By Glen Sparks
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time, Dec. 7, 1941. Bob Feller, 22 years old and already a superstar flame-thrower for the Cleveland Indians, heard the shocking news while driving his shiny Buick Century from little Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the surprise strike. One bomb hit a powder magazine in the U.S.S. Arizona, sending that battleship to the bottom of the harbor, along with more than 1,100 officers and sailors.
Forget baseball. Feller wanted to fight the Japanese and the Germans. He signed up with the Navy on Tuesday, Dec. 9. He gave up the chance to make $100,000 as a baseball player in 1942, Feller wrote in a New York Times column in 2010. He didn’t care.
“I was mad as hell,” Feller said.
Feller’s dad, William, lay in a bed back home in Van Meter, terminally ill with cancer. Technically, Feller was exempt from military service. He joined the fight, anyway.
“We were losing that war, and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back,” Feller said in the Times. “People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting.”
At that point, Feller had pitched in parts of six seasons in the majors and had compiled a 107-54 won-loss mark. William Feller had raised a ballplayer. He rolled baseballs to his baby boy; young Bobby could hurl a ball 270 feet at the age of nine. He was 16 years old when Cleveland signed him to a contract.
The Heater from Van Meter struck out 15 batters in his major-league debut at age 17 and struck out 17 a few weeks later. He led the American League in strikeouts as a 19-year-old in 1938 and topped the A.L. in K’s four straight seasons (1938-41). Rapid Robert won a total of 80 games from 1939-41.
Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxing champion, swore Feller into the service at the Chicago courthouse. Navy officials told Feller to report to the training station in Norfolk, Va. The right-hander did some exercising and played on the station baseball team. On June 15, 1942, he pitched in an Army-Navy Relief fundraiser game at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Feller struck out five batters in five innings. But, that wasn’t why he signed up for action. He wanted to go where the shooting was.
Feller entered gunnery school and left aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, a South Dakota-class battleship, in the fall of 1942. The great pitcher fired his guns during a south Pacific battle in 1944 known today as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. U.S. forces shot down 474 Japanese planes, sank three enemy carriers and crippled many more support crafts. “We made it look so easy,” Feller said.
The Alabama took part in several other battles, both in the Pacific and the North Atlantic, and was awarded nine battle stars. Chief Petty Officer Feller was aboard for eight of them. Following combat, Feller said, “the dangers of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial.”
Feller returned to the major leagues on Aug. 24, 1945, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. He threw a complete game before 45,000 fans, struck out 12 and beat the Detroit Tigers 4-2. In his nine starts in 1945, Feller completed seven and went 5-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 72 innings.
Cleveland’s ace enjoyed probably his best season in 1946. He won 26 games and posted a career-low 2.18 ERA. Feller pitched an astonishing 377.1 innings and struck out 348 batters. Before retiring in 1956, he won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters. The eight-time All-Star led the league in wins six times and in strikeouts seven times. He hurled three no-hitters. Writers voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1962, in his first year on the ballot, with 93.8 percent of the vote.
Feller missed three-plus seasons due to his service in World War II. How many wins did he lose? 80? 90? How many strikeouts? 900? Feller never complained.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need.”