Feller: Hero for the ages
When his country needed him, Indians great enlisted in war
CLEVELAND -- Memorial Day stands as a star-spangled salute to men and women across America such as Bob Feller. It is a day when people remember war heroes, and Feller falls into the hero category.
He was no reluctant war hero, either. Feller was first in line when duty called. The call, he said, came for him on Dec. 7, 1941.
Feller was driving his new '41 Buick Century to Chicago that day to meet Indians general manager Cy Slapnicka at the Palmer House Hotel to sign a contract for the '42 season.
Traveling on Route 6, Feller had the radio, a luxury item for cars in the 1930s and '40s, turned on as he rolled through Quad Cities toward the Iowa-Illinois border.
As he drove, Feller heard a news report that altered his plans: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
"We knew we were going to be in the war," Feller said. "I knew it way back in 1939 that we were going to be in the war. It was just a matter of when."
"When" came quickly. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, telling America that Dec. 7, 1941, would "live in infamy," went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war. Roosevelt got his declaration.
Entering World War II meant Roosevelt needed troops, and millions of Americans lined up outside recruiting offices to volunteer for the war. Feller, the flame-throwing All-Star pitcher for the Indians, made sure he was among them.
So instead of meeting Slapnicka, the 23-year-old Feller met Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champ. Tunney, who was working in Chicago on the war effort, didn't have to convince Feller. He was on board the moment he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I joined the war," Feller said, "because, as little as I knew about it, it was going to be a very tough war, particularly having a war on both fronts -- the Atlantic and the Pacific."
Feller enlisted in the U.S. Navy, joining as rank of chief petty officer. He signed up even though his draft classification was 3-C, which meant Feller was exempt from duty. The reason: Feller, whose father was dying from cancer, was the sole supporter for his family.
The best way he could support his family was to fight in the war, he said. So Feller decided to leave behind a five-figure Major League salary to take $80 a month in military pay. It was a decision he never regretted.
World War II, he said, was a war to preserve the American way. To allow the Axis powers to win would have destroyed this country and what it stood for, said Feller. He was willing to risk his life to ensure that America stayed strong.
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Unlike some of baseball's greats, Feller volunteered for combat duty. Stationed aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, a 35,000-ton battleship, he was chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew of 24 men. They fought on both fronts. Their war duty took Feller and his comrades to the Arctic Circle, the Gilbert Island, Saipon, Iwo Jima, Guam, the Philippines and other stops in the fight against Japan and Germany.
Feller faced death at every stop. With bombs bursting everywhere, fear was his constant companion. Feller said 34 of his shipmates died during World War II. Only a fool, he said, wasn't afraid of dying or said he wasn't scared.
"If you meet a bullet with your name on it, you're a hero," Feller said. "If you don't, you're a survivor, which I am. Of course, you're scared."
And he had reasons to be scared. His duties onboard the Alabama put Feller in harm's way day after day. While he had no second thoughts about leaving behind his baseball career, he did stay in tip-top shape. Feller worked out regularly while out at sea.
But baseball was never the first thing on his mind. The war was. Feller put everything into the war effort that he'd put into playing baseball. He compromised nothing, as Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz once found out.
Nimitz tried to woo Feller into playing for the Navy baseball team, which was competing against the Army in a series of games in Hawaii. Nimitz figured Feller would give Navy the edge.
So Nimitz asked Feller's commander to extend the invitation, which would have gotten Feller off the Alabama and back to the States.
Feller, however, turned down the invitation. He refused to leave his ship and his shipmates.
He told his commanding officer: "You tell Admiral Nimitz that after we win this war, I want to come back and shake his hand and say, 'Hello' to him and thank you for the invitation."
Feller finished out the war on the U.S.S. Alabama, and he returned to the Indians in 1946 to continue a baseball career that would earn him induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in '62.
Feller's proud of that achievement, just as he's proud of his military service.
At 88 years of age, Feller can put perspective on both in the twilight of his life. Each helped shape the man Feller is today. Yes, he could have won more than 266 games and perhaps pitched one or two more no-hitters in his career had it not been for the war, but he doesn't regret his choice of patriotism over baseball.
"It was absolutely worth it," Feller said six decades later. "We had resolve; we had more backup, and we knew that the people at home were all for us. There was no dissent, because if we hadn't won that war, this country wouldn't exist."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.