MLB: Feller remembered as patriotic, larger than life
AP Sports Writer
VAN METER, Iowa (AP) – In his tiny hometown, Bob Feller was the farm boy who never forgot his roots.
The flags that defined him – those representing the United States, the Navy and the Cleveland Indians – flew at half-staff on a snowy Thursday morning at the Bob Feller Museum, a day after he died of acute leukemia at the age of 92.
“It’s such a great loss. Bob was a guy who was a little bit bigger than life,” said museum member Ed Brown, who stopped in to drop off flowers. “He had a lot of pride about being an Iowan and about the game of baseball.”
Feller’s path toward the Hall of Fame began to take shape at age 16 when he caught the attention of an Indians scout. In 1936, he made his first major league start two months before his 18th birthday, showing off a rocket right arm he claimed was strengthened by doing chores at home.
Soon, every sports fan had heard about “Rapid Robert.” They also knew of his “Heater from Van Meter” – hard to say whether they all realized the nickname came from this dot of a town west of Des Moines.
Feller won 266 games in 18 seasons with the Indians despite missing three full years and most of a fourth for service during World War II. He was the first pitcher to win 20 games before he was 21 and was chosen for eight All-Star games.
Elected to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, he enjoyed more than half his life as a Hall of Famer.
Feller is still the Indians’ career leader in wins, strikeouts, innings, shutouts and complete games, and a statue of him in mid-delivery stands in his honor outside of Progressive Field in Cleveland.
Scott Havick manages the museum, which is filled with artifacts from Feller’s youth, time with the Navy and playing days. Among the items: the bat an ailing Babe Ruth used to prop himself up during his farewell at Yankee Stadium in 1948.
Havick said Feller was always proudest of his service during World War II. Feller enlisted two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed – longtime lore always had it as the next day, but the museum says it was Dec. 9, 1941.
“He was the most patriotic person I’ve ever known in my life,” Havick said. “People would ask him, ‘What’s the greatest win you’ve ever had?’ You would think it would be a no-hitter. He’d say, ‘World War II,’ without even blinking.”
Feller wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, either, and his propensity for being blunt was well-known in Van Meter and beyond. But he was also remembered as a gracious man, especially with museum guests, and loved to share his endless stories about the game with anyone who’d listen.
“He had many sides to him. People think of Bob as being a gruff man that was outspoken, but Bob always said that he would speak his mind and you would never have to guess how he stood on a subject,” Havick said. “He wasn’t the guy you think he is. He was very loyal.”
Museum staffer Delores Jones said she got a “hug and a kiss” every time she saw Feller, who’d always who greet guests with a familiar cry of “Welcome to the Wigwam!”
“He just seemed like family. He’d come in and he was always so friendly, and we’d always enjoy him talking and telling the different stories,” Jones said. “We loved him dearly.”
In Cleveland, fans gathered at Progressive Field to pay tribute.
The center field flag was lowered to half-staff and crews hung red, white and blue banners marking Feller’s baseball career and Navy service. Fans placed memorials, including a bouquet of flowers, a bag of sunflower seeds and an inscribed “A” for Feller’s wartime service on the USS Alabama, on the base of the statue bearing his likeness.
Gary Schultz of Kent, Ohio, wearing an Indians jacket, stopped by the statue to take a photo.
“He’s just the epitome of Cleveland and baseball,” Schultz said.
His neighbor, Rich Aber, was renewing his season tickets Thursday and reminisced about meeting Feller at spring training in Goodyear, Ariz.
“The only signed baseball I’ve got is by Bob,” Aber said. “I’m really glad I had a chance to meet him and shake his hand, which was very large and strong.”
Among the many star ballplayers who made the journey to Van Meter – a town of about 1,000 people whose claim to fame is Feller and little else – was fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr.
Doerr, now 92, was a close friend of Feller’s from their time battling for the AL pennant.
“Bob was just a regular, solid person. He was the same guy, all the time. He gave his opinions and he said what he thought. He didn’t hedge around anything,” Doerr said in a statement released by the Hall. “He was one of the top pitchers I saw in my time.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers and Thomas J. Sheeran of The Associated Press contributed to this report.