Bob Feller died Wednesday night about 9:15, and the United States lost a kind of citizen hard to find these days.
He was a helluva pitcher, and has a plaque in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown to prove it. He struck out 17 batters when he was 18 years old, major league batters. An American League record then. A year later, he raised the record to 18, all Detroit Tigers. He was the first major league pitcher to win 20 games before he was 21.
And I could go on -- and probably shall -- but this is what has always impressed me most about Bob Feller, "Rapid Robert" to generations of baseball fans. All of us who were alive at the time remember Dec. 7, 1941, "a day to be held in infamy," as President Roosevelt addressed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day Bob Feller went down to the U.S. Navy recruiting station in Des Moines and enlisted, the first major league player to join the armed forces.
He didn't have to. He could have waited for the draft board to call his number. But Bob Feller was a patriot. America was at war, and he made it his war. For the better part of the next four years, Bob was pulling his weight for his country. A lot of that time he was a gunnery captain on the USS Alabama, while the major leagues played on without him.
In his war-shortened career, he won 266 games. He struck out 2,581 batters. He had an earned-run average of 3.25 per game. He pitched three no-hit games, one on opening day in 1940 against the White Sox.
Had he been able to play out his full career -- and these are estimates -- he might have won 373 games and struck 3,651 batters, and in this day and time, might have ranked the greatest pitcher of all time. It was estimated that on one occasion he was known to have thrown a pitch that measured 104 miles per hour. But you can throw out all the no-hitters and strikeouts and other such records, he earns my salute as the most patriotic of them all -- or at least the quickest patriot.
Feller grew up on a farm near Van Meter, a town of 868 population today, just outside Des Moines. His father was several years ahead of "Field of Dreams," and on that farm laid out a mound -- "It even had a rubber," Bob once said -- and a wooden plate, behind which he directed young Bob and fielded his pitches. That is, once the farm work was done.
Feller once credited his physical development to "milking cows, baling hay and harvesting corn."
He never veered far from baseball, or from Cleveland.
After his instant induction into the Hall of Fame in 1962, he was a constant visitor to the annual induction activities. As recent as a year ago he made a pitching appearance, throwing with his trademark high leg kick.
He could be crusty, didn't mix well with milling fans, but was a constant visitor to Indian games through last season. They'll probably stake out the seat where he sat in the press area and the "Bob Feller chair" shall go vacant.
Here was a solid American, who loved his country as he loved his game, a man to be remembered for his deep-rooted loyalties.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.