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from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rapid Robert

This morning, a Facebook friend shared this post from the Cleveland Indians. It's the birthday of Robert William Andrew Feller (1918-2010), one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history--and the greatest in the long (variable) history of the Cleveland Indians, for whom he pitched from 1936-1956, with three years out for a little military skirmish. World War II. (He was in the Navy, saw action.) Feller's statue now stands outside Progressive Field, where the Tribe plays. It's a common rendezvous site for people meeting from different places to go to a game together.

When I was growing up in Oklahoma in the early 1950s, there was only one baseball game each week on television--The Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon; it usually featured the top teams (Yankees, Dodgers), and, as a result, I was a Yankees' fan as a kid. I saw Feller pitch on TV a few Saturdays, but I was generally rooting against him because he was facing the Yanks. But I could not help admiring him. That fastball! He would end his career with a record of 266-162, a 3.25 ERA. Three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters.

In the summer of 1956, we moved to Hiram, Ohio, not far from Cleveland, the very summer when Feller was ending his career. He was not doing too well. Used mostly in relief, he ended the year 0-4 with a 4.97 ERA and pitched only 58 innings. (Several times in his career he had pitched over 300!) He appeared in only 19 games. There were Tribe games on TV on Saturdays then--sometimes on Sundays. And I remember that he usually entered the game when it was already over. Far ahead, far behind.

I remember one game--out of hand, Tribe losing--when Feller came in to relieve. And my memory is this: He surrendered three consecutive home runs. My quick Googling just now did not come up with any more about that day--did it happen? Were there only two? I remember three. But I was only 11 years old, so who knows? I remember this, too: My dad was watching with me, and, afterwards, his eyes were rimmed with red.

(I just did some scrolling through the Tribe's 1956 box scores but did not hit upon that game. Will try more later.)

Early in my marriage (we were married on Dec. 20, 1969), Joyce and I were heading west on I-80, on the other side of Des Moines (where my parents were living), and we saw an exit sign for Van Meter, Iowa. Feller's hometown. We took the exit (I was far more excited than Joyce, who was just beginning to realize she'd married a Baseball Freak--too late!), drove into the little western Iowa town of Van Meter--and saw nothing we could relate to Feller. Disappointed, we headed back out onto I-80 and into the West to see the Rockies and visit Oregon family.

Later, Van Meter did erect and open a museum to honor Rapid Robert, but that was not until 1995. It's now open only on Fri-Sat-Sun (link to museum website.)

I have another Feller memory. When our son was in sixth grade (1983-84), he was a big baseball fan (still is), so I decided that over spring break that year I would take him out to Tucson, Arizona, home (at the time) of the Tribe's spring training. We flew out and spent a handful of days having one of our great times together. In the morning, we'd go to the Tucson Zoo, where both of us were fascinated by the tigers (one tried to hit us with a spray of urine--missed!) and by the polar bears, who must have wondered what the hell had happened to the world they'd known. When we watched them, they swam around, around, and around the little pool the zoo provided for them, never getting anywhere, like an old guy (me) on a stationary bike.

We would then spend all afternoon at Hi Corbett Field (both of us returned to Ohio with fierce sunburns), watching the practices, the practice games. And Bob Feller was a presence.

He'd remained associated with the Tribe for the rest of his life, their ambassador, speech-maker, glad-hander. And he always went to spring training.

But here's what I remember about him in Tucson. In full uniform (his number was 19), he stood out by the left-field fence (wooden), where he practiced his pick-off move. He was in his mid-60s.

Over and over again he would stretch, come to a pause, look towards the wall, then wheel and fire to the absent first baseman. The ball would hit the wall, roll back toward him. He'd pick it up and do it all over again.

Like a polar bear, swimming laps, wondering what in the hell had happened.

Rapid Robert--and his famous high leg kick

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