COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Some people throw around the term "hero" too often, and its meaning becomes lost in its overuse.
Bob Feller, however, personified the word – on and off the baseball diamond.
Off the field, Bob Feller became a war hero in the Navy. But 73 years ago this week – before the start of World War II – Feller dominated on the field, pitching the first of his 12 career one-hitters in the Cleveland Indians’ 9-0 win over the St. Louis Browns.
With his mother bedridden with pneumonia and only able to cheer from home, the Tribe’s fireballing right-hander was nearly unhittable. The only hit came in the sixth inning off a weakly tapped ball that allowed Browns’ catcher Billy Sullivan to beat out a close decision at first.
“That’s fine,” Feller’s mother said to her husband, “but it’s a shame he couldn’t have had a no-hit game.”
Feller’s mother was quite used to her son’s greatness and aptitude for no-hitters. In 1936, he pitched five no-hitters for Van Meter High School and went on to help the Indians in the same year all before graduating high school in 1937.
Growing up on a farm west of Des Moines, Iowa, Feller developed great strength and broad shoulders that helped him throw blazing fastballs. He combined his fastball with a great curve to become one of the greatest strikeout pitchers of all-time.
Once again in 1938, Feller displayed his dominance – setting a then-record 18 strikeouts in a single contest on Oct. 2 against the Detroit Tigers.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller became one of the first major leaguers to enlist in the military. He spent four years in the Navy as a highly decorated anti-aircraft gunner onboard the USS Alabama and missed nearly four seasons of his prime.
Over his career, Feller would shut down opposing hitters on three occasions – tossing three no-hitters to go along with his 12 other nearly unhittable performances.
He pitched his entire career for the Indians, even though Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, at one point, contemplated making a young Feller a free agent. The Indians signed Feller prior to his eligibility because he was still in high school.
After returning from World War II in 1945, Feller played half a season with the Indians before initiating a baseball barnstorming tour featuring fellow Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Johnny Mize. However this was no ordinary tour, as those players teamed up to face off against some of the best players the Negro leagues had to offer.
Feller and a 39-year-old Satchel Paige dueled on almost a daily basis from city to city. On the first day of the tour, Paige and the other Negro League All-Stars defeated the major leaguers 4-2, before more than 5,000 fans. Later, Feller and Paige were teammates on the Indians' 1948 World Series championship team.
“Satchel and I were very good friends,” Feller said. “I always say we broke even. We won some, they won some. It was a good show.”
Feller retired from the Indians following the 1956 season with a record of 266-162. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, and passed away on Dec. 15, 2010.
Kevin Stiner is the spring 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum