Bob Feller lived up to all expectations the first time I met him. It was in 2004, and I was doing an anniversary story on the 1954 Indians AL Championship team. Feller, a regular attendee at Tribe home games in his perch in the press box, was easily accessible, and I approached him knowing he had a reputation for being, well, a little gruff.
“Get that thing out of my face,” he said when I tried to hold up a tape recorder at what I thought was a reasonable distance from his face.
Yep, he was gruff, all right.
But then he started talking. And talking. And talking. I didn’t have to ask a single question — I would learn this is fairly common in a Feller interview — to get him to spill every memory from that season, every comment on his teammates. Feller was 84 at the time, and his memory was as sharp as ever.
Over the years, I would be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to tap into that memory quite often. Feller was an extremely valuable resource in learning about the past of not just the Indians and Major League Baseball but of our country itself.
And that gruff exterior? Just an exterior, I would come to learn. Because beneath the hard handshakes and beyond the sometimes-controversial commentary is actually a pretty charming old man with an inimitable and unshakable wit.
Without question, one of my favorite days on the beat each year was the day Feller would arrive to the Spring Training complex, be it Winter Haven or Goodyear, and come strolling into the press workroom. Unprompted, he’d begin offering his opinions on the news of the day. This year, it was the news that LeBron James was filing paperwork with the NBA to change his number from 23 to 6.
“I changed my number three times,” Feller said, “and never had to file any papers.”
When it was pointed out to Feller that he wore Nos. 9, 11, 17 and 19 — all odd numbers — Feller reasoned, “I like oddballs and odd numbers.”
You could always tell from the wry smile on his face that Feller loved making us laugh, and he did so frequently. Sometimes we were the target of his jokes.
“What do you do when you can’t hit a curveball?” he once said. “Get a typewriter.”
He also loved regaling us with what he called “rainy day stories” from his career, from the ridiculous to the sublime. If you were on deadline pregame (as I often was, trying to get my notes filed), both the worst thing and the best thing that could happen to you was getting stopped by Feller in the media dining room. Because once he started telling his tales, there was no telling when he’d stop.
It was in the summer of 2007 that I got to know Feller on a deeper level. The Indians invited me to come along on a chartered flight to Des Moines. They had arranged for the filming of a documentary on Feller’s Iowa upbringing, and Feller was aboard to show the camera crew his roots. I’ll never forget that trip. It was better than any American history course I could have taken in college. Feller showed us the farm where he formed his fastball and the cornfield that he and his father turned into a baseball field. He took us to his museum, which was, to him, a great source of pride, and to the street that bears his name.
My favorite stop of the tour might have Booneville, Iowa — a tiny town that, by my recollection, contained a couple grain silos, a small diner, a few houses and, well, not much else. But there was a building where a bank once stood, and Feller shared with us a story passed down to him by his father. It seems the bank’s owner lived across the street, and one day at lunch he looked across the street into his bank to see it being robbed by three crooks. The bank owner grabbed his gun and shot each crook dead on the spot as the exited.
Feller loved this story. “Instant justice,” he said.
But another memory I have of that trip — the memory I’ll take with me long after Feller is gone — is of the visit we made to the house he built for his parents at the site of the farm. The house is now inhabited by a local doctor and his family, and Feller’s frequent visits have made him a grandfather-type figure to those kids. When we arrived, they all excitedly greeted him with hugs and tagged along as he visited the red barn where he used to play catch with his dad.
“Decide what you really want to do early in life, then do it,” Feller told those kids. “Then you never have to work a day in your life. That’s what I did. I played ball for a living.”
In the wake of last night’s news that Feller has been transferred to hospice care, I find myself instinctively writing about him in the past tense. It’s not intentional; it’s just that we all knew a day would come when Feller, 92, would begin to succumb to Father Time, and that day, sadly, appears to be close. Feller, of course, acknowledged as much earlier this year, when he talked about throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at a Spring Training game.
“One of these days,” Feller said with a smile, “it will be the last first pitch.”
But I’d like to think that those of us fortunate enough to be around Feller on a regular basis in these latter years of his life took full advantage of the situation. A living legend was in our midst, and, while he certainly had some unmistakably gruff qualities, he was, at heart, a Hall of Famer in ways that go well beyond anything he accomplished on the mound.
This, then, is a thank you to Rapid Robert for the many memories he shared with me and the many memories he left with me. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.