Eighty years ago today, Bob Feller accomplished a feat that has never been duplicated. He threw a no-hitter on opening day.
Feller was the rarest of baseball phenoms: the teenage star pitcher. He was so precocious he made an MLB list of top seasons by a teenager twice.
His life story reads like American folklore. Growing up on a farm in Van Meter, Iowa, his father built a baseball stadium on the property. A literal “Field of Dreams.” He signed as a 16-year-old with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball.
He struck out the side in the first inning of his first major league start, and whiffed 15 in total. A few weeks later, he tied a then-major league record by striking out 17. Seventeen was also his age. (Two years later, he would strike out 18 in a game.) He made the cover of Time magazine. In his obituary, the New York Times said he was the most famous young person in America — other than perhaps Shirley Temple.
In 1940, Feller was already entering his fifth major league season, at age 21. He was coming off his first great season, winning 24 games and leading the AL with 246 strikeouts, the second of seven seasons in which he would do that. On April 16 of that year, Feller’s family was in attendance as the Indians faced the White Sox in Chicago. It was a sparse crowd for a season opener, with only 14,000 in attendance, as it was “an unreasonably cold day.”
No wonder he threw a no-hitter, who the hell wants to bat against Bob Feller while freezing your ass off?
Feller struck out eight and walked five that day in a performance that kicked off a 27-win season, perhaps his greatest year ever. He pitched in 43 games, starting 37, and threw 31 complete games in 320⅓ innings — numbers that are utterly unachievable in today’s game.
He would go on to set records for total no-hitters (three) and one-hit outings (12).
In the history of baseball, few pitchers could match Feller as a gate attraction. Think Fernandomania. Doc Gooden in his early years. Mark Fidrych for one season. He was the youngest player in baseball and the hardest-throwing pitcher in the game.
He generated his famous fastball with an equally famous high-leg kick. No one in baseball pitches like that anymore, because pitching coaches have developed their own industry of making every pitcher’s delivery as efficient and uniform as possible. Is that a good thing? Overall, it probably works for many, maybe even most pitchers. But it sure is boring. Baseball definitely lost something when the unique deliveries like Jim Bunning, Juan Marichal and Luis Tiant were coached out of the game.
Was there a more fun player in the early 2000s than Dontrelle Willis, who was positively a throwback to the Negro Leagues with his high stirrups, high leg kick, that herky-jerky motion? Clearly that shit wasn’t going to be acceptable and he had to knock that off immediately.
Feller followed 1940 with a similar season in 1941, the year of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He won 25 games and struck out 260 in 343 innings. All of those numbers led the league. Feller pitched before the Cy Young Award was invented, but if it had been around, he would have likely won it four or five times.
Then of course, Pearl Harbor happened. Feller is probably the most famous man to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
In a column for Miltiary.com, Feller recounts the day he decided to sign up:
“I was driving from my home in Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago to discuss my next contract with the Cleveland Indians, and I heard over the car radio that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I was angry as hell.
“I then phoned Gene Tunney, the former world heavyweight boxing champion and an old friend. A commander, Gene was in charge of the Navy’s physical training program. He flew out from Washington and swore me in on Tuesday, 9 December.”
Feller served as chief petty officer on the USS Alabama, spending six months in the North Atlantic before the battleship headed to the Pacific for two years of fighting against the Japanese. Feller proudly writes, “Two enemy bombs hit the ship during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, and we survived a typhoon that pummeled us with 80-knot gusts off the Philippine coast. The Alabama never lost a man to enemy action. The people we had on the gun crews were very good shots.”
He missed almost four years of his career to the war, not returning to the majors until late in 1945. In his first full year back, Feller won 26 games and struck out 348, a major league record at the time.
Feller, perhaps more than any other great baseball player, was a man of his time. He had a cool nickname, “Rapid Robert,” which is infinitely cooler than “B-Fell” or whatever we would call him today. His fastball had an even better nickname: The Heater from Van Meter. He was a member of the Tom Brokaw “Greatest Generation.”
It’s not like he didn’t have pride or ego; he would tout studies by people that suggested he would have won 350 games or more if not for the war. (He finished with a record of 266-162 and 2,581 strikeouts.) Like hundreds of players before and since, in his later days he often complained about how soft and terrible modern ballplayers were.
I met Bob Feller sometime in the mid-1990s at a baseball card show. Card shows were a big deal for ex-ballplayers at the time. Pete Rose was still in his lying phase, making a living by selling autographs and claiming his innocence. DiMaggio was the toughest signature to get because he charged exorbitant prices at shows. Feller? He signed for free.
Feller’s strikeout records have been broken — how could they not be, as the game progressed toward more and more power pitchers (like Nolan Ryan) and free swingers — but that opening day no-hitter is an accomplishment that has yet to be matched.