Inside The Vault | Baseball star Bob Feller enlists in the US Navy

David Smith

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.

Two days later, Bob Feller became Major League Baseball’s first player to enlist in World War II.

‘Bullet Bob’ was born in Van Meter, Iowa in 1918, and is still regarded as one of the most powerful pitchers in baseball history.

Feller signed for the Cleveland Inidans in 1936 for one dollar, and made his debut at the age of 17 on July 19th of that year. He set an American League rookie record just a month later in his first start by fanning 17 Philadelphia Athletics in a game.

He quickly began to showcase his prodigious talent, and became the first pitcher to win 24 games in a season before the age of 21. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine ahead of the 1937 season, and was described by writer Richard Goldstein as “the best-known young person in America, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple.”

After three twenty win seasons in a row, Feller was entering his prime.

Then the Pearl Harbour attacks occurred, and the Iowa native decided to ignore his 3-C draft deferment status (due to his father’s failing health). He enrolled in the US Navy two days later, sacrificing four years of his hugely successful baseball career.

“The last thing on my mind right then was playing baseball,” he explained.

“I immediately decided to enlist in the United States Navy. I didn’t have to – I was 23 and strong-bodied, you bet, but with my father terminally ill back in Van Meter, Iowa, I was exempt from military service.”

Feller initially served as a fitness instructor at the Norfolk Naval Base, and was later assigned as the Gun Captain to the USS Alabama.

The USS Alabama tasted action at Operation Galvanic, Operation Flintlock and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Bob was commended for his bravery, and was awarded six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars for his service, and was discharged from the US Navy in August, 1945 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

The war coincided with what should have been the best year of ‘Rapid Robert’s’ career, but the pitcher turned soldier had no regrets.

“During a war like World War II, when we had all those men lose their lives, sports was very insignificant. I have no regrets. The only win I wanted was to win World War II. This country is what it is today because of our victory in that war.”

He returned to the Indians, and was rewarded with a $50,000 contract ahead of the 1946 season.

Feller had reportedly practiced his throw beside the gun turret on the USS Alabama, and his baseball career after the war was equally impressive.

He averaged more than 19 wins a season over the next six years, and did not retire until 1956. The following season, the Indians retired his number 19 jersey.

‘The Heater from Van Meter’ played 18 seasons with the Indians, despite losing four years to the war, and still shares the Major League record of 12 one-hitters with Nolan Ryan.

His immaculate record stands at 266 wins, 2,581 strikeouts and 279 complete games (570 in total), and holds the 20th-century record for most walks in a season (208 in 1938). He also threw the second fastest pitch ever recorded (107.6 mph) in 1946.

Feller sold insurance after his retirement, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.

He married twice and had three children, and began treatment for leukaemia in 2009, and died a year later from complications of the disease at the age of 92 in Cleveland, Ohio.

That year, the Indians renamed the “Cleveland Indians Man of the Year Award” to the “Bob Feller Man of the Year Award”.

He is remembered for his devastating fastball, and his contributions to America on and off the field.

‘Bullet Bob’ – one hell of a Feller.