow on warm days and down to the wrist on cool days. Warm up for 10 minutes on a cool day; five or six minutes on a warm one. Make sure you concentrate on fast balls and master control before experimenting with curves.
  • Get plenty of sleep and eat the proper foods. (When I was a boy, my dad said, "Bob, do me a favor.
  • Don’t use alcohol or tobacco until you’re 21." I promised him I wouldn’t. I still don’t smoke and rarely touch alcohol, and then only in its mildest form.)
  • Pull for your teammates, especially when you’re sitting on the bench.

TO THE PARENTS

  • Obtain your doctor’s approval should there be any question about your boy’s participation because of physical or emotional considerations.
  • Be on hand to see his games. This is more important than making a cash donation to the league.
  • Root for your son; it will help build his confidence. Never sharply criticize his play, especially in front of others.
  • Try to play catch and pepper informally with him and other youngsters in the neighborhood.
  • Most of all, always remember that baseball is a game, not a life-and-death matter.

TO THE COACHES

  • Be patient with your players and never raise your voice to them. Remember that errors are as much a part of the game as the bat and the ball.
  • Treat all the boys exactly alike. Never cater to a start or you will be doing him an injustice as well as yourself.
  • Try to get to know each boy personally, and his parents and home background.
  • Whenever possible, give your substitutes a chance to play.
  • There it is. "Play ball" – and here’s hoping the Legion program is a much fun for you as it continues to be for me.

THE END

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GARY LYNN CALHOUN

February 21, 2014 - 9:52am

Bob Feller was a hero of mine when I was in Little League and remains a hero to me as I approach my 69th birthday.

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