CLEVELAND - Teenage pitching sensation, World War II hero, outspoken Hall of Famer and local sports treasure. Bob Feller was all of them.
One of a kind, he was an American original.
Blessed with a right arm that earned the Iowa farmboy the nickname "Rapid Robert" and made him one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Feller, who left baseball in the prime of his career to fight for his country, died Wednesday night. He was 92.
Feller, who won 266 games in 18 seasons — all with the Indians — died at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday night of acute leukemia at a hospice, said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians vice president of public relations.
Remarkably fit until late in life, Feller had suffered serious health setbacks in recent months. He was diagnosed with leukemia in August, and while undergoing chemotherapy, he fainted and his heart briefly stopped. Eventually, he had pacemaker implanted.
In November, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and recently released into hospice care.
Even as his health deteriorated, Feller continued doing what he loved most — attending Indians games deep into last season.
"Nobody lives forever and I've had a blessed life," Feller said in September. "I'd like to stay on this side of the grass for as long as I can, though. I'd really like to see the Indians win a World Series."
Feller, in fact, was part of the rotation the last time the Indians won it all — in 1948.
Fiercely proud and patriotic, Feller's life was much like one of his overpowering fastballs. He seemed unstoppable, whether on the mound or in conversation. Feller, who broke into the majors at the tender age of 17, could always bring the heat.
"Bob Feller is gone. We cannot be surprised," Indians owner Larry Dolan said in a statement. "Yet, it seems improbable. Bob has been such an integral part of our fabric, so much more than an ex-ballplayer, so much more than any Cleveland Indians player. He is Cleveland, Ohio.
"To say he will be missed is such an understatement. More to the point, he will not be missed because he will always be with us," he said.
Feller was part of a vaunted Indians' rotation in the 1940s and '50s with fellow Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. He finished with 2,581 career strikeouts, led the American League in strikeouts seven times, pitched three no-hitters — including the only one on opening day — and recorded a jaw-dropping 12 one-hitters.
Feller's win total remains a Cleveland team record, one that seems almost untouchable in today's free-agent era. His numbers would no doubt have been even greater had his career not been interrupted by World War II.
The first pitcher to win 20 games before he was 21, Feller was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1962, his first year of eligibility.
The Indians retired his No. 19 jersey in 1957 and immortalized the greatest player in franchise history with a statue when they opened their downtown stadium in 1994. The sculpture is vintage Feller, captured forever in the middle of his patented windmill windup, rearing back to fire another pitch.
"When you think Cleveland Indians, you think Bob Feller and vice versa," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "He was a genuine patriot and a big-time Hall of Famer. Boy, he loved the Indians and we all loved him back."
Baseball was only a part of Feller's remarkable story.
Stirred by Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy the following day — the first major league player to do so. He served as a gun captain on the USS Alabama, earning several battle commendations and medals.
"More impressive than his vast accomplishments on the field was being part of 'The Greatest Generation,'" Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Bob served our country for nearly four years during the prime of his career. Bob was a great pitcher, but he was first and foremost a great American."
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Another rite of spring for Cleveland fans was seeing Feller at the Indians' training camp. Before home exhibition games in Winter Haven, Fla., or more recently in Goodyear, Ariz., Feller would throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Introduced to a rousing ovation every time, Feller delivered the throw with the same high leg kick he used while blazing fastballs past overmatched hitters.
"We have all lost a friend and the nation has lost an icon," former Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "Bob was always there with a word of advice or a story. The thing is that they were always relevant and helpful. I will never forget before the first game of the '97 World Series, Bob came up to me and patted me on the back and told me how proud he was of me and the team, then gave me a buckeye and said it was for luck.
"I don't think that Bob ever believed in luck, just hard work and an honest effort. I will miss Bob very much. He was my friend," he said.
An eight-time All-Star, Feller compiled statistics from 1936 through 1956 that guaranteed his Hall of Fame enshrinement. He led the AL in victories six times and is still the Indians' career leader in shutouts (46), innings pitched (3,827), walks (1,764), complete games (279), wins and strikeouts.
Despite losing his two starts, Feller won a World Series title with the Indians in 1948.
When he returned from military duty in 1946, Feller arguably had his finest season, going 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA and pitching 36 complete games and 10 shutouts. For comparison's sake, the Indians' entire pitching staff had 10 complete games and four shutouts last season.
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