Born Nov. 3, 1918, near Van Meter, Iowa, Robert Andrew William Feller was 16 when he caught the eye of Indians scout Cy Slapnicka.
Feller made his first major league start on Aug. 23, 1936, two months shy of turning 18. He never pitched in the minors, and when the Indians decided to use him in a relief role on July 19, 1936, he was the youngest player ever to pitch in a major league game. Many wondered if the kid — who would later credit his arm strength to milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay — was in over his head.
Using a fastball later dubbed "the Van Meter heater," Feller struck out 15 — two shy of the major league record in his first game, beating the St. Louis Browns 4-1 — a star was born. Later that season, Feller established the AL record by striking out 17 Philadelphia Athletics.
In 1938, Feller set the major league record by striking out 18 against the Detroit Tigers. No pitcher in the AL fanned more in a nine-inning game until Nolan Ryan in 1974. By the time Feller joined the military at 23, he had won 109 games and was well on the way to baseball fame.
In his day, nobody threw harder than Feller, who sometimes had trouble with his control. Because speed devices weren't as advanced as they are today, it's impossible to gauge precisely how fast Feller threw in his prime. There is famous black-and-white film footage of Feller's fastball being clocked as it races against a motorcycle said to be traveling at 100 mph.
Feller once said he was clocked at 104 mph.
Even in his later years, Feller could recall pitch-for-pitch duels with great hitters like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He said his biggest thrill in the game was when he returned from the military to pitch a no-hitter against New York at Yankee Stadium.
"I had been away four years and people were saying I was washed up," Feller said. "They had a right to say it, too, since few come back after being away so long. But this game proved to me that I was still able to pitch."
He always credited his father, Bill, with encouraging his baseball ambitions.
"My father kept me busy from dawn to dusk when I was a kid," Feller said. "When I wasn't pitching hay, hauling corn or running a tractor, I was heaving a baseball into his mitt behind the barn."
Feller said the greatest hitter he ever faced, without question, was Williams, although Williams had only a .270 average against him.
"I was a little luckier against him than the others," Feller said. "But he beat me in more games than I care to remember. Joe DiMaggio was the only right-hander who hit me consistently. The fellow who hit me best, though, was Tommy Henrich, the Yankees' old reliable."
After retiring from baseball, Feller worked in the insurance business, but he never got completely away from the game. In 1981, he returned to work for the Indians as a spring training pitching coach and in the team's public relations office.
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.
When Washington's Stephen Strasburg made his second start in Cleveland, Feller refused to get caught up in the hype.
"Check back with me when he's won 100 games," he said.
Cleveland's chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America recently asked the Indians to turn Feller's press box seat into a shrine area.
Feller didn't care for crowds and didn't particularly enjoy interacting with fans, but he often attended memorabilia shows to sign autographs for a nominal fee. Sometimes gruff, Feller would sign his autograph and listen as fans asked him questions and posed for pictures with an iconic man who meant so much to them.
Feller was critical of contemporary ballplayers. He viewed them as spoiled and felt they didn't work as hard at their craft as he and his peers. Feller never softened on his stance that Pete Rose, baseball's hits leader, should remain banned for betting on baseball.
Feller, who lived in Gates Mills, Ohio, is survived by his wife, Anne, and three sons, Steve, Martin and Bruce.
The Indians said details on a public memorial service will be announced in the near future.
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