I am sure many people will be writing and speaking about Bob Feller this morning, as the baseball hall of famer passed away last night at the age of 92. (Here is some great old black and white footage of Feller). Feller was blessed with arguably the greatest fastball in major league history, breaking into the big leagues as a 17-year-old phenom with the Cleveland Indians. In his first start (7th appearance overall) he struck out 15 batters in a complete game, 6-hitter. A 17-year-old striking out 15 men–not just men, but major league hitters (granted, the Browns weren’t that good in 1936, but they had four players with an OPS over .800 in the lineup that day). Think about that for a moment. He also lost roughly four seasons during his prime (age 23-25) fighting in World War II (he was the first major leaguer to enlist after Pearl Harbor).
While Feller was a Hall of Fame player his performance relative to other greats can be debated. Certainly, Feller had impressive traditional statistics. He averaged close to 15 wins a season over 18 years and had a .621 winning percentage. Had he not lost those prime years to the war he very well could have amassed between 340 and 350 wins for his career. He also averaged 143 strikeouts per season, finishing with almost 2600 for his career, leading the league seven times and striking out an amazing 348 batters in 1946. However, he also had the 5th most walks allowed in history (1764), walking an astounding 208 batters in 1938. His penchant for walks earned him a career WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched) of 1.32, good for 527th all time, easily one of the worst for a Hall of Fame pitcher. Despite having a remarkably powerful arm, he finished his career with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of only 1.46, 650th all time, again one of the worst for a Hall of Famer.
But despite a high WHIP and less than stellar K-to-BB ratio, Feller managed to accumulate 66 Wins-Above-Replacement (WAR) over his career, good for 31st all time.
Feller’s accomplishments, however, cannot be summed up by any statistical analysis of his performance on the diamond (traditional, sabermetric, or otherwise). Feller was an innovator, a game-changer in the business of baseball.
When Feller returned from the war, he focused on the business of baseball. Long before players signed multi-million dollar endorsement deals and benefited from the open bidding for their talents via free agency, Feller understood that the way to significantly increase earnings as a ballplayer was to cultivate and promote his personal brand. The pitcher incorporated himself, created and participated in barnstorming tours in the off-season, and endorsed various products. His barnstorming tours typically included Negro League players, helping to alter the perception of black players in a favorable way leading up to integration. Additionally, Feller used what little leverage he had as a player in those days to negotiate various clauses in his contracts that paid him a bonus based on fan attendance when he took the mound. His focus on the business of baseball also led him to become the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association. (NPR has a great summary of Feller’s off-field accomplishments and innovations).
Feller was, at base, one of the greatest fans and ambassadors of the game besides being one of its greatest players. In a great piece this morning about Feller, Joe Posnanski of SI.com relates a conversation he had with Feller in which the latter neatly summarizes the romanticism and broader purpose of the game:
And then Bob Feller asked me about my father. Direct questions. Did he play catch with me when I was young? I said yes. Did he take me to baseball games? I said yes. Did he believe in me deeply? I said yes.
The tape recorder was off and my notebook was put away and so I cannot write here what he said word for word. But I remember the important part. He told me that I was lucky, that what you need to succeed in this world is a father who believes in you. And he told me that his father believed in him. Funny thing, though, he said Bill Feller never once said, “Bob, someday you’re going to pitch in the big leagues.” No, there were no words. There are some things that cannot be said with words. There was only those sweaty Iowa afternoons and those chilly Iowa evenings, and the sun setting, and a baseball going back and forth. Everything he needed to know about life was in that back-and-forth.
Bill Feller died in 1943, while his son Bob was at war. He had seen his son become the best pitcher in baseball.
As a parent I cannot think of a better way to capture what is special about sports, and baseball in particular. It allows us to connect with our children in so many ways. It allows us to encourage them, to teach them lessons that apply far beyond the little league diamond, and to create bonds and memories that will last long after we are gone.
Rest in peace, Bob.