Talkin’ Baseball, The Man and Bobby Feller –from Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & “The Duke”) by Terry Cashman
Baseball fans measure their own lives by the entrance and exit of players. There is the day the son of a major leaguer you saw play is suddenly in the big leagues. There is the day you realize that you knew every manager and coach when they played. There is the day the last active player from your first year as a fan retires. And there are the days when your heroes turn 60, then 70, some 80 and more. And the days when the obituaries carry the names of players you could swear you just saw turn a double play last week. But, no, it was in fact, a long time ago.
With the passing of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams as bookends around the turn of the millennium, in 1999 and 2002 respectively, there comes a renewed appreciation for the last survivors of a time when the game was played in flannel uniforms, mostly in daylight, always on grass, only on radio, no farther west than St. Louis, and devoid of the gifts of players of color. They traveled by train, slept without air conditioning, experienced the Great Depression and World War II, worked second jobs in the winter, signed autographs for free, and laid down a sacrifice bunt now and then. They played before crowds in the four figures, considered doubleheaders routine, and went from high school to the minors where they might toil for six or eight seasons.
But they knew .300 was the demarcation line for a good season, knew 20 victories made you an ace, and tried like hell to beat the damn Yankees. Some things don’t change.
And so it came to pass, as the Bible might say, that there were ultimately two superstar survivors of that period of baseball history tucked between Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, and their names, nicknames included because we must, were Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller and Stan “the Man” Musial.
And with Joe and Ted having departed, it seems like a good time to turn our thoughts to Feller and Musial, who were so heralded in their time, but who, it seems, have not maintained their stature with the passing of the years.
Baseball does give one a sense of immortality, in that fans that love the game always carry memories. If you are “Squirrel” Reynolds who played shortstop for the 1945 White Sox, at least you are in the Baseball Encyclopedia. If the Squirrel had chosen to hang power lines across the nation, he would have found no such volume commemorating his hard work.
When friends can look at each other over a beer and say “Remember Zeke Bella, and his ’59 Topps baseball card,” not only have these friends bonded, but Zeke Bella has achieved something approaching immortality. The best surgeon in Boston in the 1930s has no such fame.
But fame, to some measure, can be fleeting. In 1950, The Sporting News polled sportswriters and sought the “all-time team” of the first half of the 20th Century. Jimmy Collins was the third baseman. Tris Speaker was in the outfield. George Sisler was at first base. Rogers Hornsby was at second, Honus Wagner at short, and Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb flanked Speaker in the outfield. Mickey Cochrane was the catcher. The pitchers were Christy Mathewson and Cy Young. John McGraw was the manager.
How did these guys hold up by the time the century was over? For Collins and Speaker, and perhaps Sisler, a lot of young fans might look quizzically at you. If you took a similar poll in 2000, it is possible Speaker might not have cracked the top 25 outfielders. Collins’ reputation was long since buried by Pie Traynor, Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. And who among young fans today would even recall Traynor?
The point is, Feller and Musial are two who let the train roar past them, but are two who deserve to be revisited, and appreciated for who they were. Feller, who lost three years to World War II service, wound up being passed by many who were bound for 300 wins (he won 266), and by the strikeout aces of a later time who would pass 3,000 and even 4,000 strikeouts (he had 2,581, third behind Johnson and Young). Musial, who was always spoken of in the same breath as his contemporary Williams, seemed dwarfed by the over-the-top personality of Teddy Ballgame as the years went on, so much so that Williams and DiMaggio became the subject of comparison, with Musial cast aside despite seven batting titles and most of the National League records you could think of.
They deserve better. They are of “The Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokow wrote, and they played the game at a time when heroes were heroes.
The essence of Bob Feller was that he burst onto the public consciousness as the ultimate overnight sensation, hitting the big time before he had even graduated from high school. A 1947 book by Ken Smith described baseball as “the greatest common denominator that the nation has ever known.” That is probably not true any longer, but at that time, it was, and Feller became the talk of the land.
Every baseball fan knew the Bob Feller story. He was the American dream.
He came from the heartland of America in a time when much of the country was still rural, when farm boys might throw the ball with blazing speed against the side of a barn and catch the eye of a traveling scout, long before the sophistication of scouting combines, the draft, baseball scholarships, Baseball America draft previews and agents took hold.
Tom Seaver once asked Feller how he threw his curve, and Feller said, “Well, just like you’d flick a buggy whip!” as though everyone would understand that. It was a different time.
The story began in Van Meter, Iowa, population today under 900, back then, about 300, located 20 miles west of Des Moines, on a 360-acre farm owned by the Fellers. It doesn’t get more heartland than this. Stick a pin dead center in a map of the continental United States, and you hit Feller’s barn. (We speak figuratively; the geographic center is actually in Kansas). He was born there on November 3, 1918.
Feller was a schoolboy, a teenager in little Van Meter High (where he had 16 classmates), and it happened that he could throw the ball nearly 100 mph against the side of a barn, or, if necessary, against opposing hitters from other area amateur teams of much older players. A Cleveland Indians scout with the wonderful name of Cy Slapnicka wandered upon the hard throwing right-hander and began to watch his domination in amateur games. At the Iowa State Fair, his team won the state tournament and he fanned 18. Slap was onto something.
After Feller’s junior year in high school, while classmates were taking summer jobs as lifeguards or soda jerks, Feller was pitching for the Indians. It was 1936; he was 17. He was in the big leagues to pitch against Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and another rookie, Joe DiMaggio. Oh, did the nation love this story!
Feller made his debut on July 19, hurling one inning in relief at Washington. In his first month, he made six relief appearances and gave up five runs in eight innings. On August 23, he made his first start, in front of a hometown crowd at League Park. He faced the St. Louis Browns – and struck out 15 of them for his first victory. Fifteen strikeouts! The all-time record was 17! He was, at once, the talk of America.
For his rookie season, Feller was 5-3 with 76 strikeouts in 62 innings. He went back to school, but left his senior year for spring training (accompanied by a tutor, so that he would graduate on time), and had a 9-7 season with 150 strikeouts in 148 innings. In April, he was on the cover of Time Magazine. But there were critics, even for an 18-year old wonder boy.
In 1938, now a poised veteran of 19, Feller struck out 240 batters, the first of seven strikeout titles he would capture. On October 2 of that year, in his final start of the season, Feller fanned 18 Tigers in a losing effort, breaking the Major League record for strikeouts in a game. He finished the year 17-11, giving him 31 victories as a teenager. And in 1939, he would have his first 20-win season, going 24-9 with 246 strikeouts – a 51- 20 record with 712 strikeouts before he was old enough to vote.
In his first start after he had reached the voting age of 21, he pitched an opening day no-hitter, only the second in history, stopping Chicago 1-0 at Comiskey Park in 47 degree weather. In that 1940 season he would win a career high of 27 games, but the Indians lost the pennant to Detroit by a single game.
That opening day gem would be the first of Feller’s three career no-hitters, to accompany a dozen one-hitters. No one living at that time could envision the coming of a Sandy Koufax (four no-hitters) or Nolan Ryan (seven!), and it was thought, for a very long time, that Feller’s no-hit mark would stand forever.
In fact, the same was felt about his single season strikeout mark, 348, set in 1946, another record that would live until Koufax snapped it. This was the magnitude of Rapid Robert – fans would anticipate no-hitters or dazzling strikeout performances with each outing. He was the circus coming to town, “Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians, here this weekend! Tickets now available!”
He was, unfortunately, saddled with control problems, and his walk totals were also enormous. In 1938 he walked 208. He lived in an era when pitch counts went unrecorded, when starting pitchers just reared back and threw, the expectation being the complete game. There was never a “closer” associated with Feller. He would hurl 279 complete games in his career in 484 starts, pitching as many as 371 innings in a single season. Pitch counts? He probably came close to 200 in some games, then went back out there four days later and did it again.
Whatever overwhelming lifetime total he would have recorded were thwarted when he went off to war in 1942, and essentially missed four seasons. Walter Johnson had the career strikeout mark for decades – 3,509 – and Feller would wind up 928 short of that. He might well have hit that target had he pitched in those four years. But, then again, how many pitchers got the head start that Bob did, striking out nearly 500 batters while still a teen!?
Feller never complained about missing the four years. A patriotic American, he did what most of those in his generation did – fight a popular war without asking questions. He never looked back with any regrets; never spoke of what might have been.
Bob entered the Navy in 1942, where he served as a gun-crew chief aboard the U.S.S. Alabama. Discharged in late 1945, he returned to start nine games as a prelude to the “second half” of his career.
He was now 28. Although still a young man, and not a college product, he had the maturity to become the first player to ever incorporate himself for tax purposes, to organize a winter tour against Negro League stars headed by Satchel Paige, and to involve himself in the early days of the fledgling Major League Baseball Players Association. His salary climbed to $80,000 a year.
In his first full season back, everyone was anxious to see whether the old Bob Feller was still the one taking the mound every four days. What they got was perhaps a better pitcher, for he had added a slider to his pitch repertoire.
He went 26-15 in that first season home, when fans packed the ballparks in record numbers to see the old stars and return to normal routines.
In 1948, he pitched in his only World Series. In the opening game against the Boston Braves, he was locked in a scoreless pitching duel with Johnny Sain. In the eighth, Feller turned and fired to second to try and pickoff Phil Masi. Masi was ruled safe, although newspaper photographs appearing that evening showed he was anything but. Tommy Holmes followed with a single for the game’s only run, in what Feller would call his toughest loss. He also lost the fifth game, and he never appeared in the 1954 Series against the Giants. Thus a World Series victory always eluded him.
He pitched through the 1956 season, and then embarked on a personal appearance career, which foresaw and set the stage for all the card shows and signings that players would do decades later. Piloting his own plane, Feller went from minor league town to minor league town, giving a pitching exhibition, signing autographs, speaking to the crowds. He was a one-man traveling enterprise. Even in his 70s, he was still pitching, by his count, 80 innings a year at Old Timers Games and in personal appearances.
Outspoken in 1940 about his Cleveland manager Oscar Vitt (“He makes us nervous”), he was just as outspoken in 2004 about sharing the Hall of Fame with Pete Rose. (“Count me out.”).
Stan Musial, less outspoken to be sure, also started out as a pitcher. Born in the coal mining town of Donora, Pa. on November 21, 1920, Stan excelled in baseball and basketball in high school, but it was an era when anyone gifted in both had no problem deciding which sport he wanted to pursue. He signed in 1938 to pitch for Williamson in the Mountain State League as soon as he graduated.
In 1940, Stan came under the tutelage of Dickie Kerr, his manager at Daytona Beach. Kerr had an interesting pedigree in the game: he had been an “honest” pitcher on the 1919 Black Sox, winning twice in the World Series while his teammates were intentionally trying to lose behind him. Talk about overcoming tough odds. It was Kerr who saw the hitting skills in young Musial, and who began his shift from the pitching mound and into the outfield. Although 18-5 as a pitcher that year, any hopes for reaching the big leagues as a hurler were dashed in ’41, when he fell on his throwing arm and lost whatever gifts were in there that might have kept him pitching. He was now a full-time outfielder, and in 1941, playing 87 games, he batted .379 with a league leading 26 homers. He was on his way.
He joined the Cardinals as a regular in 1942 on a wartime team that was pennant-bound. He hit .315 that year, third best in the league, but didn’t make the All-Star team, a fact worth noting because for the rest of his career, another 20 seasons, he was selected annually. He was still an All-Star in his 40s when the game was played in Washington (1962), where President Kennedy said to him, “they say I’m too young for my job, and you’re too old, maybe we’ll both prove them wrong.”
Stan’s offensive numbers came to overwhelm observers. It was in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where he regularly killed the Dodgers, that he got the nickname, “Stan the Man.”
He won his first batting title in 1943, hitting .357 and went on to win six more. He led the league in hits six times, in runs scored five times, in doubles eight times, in triples five times and in RBIs twice. He led in on-base percentage six times and in slugging percentage six times. And although he would hit 475 home runs, sixth all-time at the time of his retirement, he never did manage a home run crown.
In 1948, he led the league in almost everything but home runs – runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs, average, slugging, and on-base percentage. His 39 homers that year, a career best, were just one behind Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner. With one more, he would have “run the table,” so to speak. No one ever dominated a year offensively as did Stan in ’48.
After three World Series appearances in his first three full years, Stan played in only one other, 1946, and never appeared in a televised one. Coupled with playing in the small market of St. Louis, one might have thought his profile would be low. But his abilities and cheery persona made him a perennial fan favorite, and the popularity of the Cardinals radio network throughout the Midwest brought him millions of admirers.
He didn’t enter military service until 1945, playing service ball both at home and in the Pacific theater. In 1947, he was tempted to jump to the outlaw Mexican League when they threw a big contract at him, but he wisely decided to remain with the Cardinals, and, as Feller with the Indians, never played for another team.
He won three MVP awards, and by the time his career wound down, he had established a sizeable number of National League career records, knocking Honus Wagner out of the record books. In 1958, he became only the eighth player to record 3,000 hits, which was quite an accomplishment at the time, for it had been 16 years since the last man, Paul Waner, had accomplished it, and it wasn’t nearly as frequently reached as it would come to be after Stan.
Between 1952-57, he played in 895 consecutive games, a league record at the time.
In 1959, he fell below .300 for the first time in his career, and indeed, stayed there in 1960 and ’61, as his career began to wind down. But in 1962, now a 41-year old grandfather, he returned to hit .330, third in the league, assuring his fans that he would not retire on a long, steady decline. He retired after the 1963 season, missing a Cardinal pennant by one season, during which he was a vice-president of the club.
Throughout his career, it was Musial-Williams in the minds of fans. Stan and Ted, matching each other in statistical achievements, batting titles, MVPs, superlatives. Stan’s lifetime average was .331. But in retirement, Stan was just good ol’ Stan, playing the harmonica at the Hall of Fame, puffing on a cigar and glad-handing fans at his St. Louis restaurant. Williams thrust his larger then life personality up to the world and had people comparing him to DiMaggio, not Musial. Eventually, Stan became the forgotten superstar, the guy whose N.L. records fell to Willie Mays, then Hank Aaron and then Pete Rose.
Feller and Musial. Magical names in their times, deserving of the immortality that baseball can bestow on its greatest stars. It was a joy to have seen them play, and a treat to have them still with us today.