Have you seen that great commercial with some guy with a Russian accent manning a one-man call center? A guy looking for customer service says he's been waiting for twenty minutes. "Peggy," the guy with the accent, says, "You are tenacious like bull. I like." It's hysterical. But for some reason, when this writer found out that Bob Feller has passed away, that was the first thing that came to mind. Bob Feller was tenacious like bull.
And it wasn't just Feller's baseball career that was tenacious. He was a tenacious fighter in WWII. He was a tenacious self-promoter on barnstorming tours with Satchel Paige and All Stars of both all colors. Feller was tenacious with selling his image with books and autograph signings all over the country. He was also tenacious with his legacy, keeping his career alive for his blazing fastball and legendary triumphs.
There is nothing wrong with those things, of course. Feller was uniquely able to forge an entire lifelong career on Bob Feller. While he was the fastest pitcher on earth, he "raced" his fastball against race horses and sprinters. He made huge amounts of money capitalizing on the drawing power of black players like Satchel Paige, who Feller would pay to barnstorm around the country. Paige made good coin on those exhibitions. His black teammates made less and Feller made tons.
So there is no one way to remember Bob Feller. His tenacity at life built up his legend and capitalized on it. But it was a tenacity that was well earned. His exploits lived up to the hype and self-promotion. He had the goods to back it up. He joined the big leagues at 17 and he was already a legend with giant hands and an even larger right arm. He won 107 games by the time he was 21. And then at the peak of his career, he tossed it aside after hearing that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Not content with playing baseball for the armed forces and having an easy time of it like many other ball players, Feller wanted in on the thick of it and served as a gunner on a Navy battleship and lost three and a half years to the war. Thankfully he lived through it.
When he returned to the Indians, he was as good or better than ever. His 1946 season was unbelievable. He went 26-15 with an ERA of 2.18 (ERA+ of 151). He pitched in 48 games and accumulated a total of 371,1 innings. Can you imagine!? He struck out 348 batters while only giving up 277 hits, only 11 of them homers. He completed 36 of this games and had ten shutouts. Baseball-reference.com estimates his WAR for that season at 10.1, an almost unthinkable total. Just to put that in a frame of reference, Roy Halladay's season in 2010 came in at a 6.9 WAR.
But the following season, he hurt his knee and lost his fastball. He still won 20 games, but his strikeout total went from 348 to 196 and it would fall every year thereafter. He spent the last eight years of his career recording 4.6 K's per nine or less. But he still had some solid seasons without the big fastball and even won 22 games in 1951 at the age of 32 with only 111 strikeouts for the year. The guy with the biggest fastball on earth learned quickly how to pitch without one.
Feller won 266 games in his career and researchers have estimated that he might have won over 100 more in the time he missed. Plus, he pitched countless innings touring the country on his barnstorm tours. In today's ball game, it's hard to imagine someone throwing that many pitches. He led the league in innings pitched five times. He lead the league in strikeouts seven times.
The Fan would give anything to go back in time to see him pitch. He would have been like Strasburg without the elbow injury. He would have faced Yankee greats from Gehrig to Mantle. He saw it all and his boasts and recollections weren't fables. They weren't because Bob Feller was bigger than life. He was Rapid Robert, the fastest throwing arm of them all. The word, "Legend," is overused. But in Feller, the title seemed too small.