Every boy growing up throwing a baseball dreams of being the pitcher whose blazing fastball can strike out any hitter. Cub fans are familiar with young phenoms with great fastballs, just as they are accustomed to the disappointment those phenoms bring. 20 year-old rookie Kerry Wood threw a one-hitter, tying the single game strikeout record with 20. Gone now from Chicago following Tommy John elbow surgery, Wood was last spotted in the Yankees’ bullpen in New York. Mark Prior, his erstwhile teammate and fellow phenom, dominated the National League when young. In the notorious year of Bartman, he brought the Cubs tantalizingly close to the World Series. Following injuries, Prior is now a distant memory, out of baseball.
This week, Bob Feller, a young phenom of a long-ago era died. Baseball’s top pitcher of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Feller was renowned for a blazing fastball that instilled fear in hitters and caused an unholy thwack in catchers’ mitts. He was the last of the three great ballplayers of the Greatest Generation, alongside the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who died in 1998, and Ted Williams, the self-proclaimed greatest hitter ever, who died in 2003.
Feller, a Hall of Famer longer than any living player, remained attached to baseball for 75 years. He was a link from the players of Babe Ruth’s day through Jackie Robinson to the modern era, emblematic of baseball DNA passing from grandfathers to fathers, and fathers to sons.
His career began like a Hollywood screenplay. He broke in the Majors in 1936, an 17 year-old farmboy from Van Meter, Iowa, a speck on the map near Des Moines. Raised on a farm during the Depression, he fed livestock, milked cows, and learned to pitch by throwing a homemade baseball against a makeshift backstop his father constructed in the pasture. Chickenwire in the outfield kept the cows out.
Feller was a schoolboy legend with a fastball known locally as “the Van Meter Heater”. Even in those pre-ESPN days, great young players didn’t remain hidden from scouts. A Cleveland Indians scout found Feller and signed him for $1 and an autographed baseball. Feller was considered so good the Indians were willing to pay a $7500 fine for signing him illegally.
The first exhibition game he pitched in, Feller struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals, including two Hall of Famers, in three innings. Later that summer, in his first Major League start for Cleveland, he made headlines with 15 strikeouts. Three weeks later, he struck out seventeen to tie the Major League record at the time (Wood and Feller are the only pitchers ever to strike out the number of batters their age, Wood 20 at 20, and Feller 17 at 17). All this before graduating from high school.
Soon, he strode the mound with disdain and stared down the likes of DiMaggio and Williams, lacking only today’s multimillion-dollar, multiyear contract.
At the height of his career, Feller became the first player to enlist after Pearl Harbor. He proudly served in both the North Atlantic and South Pacific. Despite four years of military service during World War II in mid-career, Feller won 266 games overall, pitched three no-hitters (including the only one ever on Opening Day), and was the Indians’ star in their last World Series triumph in 1948. With those four years, he might have won another 100 games placing him among the top five pitchers ever. But Feller never regretted serving his country. He explained the time lost with a baseball Zen koan, “You can’t saw dust.”
As an elder statesman, Feller witnessed several generations of young pitching phenoms, including Wood, Prior, Nolan Ryan, and most recently, Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg. In the 1980’s, a half-century after his debut, Feller was asked about Dwight Gooden, whose first two years were the most successful of any pitcher in history. Did he think Gooden would become the greatest pitcher ever? Feller’s experience had taught him more than just talent was involved. He opined Gooden was impressive but many things could derail a young pitcher’s success, including injuries and outside temptations. Feller proved prescient when Gooden soon succumbed to both and became nothing more than a journeyman pitcher leaving fans wondering what might have been. Gooden couldn’t saw dust.
Today’s high-profile phenom, Strasburg, is sidelined for a year after Tommy John surgery for a torn ligament (Dr. Frank Jobe, the doctor who pioneered the operation on Tommy John and perfected it on hundreds of pitchers, deserves to be the first physician elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame). Strasburg may not pitch competitively before 2012. And who knows if he will ever regain that 100-mile an hour fastball?
Long before Gooden, Wood, Prior or Strasburg, fans marveled at the unworldly fastball of the schoolboy phenom Bob Feller. But that kind of fastball is a precious gift the gods guard jealously and bestow rarely. The mother of the next Bob Feller may not have even been born yet.
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