Robert William Andrew Feller was born on November 3, 1918, in the small midwestern town of Van Meter, Iowa. Growing up an Iowa farm boy during the 1920s, much of Feller’s childhood consisted of performing household chores and playing baseball. Feller later credited milking cows, picking corn, and baling hay with strengthening his arms and giving him the capacity to throw as hard as he did.
Feller was as much of a phenom as there could be in the 1930s. He quickly gained notoriety for his pitching as a teenager with Van Meter High School. When he was 17, the youngster pitched an exhibition game against members of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1936. He struck out eight batters in just three innings of work, dazzling the major leaguers with knee-high fastballs. He was advised at that time to leave high school and sign a pro contract immediately, which he did. He signed with the Cleveland Indians for and an autographed baseball.
He made his major league debut with the team on July 19, 1936, more than three months shy of his 18th birthday. Without having spent a single day in the minors, the 17-year-old phenom struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first start in the major leagues. Feller finished the season 5-3, with a 3.34 ERA and 76 strikeouts in only 62 innings of work. The following spring, Feller returned to Van Meter to formally graduate with his class. The graduation ceremony was carried live on national radio.
After winning nine of his 19 starts as an 18-year old, Feller began to establish himself as one of the American League’s better pitchers in 1938, finishing the campaign with a record of 17-11 and a league-leading 240 strikeouts, and being named to the All-Star Team for the first of four consecutive times. Still, the 19-year-old fireballer was far from a complete pitcher, since he also topped the circuit with 208 walks. Although Feller occasionally experienced lapses in control in subsequent seasons as well, leading all league hurlers in bases on balls allowed in two of the next three seasons, the righthander learned to better control his blazing fastball.
Complementing his best pitch with a well-above-average breaking ball, Feller developed into baseball’s best pitcher in 1939, compiling an outstanding 2.85 ERA and leading all AL hurlers with a record of 24-9, 24 complete games, 297 innings pitched, and 246 strikeouts.
In 47-degree weather, Feller opened the 1940 season with a no-hitter on April 16 against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. On the final day of the season he lost 2-0 to Detroit, as the Tigers clinched the pennant. In between those two starts he was masterful: 27-11 with a 2.61 ERA, with 261 K’s in more than 320 innings. He completed 31 of his 37 starts and also had four saves. He surrendered just 13 home runs
He followed that up by compiling a 3.15 ERA in 1941, while leading the league with 25 victories, six shutouts, 343 innings pitched, and 260 strikeouts. He placed third in the league MVP balloting, behind Joe DiMaggio, who hit in 56 consecutive games for the pennant-winning Yankees at one point during the season, and Ted Williams, who batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox.
At the peak of his fame, Feller became just the second major league player to enlist in the armed forces (Hank Greenberg was the first), joining the United States Navy on December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He spent the next four years fighting the enemy overseas, serving as Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama. Despite being decorated with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars, Feller later rejected the notion that he was a hero, saying: “I’m no hero. Heroes don’t come back. Survivors return home. Heroes never come home. If anyone thinks I’m a hero, I’m not.”
Having survived numerous life-threatening battles with the enemy, Feller was hardly frightened by opposing hitters when he returned to the Cleveland Indians late in 1945. He went 5-3 in his nine starts, compiling a 2.50 ERA and striking out 59 batters in 72 innings of work. Showing few after-effects from his four-year layoff, Feller had arguably the greatest season of his career in 1946. In addition to compiling an outstanding 2.18 ERA and leading the league with 26 wins, Rapid Robert led all hurlers with 10 shutouts, 348 strikeouts, 36 complete games, and 371 innings pitched.
Feller had another exceptional season in 1947, finishing 20-11 to lead the league in victories for the fifth of six times, compiling a 2.68 ERA, throwing 20 complete games, and topping the circuit with five shutouts, 299 innings pitched, and 196 strikeouts. He got his first opportunity to pitch in the World Series the following year, when the Indians captured the pennant for the first time since 1920. Feller won 19 games for the league champions, completing 18 of his 38 starts and striking out 164 batters, to lead the league in strikeouts for the seventh and final time in his career.
Feller didn’t fare particularly well in the Fall Classic, losing both of his starts while compiling an ERA of just over five runs per-nine innings. However, he was a hard-luck loser in Game One, allowing only one run and two hits in a 1-0 loss to Boston Braves ace Johnny Sain. Nevertheless, Cleveland came out on top in the Series, four games to two, giving Feller the only world championship of his career.
Feller pitched effectively in 1949 and 1950, winning 15 and 16 games, respectively, before having his last big year in 1951. Having lost some of the velocity on his once-blazing fastball, Feller relied more on guile than ever before to post a league-leading 22-8 record and .733 winning percentage. Although he struck out only 111 batters, the 32-year-old righthander compiled a very respectable 3.50 earned run average and completed 16 of his 32 starts, en route to being named The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year.
Feller never again came close to winning 20 games in his five remaining seasons, but he posted a 13-3 record during Cleveland’s 1954 pennant-winning campaign. Pitching mostly in relief in 1956, Feller finished 0-4 before announcing his retirement at the conclusion of the season. He was 37 ears old.
Feller ended his career with a record of 266-162, an ERA of 3.25, and 2,581 strikeouts in 3,827 innings of work. He completed well over half his starts and tossed a total of 46 shutouts. He surpassed 20 victories six times, compiled an ERA under 3.00 on five separate occasions, completed more than 20 games six times, threw more than 300 innings three times, topping 275 innings pitched four other times, and struck out more than 250 batters three times. He led the league in wins six times, strikeouts seven times, innings pitched five times, shutouts four times, complete games three times, and games started on five separate occasions. Feller made eight appearances on the All-Star team and placed in the top five in the league MVP voting four times during his career.
When asked if there was ever any other pitcher who threw as hard as him, Feller revealed that those players who faced both him and Nolan Ryan at different stages in their careers told him he threw harder than the all-time strikeout king. A proud man, Feller rarely missed a chance to be honest about his abilities on a baseball field.
Some baseball historians have speculated that Feller could have won 350 games or more with well over 3,000 strikeouts had he not missed nearly four years in the military. But Feller was quick to point out that serving in World War II was far more important to him than playing baseball. He even lobbied the Hall of Fame to change his plaque to make it clear that he’d missed those seasons in the war.
Still feisty and opinionated in retirement, Feller frequently voiced his displeasure over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. He was also outspoken on the possibility of Pete Rose being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Inducted in 1962, Feller spent 48 years as a Hall of Famer, serving as an elder statesman and enjoying great popularity on his frequent trips to Cooperstown.
In 1969, Feller was voted the greatest living right-handed pitcher by fans celebrating baseball’s 100th anniversary. He was extremely proud of the baseball museum he opened in his hometown, and he was frequently present for Cleveland old-timers games well into his 80s. He donned a uniform and threw an inning here or there almost every year of his life for some cause or event.
He died December 15, 2010, about a week after the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.