Petition Supports Feller for Medal of Freedom Honor; “A Navy Man at Heart”

Bob Feller served aboard the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II.

Bob Feller served aboard the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II.

By Glen Sparks

A campaign is going on to award the late Bob Feller with the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The Cleveland Indians submitted a petition to the White House earlier this month that asks Barack Obama to honor Feller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Feller, a Hall of Fame pitcher, served in combat during World War II.

The Medal of Freedom is given “for especially meritorious contribution to 1) the security or national interests of the United States, 2) world peace, or 3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

In recent years, ballplayers Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and Willie Mays have received the Medal of Freedom. All the players were living at the time. Banks, Musial and Berra have since passed away. Feller died in 2010 at the age of 92.

Through Feb. 23, the Feller petition has received nearly 14,000 signatures. A total of 100,000 signatures are needed by March 4 to get a response from the White House. (You can add your name to the petition.)

“It was all about the country,” says Curtis Danburg, senior communications director for the Indians, says about Feller.  “He took probably more pride in his role in the navy and serving our country than as he did as a baseball player.”

Feller, who came up with the Indians in 1936 as a loose-armed and fuzzy-cheeked 17-year-old, volunteered for duty just a few days after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. He reportedly was the first professional athlete to sign up for duty. (Of note, Feller’s dad was dying of cancer. The pitcher could have asked for a deferment.)

During the early part of the war, Feller spent time as a physical-fitness instructor and did some ball playing on various military teams. His dream of serving as a fighter pilot ended after he flunked an eye exam.

Later, Feller saw plenty of action while aboard the U.S.S. Alabama battleship. Over his 26 months of duty in both the Pacific and North Atlantic, he received eight battle stars and rose to the level of chief gunner’s mate. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944), he led a gunnery crew. In a SABR biography, Feller said it was “the most exciting 13 hours of my life.” The New York Yankees never seemed so tough after that.

The Heater from Van Meter, Iowa, returned to baseball late in the 1945 campaign. He already was a 107-game winner with Cleveland and led the American League in victories and innings pitched each season from 1939 through 1941. The right-hander topped the A.L. in strikeouts from ’38 through ’41.

Feller spent his entire career with Cleveland and enjoyed several big years after the war. He retired with a lifetime won-loss mark of 266-162 and a 3.25 ERA, with 2,581 strikeouts. Rapid Robert tossed three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters. He led the league in strikeouts seven times and fanned 348 in 1946.

Cleveland’s greatest pitcher ever topped the league in wins six times. He easily made it into the Hall of Fame in 1962, in his first year on the ballot, with 93.75 percent of the vote.

Ted Williams, maybe the greatest hitter of all-time, called Feller “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.”

Feller’s story is a great piece of Americana. The future big leaguer grew up on an Iowa farm. He built up his arm strength by milking cows and bailing hay. His dad, William Feller, raised a ballplayer. He had young Bob roll a ball around the house before the boy could even walk. Father and son played catch every day. Later, William set up lights inside the barn so that he and Bob could play catch during those frozen Midwest winters.

Feller struck out 15 batters in his first major-league start, Aug. 23, 1936. Two weeks later, he fanned 17. On April 19, 1937, Feller made the cover of Time magazine.

He heard about the Pearl Harbor attack while driving in his car from Van Meter to Chicago, on his way to contract talks with the Indians brass. The tragic news from thousands of miles away in Hawaii made him “mad as hell.”

Late in life, he wrote an article for the U.S. Naval Institute about his time in the military. He described the furious combat and devotion to duty. He ended the article this way: “I’m still a Navy man at heart. And I’m proud to have served.”

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