Nicknamed “The Heater from Van Meter,” “Bullet Bob” and “Rapid Robert” because of his blazing fastball, Hall-of-Famer and American Legion Baseball icon Bob Feller passed away Wednesday evening from a battle with Leukemia. He was 92.
Feller, a farm kid from rural Iowa, found his calling on the mound at age 13 while playing American Legion Baseball in Van Meter - a small town exactly 17 miles west of Des Moines, as he was known to note. It was here that he began a career that carried him to greatness in the nation’s pastime, earning eight all-star selections as a professional and eventually making it to Cooperstown in 1962 as a Hall of Famer.
In his golden years, he was a great ambassador to the game of baseball. In his younger years, he was fanning batters and hurling no-hitters in Legion Baseball leagues. He often recalled his days of playing Legion Baseball as the fondest of his life, saying the experience not only gave him a start as a baseball phenom but taught him how to form lifelong friendships, deal with letdowns in athletic competition and be discovered as a pitcher.
In 1936, Feller was discovered by scout Cy Slapnicka, who, as the legend goes, signed the 17-year-old to play for the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball. During his 18-season career with the Indians, Feller won 266 games and threw 2,581 strikeouts, crediting his arm strength from years of baling hay, picking corn and milking cows as a child on his family’s farm. Known as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Feller is the only major league player to pitch a no-hitter on an opening day, which he did in 1940 against the Chicago White Sox. Because it was the first game of the season, every opposing player left with same batting average (.000) they had when the game began - a trivia fact that Feller was known to use to stump baseball enthusiasts.
Just when his baseball career was in its prime, it came to an abrupt halt on Dec. 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The following day, Feller enlisted in the Navy - the first major league player to do so - and served as a gun captain on the USS Alabama for four years, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. After missing four seasons of baseball from serving in World War II, Feller made his comeback in 1946. Skeptics wondered if he could return to form. He emphatically proved them wrong, pitching 348 strikeouts and 10 shutouts in one of his best seasons as a pro. He went on to help the Indians win the World Series in 1948.
Though many speculate Feller may have earned more than 3,000 strikeouts in his career had he not left for war, the legendary Feller is still recognized as one of the game’s all-time great pitchers. In 1962, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., becoming the first American Legion Baseball alumni to be inducted. The Legion presented Feller with a plaque recognizing him as the first Legion Baseball graduate to achieve the remarkable feat, although Feller later mentioned he should be giving the Legion a plaque for giving him an opportunity to play organized ball.
Despite his active life, Feller remained a constant figure in Legion Baseball by attending many Legion World Series games and signing countless autographs free of charge. During the 2009 Legion World Series in Fargo, N.D., Feller spoke during the pregame banquet to Legion players and even, at the age of 91, threw out the first pitch in front of thousands of standing and applauding fans.
Because of his unending support, the Legion established the Bob Feller Pitching Award in 1978. The award is granted to a Legion player who earns the most strikeouts in a regional and national competition.
As the baseball fans remember a legendary player and a war hero, The American Legion calls to light his excellence on the field and off from an article that Feller wrote in June 1963 for the Legion Magazine.