Friday, December 17, 2010

Bob Feller's Passing Brings Back Memories

I was a first-born child, born in Cleveland, Ohio, but when I came home from the hospital I was not alone. There were four teddy bears in my crib, named after four great Cleveland Indians pitchers: Feller, Lemon, Garcia and Wynn. Feller, with his spindly black arms, stubby ears white tummy and button-eyed face, was my favorite. (It's funny how when I learned to talk, my stuffed animals learned to talk to each other as well.) This week, the real Bob Feller passed on to bigger and better things after a lifetime of inspiration due to his achievements as a pitcher in the middle of the last century. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times, pitched three no-hitters and a record number of twelve one-hitters. More records would have been added had he not spent the heart of his career in the service of his country, having enlisted in the navy at the outbreak of World War II.

I was born during the pennant race of 1952, a nail-biter of a season with the Indians coming up two games short against their arch-nemesis, the Yankees. The Indians, famous for their pitchers, would spend most of the 1950's falling short like this, though in 1954 they did punch through and captured the American League pennant, again behind a dominant starting rotation that heralded four 20-game winners, three of whom would become Hall of Famers.

I do not recall my first ballgame in Cleveland Stadium. I have a memory of box seats on the third base side on a sunny summer day when I was about four. I remember many games after that over the years including several games in the hopes of being present when Early Wynn reached his 300th lifetime career win. I remember learning how to keep the box score in the scorecard when I was barely old enough to write.

I like to tell people that we went to every Yankee-Indian double header back then, but I'm sure my memory is faulty and it only seemed that way. We did go to a lot of games and I do recall one double header when Yankee catcher Elston Howard slammed game-winning home runs over the center field fence in both games. Other household names in Cleveland in those days included Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Woody Held, Vic Power and Tito Francona.

It wasn't until I was grown up that I learned from my dad that we went as often as we did because my grandfather, who was a supervisor at the Packard plant in Warren, routinely acquired free tickets. It's only natural to want to take your grandkids out to the ballgame. And who better to go see than the Yankees.

I remember one game in which the Indians were losing going into the ninth and my dad said it was time to leave so we could beat the traffic. We walked to the car hoping against hope for a comeback, and sure enough the Indians tied it up while we headed back to Maple Heights. When we got home the game was still going and I remember sitting in the back yard rooted to a lawn chair sipping kool-aid. We beat the traffic but missed a great comeback. No biggie.

Bob Feller's fame could be attributed to his fastball, a sizzler once purportedly clocked at 107 miles per hour. But now that I'm grown I think his fame lay in that wonderful blend of good-heartedness combined with talent. At seventeen years of age he was already pitching in the major leagues. In addition to being a great ballplayer he was an exemplary person.

I'm not the only writer with fond memories of Cleveland baseball. Indians fans owe a debt of gratitude to veteran sportswriter Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer for his loving coverage of the team over the years. Strongly recommended reading for Indians fans: The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which details the story of heartbreak most Indians fans have experienced since those mid-century glory days.

In remembrance of Bob Feller, here's Pluto's account of a visit to the Feller family farm in Iowa. Bob "Rapid Robert" Fellow passed away on Wednesday, December 15, after a bout with leukemia. He was 92. The Indians have not won it all since he took them there in 1948.

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