Bob Feller Talking Through the Years About Baseball and His Life
- Updated: December 20, 2010
Editor’s note: This post is being used by permission by the author, Arne , of MISC. Baseball: Gathering Assorted Items of Baseball History And Trivia…he also writes for Seamheads where an abridged version of this was released last week. He is also a member of the BBA!
In 1981, during spring training:
“Those four seasons [serving in World War II] cost me at least 100 victories and 1,000 strikeouts. If it hadn’t been for the war, I would have made sure I had more victories than anybody but Cy Young and Walter Johnson, and I would have broken Johnson’s strikeout record.”
“If it wasn’t for Grecian Formula, my hair would be as white as the first-base line on opening day. I should’ve rubbed it on my arm.”
Talking about an Indians pitcher: “That kid can throw, but he can’t hold anybody on. He got run out of three games last year. If he’ll listen, I can help him. That’s what I’m going to tell these pitchers when I give them my lecture – what degree of perfection do they want to attain. Do they want to be like the tightrope walker who can do his act without a net? Or will they be satisfied with mediocrity? The degree of perfection is up to them.”
“I learned how to hold runners on by practicing my move in my hotel room. I learned how to throw a curve in my hotel room too. I’d break off a curve into two or three pillows that I piled up on the bed. I had a lot of feathers all over my hotel room but eventually I had a curve too.”
And on a bad 1947 injury that diminished his career: “In the spring of 1947 we were in Philadelphia to play the A’s there in the old ballpark. I struck out 10 of the first 11 batters. I had two strikes on Barney McCosky and I hadn’t thrown anything but fast balls. That was the best stuff I ever had. I was going for the strikeout record that night. The ball felt like an aspirin tablet. But with two strikes on McCosky, my catcher, Jim Hegan, called for a curve ball. Coming down off the mound, I skidded on the dirt. McCosky struck out for 11 in four innings but when I skidded I tore my shoulder and tore my knee.”
”I was faster than Sandy Koufax but once he got control, he had better control than I did. I never saw Walter Johnson but he might have been faster than me. I’ll take Bill Klem’s word for it. Nolan Ryan’s fastball was timed at 100.9 miles an hour and he can throw as hard as anybody for a few pitches. The thing about Ryan is that he’s kept his speed even into his 30?s. That’s remarkable. But he’s inconsistent. He should win 25 games every year just by throwing his glove on the mound.”
”If I could do it over again, I would have worked on my control a lot more. Half the games I lost, I lost because of a walk. I was wilder than I should’ve been.”
“I have never kept an actual count, but I am convinced that I have thrown more baseballs than any other human being in history. I started when I was 5 and, like an idiot, I’m still doing it.
“Of course, all that probably proves is that I am not too bright.”
“I’ll be in 70 minor-league parks this summer. I throw an inning or two against a celebrity team in a charity event.”
“We give them a certificate saying they batted against Bob Feller. They can frame it, hang it on their wall. Naw, I don’t bear down in those situations. I go out there and just groove it. Same thing when I pitch in that old-timers’ all-star game.
You’re there to build entertainment, not your ego. I have nothing to prove. If I didn’t prove it 30, 40 years ago.”
“I was just a youngster, playing catch with my dad on the farm (in Iowa). I reached down to the bottom of the chicken-wire fence and picked up this ball I’d missed. When I threw the ball back to my dad, I turned my wrist — and it curved. I had my curveball.”
On his major league debut in 1936: “I was 17 then. The youngest pitcher ever to start a game in the major leagues. I struck out 15, pitched a 4- hitter, beat St. Louis by 4-1.”
And: “I can’t throw the fastball with the hop on it anymore. Can’t get my big behind around like I used to. Let’s work on the curves. I’ll need them in the old-timers’ games. The players in those game keep getting younger, you know. I’ve got to be ready for them.”
“I take good care of myself. I get my rest, drink my milk, never go near tobacco, have very little to do with alcohol.”
“My fastball once was clocked at 107.9 miles an hour. Of course, I couldn’t throw it that fast for a whole game — but I assure you I could throw it 100 miles an hour for a whole game.”
“You know, I still have the mitt my dad used to catch me. I wore out the pocket in that glove. We sewed another peace of leather in it, kept using it.”
“I’m as proud of my war record as I am of my baseball records. When fellows my age talk about the war, I don’t have to stand in the back and listen. I can talk to them and with them. That’s important to me. Always has been, always will be.”
“I started listening to baseball back in ’28, the same year I got Babe Ruth’s autograph on a baseball in Des Moines. Still have it.
“Gehrig’s, too. They had the Larrupin’ Lous and the Bustin’ Babes–Ruth and Gehrig playing exhibition games around the country with their own uniforms. They’d put ‘em on the local semipros, the Babe’d pitch an inning, then he and Lou would hit about 10 minutes before each game. Then they’d bat every inning throughout this game.
“They were selling these balls for five bucks apiece. I didn’t have the five bucks so I’d go out and catch gophers in the clover and alfalfa field, take ‘em to the county treasurer’s office for the five bucks. And bought the ball with it.
“I’d kid about it on the rubber-chicken dinner speeches. I’d hold it up and say, ‘This is the first gopher ball I ever had in my hand – but not the last.’”
Asked about the film of him matching his fastball against a speeding motorcycle, he said: “Lew Fonseca, he was the head of the major-league film department, he thought up the idea. We did it in 1940, ’41 in the north end of Chicago, Lincoln Park. I was dressed up fit to kill (he wore slacks, a long-sleeved dress shirt and a tie) and it was a hundred degrees out there, middle of the summer.
“Lew says to me, ‘Why don’t you stand like there’s a man on second so you can watch the motorcycle coming before you throw?’ I told him no, I wanted to get my full momentum, get the old pump-handle coming around and my body going forward.
“So we went ahead and did it. The motorcycle’s going ‘Vroom, vroom.’ And here he comes. He got a little jump on me, went past me at 86 miles an hour. So I threw it as hard as I could. Hit the target right in the middle. First shot.”
”[Nolan] Ryan’s a good pitcher. He’s learned how to pace himself. He’s learned how to pitch. But he’s mad at me because I’ve said that I could throw harder than he can. I don’t know why that bothers him. When Walter Johnson said he could throw ‘a mite harder’ than me back when I was just coming up, it never bothered me.”
”My fastball was once timed at 98.6 miles per hour by photo-electric cells at home plate, but by then it was losing speed, maybe as much as 15 miles per hour. That was long before the radar gun they use now. The radar gun gives you the average speed of a pitch from the mound to the plate. On a radar gun, I would’ve averaged 105 to 107 miles per hour.”
“In the recent lockout, there was a lack of leadership on both sides. What they should do is have a commissioner elected by a vote of the players, owners and umpires, then let him select a board of neutral people who will decide the issues. But it’ll never happen.”
“Pete Rose is a felon. We don’t have any saints in the Hall of Fame I know I’m not one but we also don’t have any felons either. In Shoeless Joe Jackson’s case, he was never convicted of anything.
“He was an ignorant man who got involved in a conspiracy that was largely the result of (White Sox owner Charles) Comiskey’s stinginess. I know ignorance of the law is no excuse, but I don’t think Shoeless Joe participated in the fix.”
“Rose should absolutely not be allowed in the Hall of Fame. He got caught by the IRS cheating on his taxes, after being repeatedly warned. He went to jail. He’s a felon. Jackson was not. He was never convicted of anything in a civil court.
“Rose is an intelligent man who knew exactly what he was doing. He bet on baseball games that he was managing and he’s been arrogant about it throughout. You can’t compare the two.”
In 2005, when a fan wanted to know if Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams was tougher to get out:
“DiMaggio, to me. Ted and I had a Mexican standoff. As soon as I started to throw DiMaggio inside after the war, I started to get him out. Ted was the better hitter. Trying to throw a fastball by Williams was like trying to get a sunbeam past a rooster in the morning.”
And: “Baseball is hard to promote. It’s the best game there is, but we are not acquiring young fans.”
On using steroids: “It’s very stupid. It ruins your health, your brain, your sex organs. Rules mean nothing. Instant gratification to set a record. Is it worth it? Not to me, it isn’t. Not to me.”
In 2007, on the Iraq war:
“We should have gone in there with 450,000 troops and declared a military dictatorship or martial law, have a curfew, taken over all the oil and given them the going price, same as we did with Japan when the war was over, and then given the country back to them when it was over.
”It would have been over years ago. The last good general we had, in my opinion, was Schwarzkopf. We haven’t had a lot of good leaders anywhere in our nation. I’m really concerned.”
In 2009, on Stephen Strasburg:
“I never worried about pressure, and neither should [Strasburg]. All he has to do is throw strikes, keep his nose clean, keep his mouth shut, and he’ll be OK.”
And in June 2010 on Strasburg:
“He could be very good, and he’ll make a lot of money. But he’ll have good days and bad days like anybody else. What he has to do is forget about the bad days.”
“I was 17, he’s 21 [in his first MLB season]. By the time I was his age, I had won 85-90 games or so. It will take him some time to learn some fundamentals he might not have learned in college. It’s harder to learn the hitters now than it was in my time, because you don’t see them as often. He’ll have his good days and his bad, like we all do.
“I know he has a good arm, he’s got a good body and seems to be a level-headed young man. He throws strikes and stays ahead of the hitter. He has a good curveball and a live fastball. He keeps his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open. That’s what he should do.
“It’s good to have somebody refreshing like this. I don’t know how many records he’ll break or how many no-hitters or one-hitters he’ll pitch. But the hitters are swinging for the fences now. They used to put it in play with two strikes. Now they swing hard three times.”
And in 2010, in a long interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff as the season opened:
DM: Growing up on the farm in Iowa, what was your least-favorite chore?
FELLER: Cleaning out the barns on Saturdays, taking the manure out from the horses and livestock, was work we didn’t want to do.
DM: Favorite chore, if that’s possible?
FELLER: Sure, it’s possible. I enjoyed feeding the hogs, shelling the corn to the hogs. Mostly, I enjoyed being with my father, especially when we’d feed the livestock, milk the cows and play catch in the hog lot. If not for my father, I would have had a lot more trouble staying in condition, because he would catch me at dusk every day. He’d hit grounders to me, I’d throw to him. He pitched batting practice.
DM: So Bob Feller got his start in a hog lot.
FELLER: We finally built a ball diamond in the pasture. We cut down 20 trees, put the post in the ground, put up the chicken wire and built the ballpark. We peeled the infield and fenced off the outfield to keep the livestock off. We started building in 1931 and by 1932 my dad had a team out there, a bunch of farm kids. We played all the time.
When the seams on the balls would break and the stitching would come out, we used to take the covers off and sew them back up with harness thread. It was 108 stitches if you did it the way we did, 216 if you did it the other way. We’d run the harness thread through a big ball of beeswax and put the covers back on. . . .
DM: What is your greatest achievement as a baseball player?
FELLER: My best decision in life was joining the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor. Getting back to my achievement as a baseball player, it would be being the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, in the 1950s. I started the baseball players association; now it’s a union.
DM: But you don’t get credit for that in the game’s history books.
FELLER: Nobody knows it . . . Not many people know it. I took over when some other guys retired.
You had to be on the active roster to represent the players. I organized the first convention, at a hotel in Key West, Fla. I’ve spent my entire baseball life fighting for players’ rights, standing up for players. I’m proud of that.
FELLER: I’m no hero. Heroes don’t come home from wars. Don’t get this wrong: Heroes don’t come home from wars, survivors come home from wars. I’m a survivor.
DM: You were a gun captain on the USS Alabama in the Pacific Theater. What did that entail?
FELLER: I was in charge of 25 guys – 24 on the guns, one guy standing beside me. I pulled the trigger.
DM: Were you ever afraid to die during combat?
FELLER: Never gave it a thought. You always knew that if a bullet had your name on it, you were going to get it. But when you’re young, everybody thinks it’s got somebody else’s name on it. That’s why we have wars.
There was always a little panic, sure. Everybody had different emotions. But you had a job to do, and you needed to have a clear head.
What they teach you in war college is, when you’re on the guns, kill the other guy before he kills you. . . .
DM: If you were MLB commissioner, what is one change you would push for immediately?
FELLER: I would promote baseball more in the United States and not worry so much about promoting it around the world. They’re trying to expand baseball to countries that don’t even want it.
I would increase spending on promoting the game in this country’s grade schools, high schools, colleges. Each ball club should increase its support of local sandlots, junior highs, high schools and colleges. That’s more important than the steroids, the DH or some of the other issues people talk about now.
I mean, how often do you drive around and see a father playing catch with his kid in the yard? Not often. It’s sad. I don’t think the game’s fast enough for people nowadays. They want to see action. They don’t have the patience to watch something develop. . . .
DENNIS MANOLOFF: On June 13, 1948, terminally ill Babe Ruth used your bat as a cane during his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. How did that come to be?
FELLER: He just picked it out of the bat rack at random when he came up the steps into the dugout. There was one runway leading to the field. It could have been anybody’s bat.
DM: What was going through your mind when Ruth spoke?
FELLER: I was warming up to pitch that ballgame. I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t know until later, when I couldn’t find the bat, that he had used mine. Now it’s in my museum in Iowa .
DM: Is that –
FELLER: It cost me $95,000 to get that bat back. One of my teammates had sold it to Barry Halper, who was a big collector. Halper eventually sold it, Upper Deck purchased it, and a guy in Seattle won it (in a sweepstakes.) I contacted the guy and told him I’d pay $95,000 for it, because I wanted it for my museum. He said he wanted $150,000. I said, “Good luck.” Later, I called him back and said, “I’ll give you $95,000 – take it or leave it.” He said, “OK, I’ll take it.” I flew out there and picked it up at the All-Star Game. . . .
On whether Barry Bonds should be elected to the Hall of Fame:
FELLER: Yes – if he’s never convicted or admits to using [performance-enhancing] drugs. He was never suspended. Nothing’s been proven. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, but nothing’s been proven. If he’s not convicted of anything, I’d vote for him. . . .
FELLER: Anybody who bet on baseball should be permanently banned from the game.
DM: What about the Black Sox?
FELLER: Judge Landis did the right thing by throwing out all of them.
DM: Even Shoeless Joe?
FELLER: Yes. Great ballplayer, great hitter, but he took the money. He was illiterate, but he never should have taken the money. I met him once. We shook hands. That’s it. He didn’t speak much. He was very quiet. He didn’t know me from a bale of hay.
On Ted Williams:
FELLER: I tried to throw sliders on his fists, tried to keep the ball inside so he couldn’t get the fat part of the bat on the ball. Williams was so tough because he would not swing at a ball unless it was a strike. Amazing eye. And trying to throw a fastball by Ted was like trying to get a sunbeam by a rooster in the morning. . . .
FELLER: The American League was much tougher in ’48 than it was in ’54. Our ballclub in ’48 was much better than it was in ’54.
DM: But your club went 111-43 in 1954, as opposed to 97-58 in 1948.
FELLER: Doesn’t matter. It wasn’t that great of a team.
DM: The 1954 World Series?
FELLER: The first thing that comes to mind has to be the Dusty Rhodes’ bloop home run.
DM: Not the Willie Mays catch against Vic Wertz?
FELLER: A lot of center fielders could have caught the ball Mays caught. He put on the act pretty good; he always did. He let his hat fly off, then threw the ball back to the infield. The ball was hit into a small wind. The ball came down like a popup. He was playing shallow, but Vic Wertz was the hitter, so he should not have been playing shallow.
[The excerpts above come from interviews Feller’s given over the past three decades with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, MLB.com, the New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, Akron Beacon Journal, National Post, Washington Times, and New York Daily News.]