He was an authentic American hero, not the made-for TV kind that those of us who watch SportsCenter, surf Fanhouse or read Sports Illustrated have grown accustomed to cheering.
No, that would be the right way to look at Bob Feller. He was a hero in the historical sense of the word.
So it saddens those who got to know Feller to hear that Wednesday, on a frigid Cleveland night, he died in a hospice. He was 92.
“Bob Feller is gone,” Indians owner Larry Dolan said in a statement team that officials issued. “We cannot be surprised. 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.”
That’s all most people cared to know about Feller, the most iconic figure in the history of Cleveland baseball. For unlike some famous athletes who jilted this city, discarding its affections so cavalierly, he never did. Feller was all that was good about athletes from the golden age of sports. To those men, fans mattered; an athlete’s standing in the public’s eye accounted for something; it wasn’t all about the benjamins or the Nike ads or the starlet on his arm.
For if it were, Feller could have had those things – some of them, anyway. But they didn’t mean much to him. Sure, he had the adulation; he made plenty of money in his life, too. Yet none of it meant as much to Feller as knowing his country came first.
Nobody can doubt he was an American hero, though most people would ascribe his fame to his ability to throw a baseball harder than anybody else in his generation. Feller was mindful of the fame that gift from God brought him; he was proud of it. His ability to throw a baseball drew crowds to him and earned him a plaque in Cooperstown.
But were you able to spend a couple of minutes talking to Feller, and he would have told you that all the achievements he had in baseball, grand as those achievements were, palled in comparison to what he had achieved for his country.
Feller would tell you no one in baseball or any sport was a real hero. How could anyone be when he had risked nothing? Yet Feller had risked all that he was – all that he might ever become – for his country.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller, 23 then and the best pitcher in the game, left his home in Van Meter, Iowa, drove up to a recruitment center in Chicago and, with former boxing champ Gene Tunney doing the swearing in, enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“There’s a lot of things in my life I would do differently,” Feller once told as he and I waited for an Indians game to start at Progressive Field. “But volunteerin’ is not one of ’em.”
In World War II, 11 million men served America. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, each of them played roles in winning the war. About 450 of those men were professional ballplayers. Their names were Greenburg, Williams, DiMaggio, Robinson … and others. They fought as their brethren had in World War I; they fought to save America.
“I coulda stayed out of the whole thing – milked cows, planted corn, worked the farm or played baseball,” Feller said. “But there were some draft dodgers. Well, I don’t call ’em draft dodgers; I call ’em traitors.
“You see, if you’re physically and mentally capable of helping your country in a situation like that, where the freedom and sovereignty of this nation was at stake, it’s about time to get busy – either fish or cut bait.”
So Feller fished. Refusing a stateside assignment, he fought with the Third Fleet off the coast of Saipan. He was all in on the war effort. If it meant never returning home alive or never playing in the big leagues again, Feller would accept those terms for freedom.
“You always know there might be one of those bullets out there with your name on it,” he said.
Bullets missed him, and he returned home in 1945 to resume a career that brought him more fame than anything he did for his country.
He never once considered baseball as more meaningful to him than his country and his decision to defend it. While the war might not have brought Feller the public acclaim, he derived a satisfaction from it that trumped anything sports brought him.
Yet he saw no heroism in what he did for America. He sought no ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue or fistfuls of medals for valor. He needed none; nor did he ask for any symbols of heroism.
“I’m no hero,” he once told me. “Heroes didn’t come back. I said that all the along. The survivors returned. I came back.”
He came back to remind all of us the importance of country. He came back to finish the work he had began as a teenager. He was a baseball player then, and he was a baseball player till the end, which is how most people will remember him.
Not me. I’ll always remember Feller, “Rapid Robert” as he was called, as a man of conviction, as a man of strong opinions and as man who cared more for his country than he did about baseball.
Yes, his name will be revered in baseball circles forever, but fans do him an injustice when they forget who Bob Feller was: an American hero in the historical sense of the word.