‘I’m no hero’

Bob Feller turned his back on a glittering baseball career to fight in World War II

Bob Feller in 2008 (Getty Images)

For months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller felt conflicted. He was, at the time, one of the most famous athletes in America — there with Joe Louis and Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and Whirlaway. He was more folk hero than flesh and blood: Bob Feller, the farm boy with the arm of Zeus.

Everyone knew the story of Feller growing up in Van Meter, Iowa. His father Bill began growing wheat on the farm instead of corn so that they would have more time to play catch. Bobby Feller got his first uniform by mail order catalogue when he was nine. He developed his arm throwing fastballs against the side of the family barn. Together, father and son cut down trees and cleared the land and built a ballpark into the Iowa fields long before there was a Field of Dreams. Bob signed with Cleveland for a dollar and an autographed baseball. He showed up in Cleveland with the hardest fastball since Walter Johnson and struck out Major League stars before he graduated high school.

Their story — Bill and Bob Feller’s story — was, in many ways, the great American story of the Depression, a story of love and hard work and a gift from God. And then war consumed Europe and Asia, and Bob Feller understood the way everyone understood that it would not be long before America would join the fight. He hungered to be a part of it. But Bill Feller was sick. He was dying. And Bob’s mother begged him not to go.

These were heated times, of course, and there were powerful emotions from parents who watched Bob Feller pitch baseballs while their own sons were drafted into the military. Venom was inevitable. Feller was baited by a reporter into joking that if he got drafted he might look into pitching for Cleveland on the weekends. Few got the joke, and Feller began to find his patriotism questioned and his honor challenged … there were even those who doubted that his father was all that sick. He carried these scars.

On December 7, 1941 he was on his way to Chicago to work out details on the next year’s contract. Feller was coming off another magnificent year where he led the American League in wins, shutouts, strikeouts and innings pitched. He was driving a brand new Buick Century, and he was already the highest paid pitcher in baseball history, and this contract figured to be even bigger than the last one. As he crossed into Illinois, he heard the news on the radio; the United States had been attacked by Japan.

When he arrived in Chicago, he told Cy Slapnicka — the Iowa man who had signed him — that he was going to fight. Two days later, he became the first Major League Baseball player, and perhaps the first American celebrity, to enlist. He joined the Navy. It had to be the Navy. He wanted to cross the ocean and fight the Japanese.

There was no shortage of options for Bob Feller in the military. The Navy — led by former heavyweight champion of the world Gene Tunney, who had become a a commander — wanted him to be a physical fitness instructor who would whip young recruits into shape, and they wanted him to play baseball to build morale and bring acclaim to the Navy. It was a safe and relatively easy way to serve, a route many ballplayers and celebrities took. Feller enjoyed it too. “Baseball in the Navy always was much more fun than it had been in the major leagues,” he would write. “There was an absence of tension and any personal ambition … and I believe it furnished a great amount of pleasure for thousands of sailors who often found little else to do.”

But … Feller wanted to fight. He first wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he he failed the hearing test. He then volunteered for gunnery school. He had always been fascinated by guns. But, more, he knew that once he graduated, they would send him into the war.

In the summer of 1942, Feller proposed to Virginia Winther, the girl who had introduced herself to him by saying, “I’ve never seen a baseball game.” Feller remembered the proposal like so.

“I suppose I’ll be going to sea before long. I sure hate to see you unattached. You might marry some admiral.’

“I’m a good waiter,” she said.

“Let’s get married before I go.”

“All right, admiral.”

They did not get married before Feller left; his father was not well enough to attend and Bob — with the optimism of youth — wanted to wait until Bill Feller was strong enough to be there. On Christmas day, 1942 Bob Feller loaded ammunition on the newly commissioned U.S. S. Alabama. A few days later, the ship was sent sailing.

And a few days after that, with the ship still along the Atlantic coast, a chaplain found Bob Feller.

“I have bad news for you, Bob,” he said.

The chaplain did not have say anything. Bob knew. Bill Feller had meant everything to his son; Bob, when asked how long it took him to get over the loss, said simply: “I never did.”  So many sons never do. “I’ve traveled all over the world,” Bob Feller once told me. “And I never met a man as fine as my father.”

Bob was given a 10-day leave and he headed for Van Meter and the funeral. Then, he and Virginia flew to Waukegan, Ill., Virginia’s hometown, and they were married. Feller’s one-time teammate Soup Campbell — who hit just three big-league home runs, but one of them was off Red Ruffing to beat New York at Yankee Stadium — was the best man.

The Associated Press story began like so:

Wakegan, Ill. — Miss Virginia Winther of Waukegan and Chief Specialist Robert William Feller, U.S.N., better known as Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians pitching star, were married Saturday night in the First Methodist church of Waukegan.

Feller’s mother, Mrs. William Feller of Van Meter, Ia., and his sister, Marguerite, attended. His father died last Sunday and was buried Thursday.

“Dad would have wanted it this way,” Bob told Virginia, and they went to New York for a short honeymoon, and then Feller went back to the fight.

It was months before the U.S.S. Alabama encountered the enemy. The days, Feller would say, were drudgery and the nights long and dismal. They played softball. They exercised. They told the same stories. Death interrupted the monotony. Feller would remember a young sailor coming to his quarters and asking for an autograph. The two talked baseball for a while, and then the man went off to dump some garbage over the side. The seas were rough, the winds highs, and the man fell overboard and was never found.

Then, the battles began. Months later, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea — what would become known as the “Turkey Shoot” — Feller and his crew fired shells at a sky so full of Japanese planes you couldn’t see the blue above them. More than 300 Japanese planes were shot out of the sky that day but there was so much confusion that Feller was never sure if the crew had recorded any of the kills. “At any rate,” Feller would write, “we threw up our share of ack-ack.”

In the months ahead, the U.S.S. Alabama was in many battles. It had to fend of kamikaze pilots. It had to endure a typhoon — Feller would say that was the only time he really felt his life was in danger. All the while, they kept firing shells at the enemy, and Bob Feller was changed. He was a Chief Petty Officer with eight battle stars and six campaign ribbons. Baseball, he said, would never seem quite as important again.

Of all the ballplayers who served during World War II, you could argue that Bob Feller gave up the most in pure baseball terms. He was in his athletic prime, the best pitcher in the game, and he lost the better part of four seasons. For a time, he would carry around copies of a typewritten projection by a Seattle engineer named Ralph Winnie of what his career numbers would have looked like had there been no war. It looked like this:

Wins: 373

Strikeouts: 3,650

Shutouts: 62

No-hitters: 5

One-hitters: 19

With those numbers, Feller would have staked a claim as the greatest pitcher of all time — certainly one of the greatest since Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander and those stars of Deadball. As it is, Feller found that his fame faded. He watched as some of the stars of his time like DiMaggio and Williams and Musial stayed fresh in the memories of baseball fans while memories of his own greatness grew faint. He was known — if known at all — for trivia questions:

Q: What is the only team to have every player enter a game and leave a game with the exact same batting average?

A: The Chicago White Sox in 1940 when they were no-hit by Feller on opening day.

Q: Who is the only pitcher to race a fastball against a motorcycle?

A: Bob Feller, who gave a speeding motorcycle a 10-foot headstart but still beat it to the target — estimates at the time was that the ball was going more than 100 mph at a time when that was mind boggling.

In his late years, he traveled the country, showing up at minor league baseball games on various versions of “Bob Feller Day” and he would pitch a few fastball to locals looking for a thrill. He almost certainly signed more autographs than anyone in baseball history. And every now and again he would bring out those statistics.

I asked him once why he carried around them around.

“Because people should know,” he said. “I would have put up some of the greatest numbers in baseball history. But I was off doing something more important. I was off fighting for America. I was off fighting for our freedom. People should know”

Bob Feller died five years ago. And when he died, many recalled the numbers, the fastball, the folk hero story. But more recalled the quote he gave after returning from the war. “I’m no hero,” he said. “The heroes are the ones who don’t come back.”