He joined the Cleveland Indians in 1936 for the bargain price of . He immediately proved himself to be one of the hardest-throwing and effective pitchers in the game. In his first season, at the age of 17, he struck out 17 batters in one game, becoming the first and one of only two to pitchers to ever “strike out his age.” In 1938, he set a record for strikeouts in a game when he fanned 18. He was the first pitcher to win 20 or more games in a season before age 21. He pitched a no-hitter to open the 1940 season, and remains the only pitcher to ever do so.
And then. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 8, Robert William Andrew Feller of Van Meter, Iowa enlisted in the Navy, the first major leaguer to do so. For the next four years, at the absolute height of his athletic powers, he served aboard the USS Alabama, as a gun captain. Over those four “lost seasons,” he launched missiles and bullets with the same intensity that his baseball alter-ego could hurl a fastball. He ended the war decorated with 5 campaign ribbons and 8 battle stars.
He returned to the Indians in 1945 and played for 12 more seasons. In his career, he pitched 3 no-hitters, and 12 one-hitters (another record). He led the American League in strikeouts 7 times. His fastball remains the second-fastest ever clocked, at 107.6 MPH, and he threw that one when he was almost 30 years old. He won the World Series once, amassed 266 wins and 2581 strikeouts, was an 8-time all-star, was once the league MVP runner-up and came in 3rd place for the MVP twice more. For all this, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, in 1962.
He is longest-tenured living Hall of Famer. This past spring – at age 91 – he threw out the first pitch at the Indians first spring training game. But then, in August he was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent chemotherapy; he had a pacemaker installed; he was treated for vertigo, thrush, and a fungal infection. Last week the sports papers reported the news that “Rapid Robert,” “Bullet Bob,” thrower of the “Heater from Van Meter,” was nearing his end and on Wednesday December 15 he passed away in Cleveland.
And just a couple of nights before in Mobile Bay, aboard the USS Alabama, they polished the plaque that sits next to the humble bunk he slept in for almost four years, to commemorate his service: Cleveland Indian Bob Feller, the only Chief Petty Officer in the Baseball Hall of Fame.