Bob Feller always seemed larger than life, as if he had just stepped off the screen from one of those old John Wayne or Clint Eastwood films.
He was a big man with a big career and big opinions. He never shrank from the mound, nor from throwing a fastball when he thought the situation called for it -- on or off the field.
|Bob Feller was one of the last links to Cleveland's last title (1948). (Getty Images)|
In earlier years, until his retirement in 1956 following a war-interrupted 20-year career during which he went 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA, you needed to win a game, same thing.
Feller was one of the last links to Cleveland's last World Series title, way back in 1948. He was also one of the last links to the time before political correctness pervaded this country.
Forgive Pete Rose and install him into Cooperstown? Feller knew of at least one Hall of Famer who would boycott all future induction ceremonies if that were to happen: Himself.
He won 17 games as a 17-year-old rookie in 1936 and 24 games the next season (sophomore jinx? What sophomore jinx?).
He fired three career no-hitters, collected 107 victories by the time he was 23, then enlisted in the Navy. He lost most of the next four seasons to World War II, then came back in 1946 and went 26-15 with 371 1/3 innings pitched.
If he seemed a little grumpy in recent years regarding the modern pitcher and lowered expectations, well, he had earned every right to be grumpy.
Feller was born in Iowa, but he was pure Cleveland. Which was one of the best things about him, and one of the things so many of us will miss the most. The days of a retired player being identified with one city are slowly fading away, like video rental outlets and typewriters.
When Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia are 92, on which city's baseball issues will they be able to speak with authority?
Feller lived in Cleveland, wore the Indians uniform while signing autographs each spring at training camp and watched game after game each summer from a perch in the third row of the Cleveland press box.
If you were there covering a game, it was like having one of the gods atop Mt. Olympus right behind you.
Last time I spoke with him, he was there in a crammed press box -- rare, sadly, in recent days in Cleveland -- on a Sunday afternoon in mid-June watching the game's latest phenom, Washington's Stephen Strasburg, making only his second major-league start.
"He's got a good career coming up," Feller told me that day. "I understand he's very affable but very quiet. He'll probably be tougher on right-handers than on left-handers. He's two or three miles an hour slower when he's got men on base. I noticed that today. But that's typical. That's not unusual."
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Feller pointed out that "he'll probably have half-a-dozen hitters or so who he can't get out. We all have that." Among his own, Feller said, were Tommy Henrich and Nellie Fox.
Even then, closing in on 92, he appeared larger than life. When I double-checked his height while writing this farewell, I was surprised that he stood only 6-feet. I could have sworn he was at least 6-3, 6-4.
It was his accomplishments on the field, his wartime service, the way he carried himself.
He was from an age when men left baseball to fight in wars ... and of an age that afforded him a perspective wholly different than what we have today.
To us, he was Rapid Robert, or Bullet Bob.
Who knew through all these years that he never much cared for either nickname?
"I don't like any of them that much, to be honest," he told Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer during an interview last spring. "To me, Bullet Bob is Bullet Bob Turley (who won the Cy Young award in 1958).
"Rapid Robert is the most popular, but I don't care for it. Anne, my wife, doesn't like it either. I prefer to be called Bob. If they call me Rapid Robert, well, so be it."
So be it. By the time a life very well lived was finished, he had long since belonged to the ages.
At that point, the little things sort of get beyond a guy's control, don't they?