Hot Stove League action picked up this past week as the Boston nine pulled ahead of their Bronx rivals with the acquisition of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. In the senior circuit, the Philadelphia club signed the game’s top southpaw hurler in Cliff Lee—just as one of the greatest right-handers ever to throw a baseball passed away at the age of 92.
Bob Feller made his big league debut in 1936 with the Cleveland Indians, for whom he won 266 games (losing 162) over an 18-year career, while striking out 2,581 and finishing with a lifetime ERA of 3.25. He was nicknamed “Rapid Robert” for his fastball which, in combination with his 12-to-6 curveball, made him perhaps the most feared pitcher of his generation—a legendary generation whose hitters included the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Feller’s own nemesis, Yankees’ right-fielder Tommy Henrich.
And for all Feller accomplished—he was an eight-time all-star who led the Tribe to a World Series victory in 1948 and was named to the Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility—he might have put up even better numbers, were it not for the war. But then, the same might be said of all of that era’s great stars.
As David G. Dalin wrote in our November 1 issue, Hank Greenberg enlisted at the age of 30, when he was officially exempt from military duty, to fight the Nazis. “My country comes first,” said Greenberg. Feller, who joined the Navy just after Pearl Harbor, felt the same. “I’ve never once thought about all the prime years that I missed,” Feller said later. “I’m as proud of serving as anything I’ve ever done in my life.”
We admire as much as anyone today’s professional athletes, young men whose athletic skill and daring cannot but entertain and amaze us, but in the end their image is not well served by the rhetorical excess, often their own, of referring to their place of well-paid work—the gridiron, diamond, court, or rink—as the -“trenches.” Greenberg and Feller knew the difference. So did Ted Williams, who flew combat missions as a Marine pilot; same with Braves lefthander Warren Spahn, who saw action at the Battle of the Bulge.
In all, there were some 500 major league ballplayers who served in World War II, and all but two returned. One was Harry O’Neill of the Philadelphia A’s, who was killed at Iwo Jima; the other was Elmer -Gedeon, an outfielder with the Washington Senators, the precursor of our current hometown nine. A three-sport star at the University of Michigan, Gedeon once apparently slid across an ice-covered pond to save his cousin’s life when the youngster fell through a hole—an event that on reflection could have inspired a plot point in one of our favorite holiday classics.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey rescues from the icy depths his brother Harry, who later becomes the pilot who saves a troop transport ship, and—who knows?—maybe wins a war in the bargain. In real life, it’s Captain Gedeon who became the pilot, one who died flying a B-26 over France in 1944, and whose efforts, along with those of the rest of the 500, and hundreds of thousands of other American servicemen and women, really did help win a war.
This week, America lost one of the last of those 500, a right-handed pitcher, Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller, U.S. Navy (ret.).