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Sports Then and Now

“Rapid Robert” Feller Was A Hero On And Off The Diamond

Posted on December 16, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Bob Feller was the best pitcher of his generation and first major leaguer to enlist following Pearl Harbor.

The baseball world lost an icon and the United States lost a hero with the passing Wednesday night of Baseball Hall of Famer Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller.

It is hard today to imagine a situation where all the top stars in the baseball world would put their careers on hold for multiple years to serve their country, but that is exactly what happened during World War II and Feller was the first in line.

When the United States entered the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the 23-year-old Bob Feller was without question the best pitcher in baseball.

Feller made his debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1936 and from 1939 through 1941 was nearly unbeatable. He posted a 76-33 record while leading the league in victories and strikeouts all three seasons. His best season during the stretch was in 1940 when he finished second in the American League MVP voting while posting a 27-11 record and also leading the league with a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts.

Yet, after 1941, Feller wouldn’t pitch another inning in the major leagues until late in the 1945 season.

On December 8, 1941, Feller became the first Major League Baseball player to join the war effort as he enlisted in the Navy and volunteered for combat service. Amazingly, it was 69 years to the date of his enlistment that he was placed in hospice care and he passed away one week later.

While in the Navy he reached the rank of Chief Petty Officer and served as a Gun Captain on the USS Alabama. Feller was decorated with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

“Rapid Robert” returned to baseball late in the 1945 season and in nine starts showed little sign of rust as he posted a 5-3 record with a 2.50 ERA.

Returning for good in 1946, the now 27-year-old Feller quickly regained the magic he had displayed as a young fireball pitcher. He won a league-high 26 games while setting a new record with 348 strikeouts and also posting a 2.18 ERA.

Bob Feller spent three years in the Navy and served as a Chief Petty Officer.

Though Feller led the league in wins in 1947 with 20 and again in 1951 when he posted a 22-8 record, Feller was never again as dominant as he had been in 1946.

From 1947 through the end of his career in 1956, Feller posted only a 128-90 record with a 3.54 ERA and never struck out more than 200 batters in a season.

In 1948, he helped the Indians reach the World Series against the Boston Braves. Ironically, the Indians won the Series in six games with their only two losses being the two games started by Feller.

The Indians again reached the World Series in 1954, but after posting a 13-3 record in 19 starts during the season, Feller did not pitch in the four game sweep the Indians suffered at the hands of the Giants.

Overall, Feller spent portions of 18 seasons in the Major Leagues and registered a 266-162 record with a 3.25 ERA and 2,581 strikeouts.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and at the time of his passing was the longest tenured living Hall of Fame member.

We will never know just how great Feller’s numbers might have been had he not lost three prime seasons while serving his country. It is likely he would have easily joined the 300-win and 3,000-strikeout clubs.

However, like many from his generation, Feller willingly made personal sacrifices to advance his country. That makes him more than just a great former baseball player, it makes him an American hero. May he rest in peace.

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