Friday, December 17, 2010

A Conversation with Bob Feller

Wednesday night, Cleveland lost a man who set the bar high for being a good person as well as a professional athlete. Bob Feller died at age 92.

I met him in the spring of 2007, when I interviewed him at his Gates Mills home for Cleveland Magazine’s Home D├ęcor. I expected to talk about baseball, to pore over Tribe memorabilia. But I learned quickly that would have shortchanged the man.

Yes, he was a pitcher on the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 championship team. But he also volunteered to leave baseball for four years to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II — a decision he never regretted. Even though had he stayed he surely would have won more than 300 games. As it is, his 266 wins make him the Indians all-time greatest pitcher. He also threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters.

I was there to interview him about a favorite place in his house. So Feller showed me to his basement — a personal museum dedicated to things he loved. It held a framed American flag that flew over Babylon, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. It also included a replica of his Hall of Fame plaque, but Feller proudly led me to the flag first.

He showed me gifts he’d received from young fans. I had to prod him to tell me more about the items of historical significance.

I saw his first baseball contract — complete with a $1 signing bonus — written on the back of stationery from the Chamberlain Hotel in Des Moines. It included clauses allowing Feller to “visit his folks” and play basketball during the 1936 season. He also had the original scorecard from the only opening day no-hitter in major-league history. Feller threw it, of course. The scorecard was obscured by other, less mind-blowing items.

I asked him about Ted Williams. I wanted to know about the baseball player; Feller wanted to tell me about the man. Sure, Feller said, Williams was the best hitter he ever faced, followed closely by Stan Musial. But boy, was he a great fisherman! He thought Williams could cast a line through a keyhole — hyperbole, yes, but Feller was convincing.

He told me about his big tractor collection. Some were in his garage; most were back in Iowa. He told me Iowa has the best grass for fattening up cows.

He politely answered all my baseball questions, then said he wanted to show me something. He led me to a giant map of the world and pointed out where he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Then he showed me another spot, the takeoff point for the pilot — a man he said he knew — who flew the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. There was no commentary or hidden message. It was what it was, matter of fact. Just like Feller.

Before I left, so that Feller could head to his usual spot in the press box at that night’s Indians game, I took a moment to just be a fan. I told him my father would be jealous I got to spend this time with him.

“Well, you tell your dad I said hi,” he said. “And you tell him he has a pretty daughter.”

It was gracious compliment I will never forget, from a Clevelander whose achievements will never be matched.

(photo from clevelandmemory.org)

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