By Glen Sparks
People liked to know just how hard Bob Feller could throw a baseball. Could he throw one harder than Walter Johnson? Or “Smokey Joe” Wood?
The Heater from Van Meter, Iowa, really did bring it. In this video clip from 1946, you can see the Indians’ fireballer hurl a pitch at 98.6 mph, as clocked by U.S. Army ordinance equipment typically used to measure artillery shell velocity.
But, was it Feller’s best effort? A fairly primitive piece of equipment once clocked the right-hander at a mind-boggling-and nearly impossible–107.6 mph. (Just for comparison, modern machinery recorded Reds’ relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman at 105.1 in 2010. Most people consider Chapman to be today’s top flamethrower.)
In 1940, Feller’s four-seamer took on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at Lincoln Park in Chicago. Lew Fonseca, a former ballplayer and a producer of baseball instructional films, organized the event. Feller, dressed in a suit and a pair of wingtips, unfurled his fastball moments after the motorcycle flashed by him at 86 mph. The ball tore through a paper bull’s-eye target, about three feet ahead of the Harley.
Fonseca followed up the pitch with some mathematics. He estimated Feller’s heater at 104.5 mph, worthy of the fast lane even on the Autobahn. If accurate, Feller certainly belongs in short company for title of fastest pitcher ever.
Later in life, Feller explained why he accepted the invitation to fire a baseball as hard as he could on a closed-off street in one of our most famous urban parks, a motorcycle barreling past him.
“I was there because we all wanted to know, deep down, who was the fastest of all time,” Feller told Tim Wendel in the 2010 book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Greatest for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time.
The story of Bob Feller is such a great American tale. He grew up on a farm, learning how to pitch by playing catch with his dad after a hard day’s work. Milking cows and bailing hay built up the arm strength that made Feller, according to Ted Williams, “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.”
All fuzzy-cheeked and loose-armed, Feller made his big-league debut as a 17-year-old. He struck out 15 batters in his first start and 17 in his second. As a rookie in 1936, he went 5-3 and punched out 76 hitters in 62 innings. This was how he spent his summer vacation before returning to Van Meter High School for his senior year.
“Rapid Robert” tossed three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters in his career. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times and fanned 2,581 batters, including 348 in 1946. Feller finished with a lifetime won-loss mark of 266-162 and a 3.25 ERA. Cleveland’s greatest pitcher ever, and its fastest, led the league in wins six times and easily made it into the Hall of Fame in 1962, in his first year on the ballot, with 93.75 percent of the vote. His total remains the 17th best all-time.
When writing about Feller, it’s always important to note that he missed the 1942-44 seasons, and part of the 1945 season, while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Feller earned eight battle stars as chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew aboard the U.S.S. Alabama.
Feller, who died in 2010, would have been 96 years old yesterday.