Bob Feller, the Greatest Pitcher Ever?


Robert William Andrew Feller, who died yesterday of leukemia at the age of 92, was the greatest pitcher in baseball history. Well, he might have been. If not, he was damn close, and, if not, he would have been with a break or two.

Feller made his major league debut in 1936 when he was 17, fresh from an Iowa farm. They put out a lot of press releases about stuff like that back in the 1930s, but in Feller’s case it was true. He did grow up on a farm and he did lean how to pitch by knocking cans off a fence with apples. At 17 he was on the cover of Time magazine at which time, it could be safely said, he was the most famous teenager in America, with the exception of Mickey Rooney. Like Rooney, he was the biggest box office draw of his profession.

In 1938, when Feller was just 19, he won 17 games for the Cleveland Indians; the next year he won 24, the year after that 27, and then 25. He lead the league al four of those years in strikeouts.

There is simply no telling how good he might have been had it not been for World War II. When he came out of the service in 1946 — he had enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and served on the battleship U.S.S. Alabama – he won another 26 games and struck out an amazing 348 batters.

How fast was he at his peak? The stories and quips about his fastball have made for lively reading in many a book. My favorite: the Yankees’ ace lefty and born quipster Lefty Gomez one walked up to home plate against Feller in the late afternoon – or so Lefty told the story – and inserted a lit match into the hole in his cap. “That match won’t help you see Feller’s fast one,” the ump growled. “I just wanna make sure,” Gomez replied, “that Feller sees me!” Butta-bump.

Several years ago, in an interview, I asked him what he thought he might have done had he not lost the four best seasons of his prime to the War. “I don’t think about that,” he shot back. “There were larger concerns at the time.” (Though a few years ago he finally admitted, “I know in my heart I would have ended up a lot closer to 400 than 300 if I hadn’t spent four seasons in the Navy.” But, “I’m happy that I got home in one piece.”)

Indeed. But one can’t help but imagine. He wound up pitching until 1956 with 266 wins – from 1939-1941 and in 1946 he won 102 games. If he had done that in the four seasons he missed, he would have had at least 366 wins over his career. I don’t think anyone would have any trouble called him the greatest ever if he had that many wins.

Why don’t they? Why don’t more baseball analysts make this obvious case for Feller? I suspect because he had kind of a loose mouth and an unfortunate habit of being outspoken when he shouldn’t have spoken at all.

He was cantankerous, cranky and irascible even as a young man.

For instance, he was open in criticizing players who were caught testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, calling them cheaters, and in calling Pete Rose a liar when he denied betting on baseball. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, but they were cheaters and Rose was a liar.

Far more serious were his infamous remarks made back in 1945 when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Feller had pitched to Robinson numerous times on barnstorming tours and told a reporter who kept pushing him for an evaluation that Jackie was “too muscle bound to make it in the major leagues,” adding that he doubted Robinson would be a big league prospect “if he were white.”

For years and years, that was almost all reporters wanted to talk about when they interviewed Feller. Though it took him a while, he finally said that he had been wrong, not once but several times. It isn’t known whether or not he directly apologized to Robinson. It is known that Feller, one of the few white superstars to barnstorm with Negro League stars in the 1940s – check out his adventures in Tim Gay’s superb Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson — and was vociferous in his support for many Negro League players to the Hall of Fame committee.

In 1962 he and Jackie Robinson went into the HOF together, the first players to be voted in during their first year of eligibility since the first inductions in 1939. In his memoir, Feller wrote that it had been “extra meaningful” and “a great honor” for him to go into Cooperstown with Robinson; for his part, Jackie said how honored he was to be sharing that day with Bob Feller.

Can we finally drop the Feller-Jackie Robinson non-controversy?

And while we’re at it, let’s just go ahead and say it: Rapid Robert was the greatest pitcher in baseball history, war or no war.