07/20/07 4:24 PM ET
Feller takes stroll down memory lane
Indians Hall of Fame pitcher returns home to Iowa
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
But every few months or so -- on the grounds where he once milked cows, fed horses and played catch with his dad -- Hall of Famer Bob Feller appears.His first order of business is to greet Jeanie and Jose Angel's six young children, who latch onto his legs and give him the same love and respect they would a grandfather. And then, inevitably, Feller takes a stroll through the big red barn that served as his baseball sanctuary during those cold Iowa winters. "This is his barn," says Jeanie, whose family moved into the former Feller home in 1994. "That's what the kids all say. If we're ever doing anything around it, they say, 'Would Mr. Feller be happy if he knew you did that to his barn?'" On this day, Feller is quite happy because Rapid Robert is home. Landing on time The private jet from Cleveland touches down in Des Moines midmorning Thursday, and the 88-year-old Feller, back in Iowa to film a documentary for SportsTime Ohio, steps out. Immediately, he is checking his watch. As a former pilot himself, he knows the value of arriving on time, and he is quick to credit the captain of this jet with a job well done. "Did we pass over the Raccoon River?" Feller asks the pilot, drawing a quizzical glance. "It's the famous river in Van Meter. But it's not so famous in Ohio, I guess." The 18-mile journey southwest to Feller's hometown of Van Meter ensues, but not before a quick stop in the burgeoning metropolis of Booneville. Actually, it's a blink-and-you-miss-it town that's home to fewer than 500 people and only one restaurant -- the Waveland Café. On the corner of Ute Avenue and Main Street in "downtown" Booneville sits the former site of the now-defunct Booneville Bank. The building still stands, and any visit to this area with Feller includes a stop here, so he can -- as only he can -- rehash the most famous incident in this meager town's history. In 1927, Feller explains, Stub Cook, who was the president of the bank, was at his house directly across the street when he looked through the windows of the bank and saw a holdup taking place. Cook grabbed his shotgun, and, when the three men robbing the bank came out, he shot them, one by one. All three men died. "Instant justice," Feller likes to say. The Booneville Bank is where Feller's father, William, would make his deposits after selling grain at a silo that sits about 100 yards away. William Feller was a successful farmer in his day because of his entrepreneurial spirit. "If everybody was doing hogs, my father would do wheat or corn," Feller says. "If everybody was doing corn, he would do cattle. When the Great Depression hit, he didn't feel it like the other farmers did. He never took a vacation in 40 years." A chance encounter As Feller stands at the former site of the bank, showing his visitors the spot on the building where one can still see the bullet holes left by Stub Cook's gun, two men approach. John Brennan and John Davis have made the nearly 2,000-mile journey east on Interstate 80 from San Lorenzo, Calif., as part of a summer trek to various Minor League ballparks, and their tour is set to include a stop to see Feller's roots. Brennan and Davis, both mailmen in the Bay Area, make these baseball pilgrimages every other year, and Davis was holding out faint hope that he might get to meet Feller if he visited the museum. The two just happened to be having breakfast at the Waveland Café when they noticed the film crew and wondered what was going on. Much to their surprise, there was Feller himself. As Davis has Feller autograph a card and tells him what a big baseball fan he is, Feller asks him why he didn't play. "I wasn't any good," Davis says. To which Feller replies, "If the Lord didn't put it in you, you can't get it out." Parental guidance Van Meter sits just a few more miles down County Road F-90. It's a typical Midwest farm town of about 1,000 residents -- atypical only in the sense that it's the native land of the man who is, arguably, the greatest right-handed pitcher in baseball's history. Feller's car scoots down the dirt road -- 340th Trail -- where he grew up and stops about a quarter-mile from his family home. On this plot of land in 1932, William Feller constructed the original "Field of Dreams." Unlike the Hollywood-produced yard 200 miles to the northeast in Dyersville, this field was made through genuine Iowan grit. The elder Feller put it together with the help of 13-year-old Bob. "As soon as the frost was over [that winter]," Feller says, "we cut down about 20 trees to make the posts for the backstop." William Feller's obsession with grooming his son to be a ballplayer seems rather curious, considering he never had any involvement in the game. But it was a sport that was growing in the country's consciousness. "Back in those days, everything was centered on baseball, horse racing and boxing," Feller says. "There was no football of any consequence." Feller's mother, Lena, was a bit less enthused about the hobby her son was taking up. "She was not thrilled about it at all, but she went along with it," Feller says. "But she insisted I go to college." But in those days, Feller's most applicable schooling came on the ballfield in his own backyard. From farm to field The Feller field came to be known as Oakview, because it was on a hill overlooking a forest filled with oak trees. Feller steps up to the spot, which has since reverted to farmland status, and points out where home plate was, where the pop stands and benches were and where the four-foot-high outfield fence stood. The fence was necessary, Feller says, because a creek sat just beyond the perimeters of the field. "Any hard-hit ball up the alley would have been a home run," Feller says. Oakview was home to regular games and tournaments for several years. The Feller family charged 25 cents for attendance to a game (35 cents for a doubleheader), with all profits going toward the maintenance of the field. "My dad and I were the groundskeepers," Feller says. Playing in his own backyard at a young age helped groom Feller into the ballplayer he would become, as did his duties working on the family farm, which sculpted his powerful and durable arms. "Instead of going to an air-conditioned weight room or doing pushups in a hotel," Feller says, "you did it by manual labor." Barnyard ball The red barn where the Fellers stored corn, oats and bailed hay still stands just up the road from the former Oakview site. It is in this barn where Feller would toss balls to his dad at night and in the winters, though he'd keep his throws low enough to avoid hitting the 12-foot overhang. When dusk would set upon the farm, Feller's mother, Lena, would yell out to her husband and son to come in for dinner. "I'd say, 'Hey mom, you can eat after dark,'" Feller recalls, "'but you can't play ball after dark.'" Actually, William found a way in which he and his son could play after dark. He pulled a gasoline generator out of the basement of the family home, powered it up with 32 batteries and used it to spark the light bulbs that illuminated his son's twilight practices. But most of the pair's early games of catch took place alongside the barn. Sometimes, Feller would bat and his father would pitch, with the family dog, Tagalong, shagging fly balls. "He was the best outfielder I ever saw," Feller says of that dog. One day, Feller, then 8, was up to bat when he let his father's pitch go by for a ball. He retrieved the ball and threw it back to his dad, and the ball took a surprising spin and horizontal dip. "What was that?" his father asked. Well, it was Feller's first curveball. "Don't tell any kid to talk to me about when to start throwing curves," Feller says, "because I started throwing them when I was 8." Not much later in life, Feller was pitching to his dad, and William called for a curve. When a fastball was delivered, William was caught off-guard. He missed the catch and wound up with three broken ribs. "I couldn't read his sign," Feller says. Home sweet home The actual house where Feller grew up and where he and his dad would stitch together baseballs in the winter is long gone. In its place stands the impressive red-brick home Feller had built for his parents and his sister, Marguerite, in 1940, when he was three years into his big-league career with the Indians. Feller enlisted the services of the publisher of Better Homes & Gardens magazine to draw up the plans for the house, and the total project -- between the construction and the landscaping -- cost him $75,000. "This house is built like a fort," Feller says proudly. "It's probably the best house built in this part of Iowa." Feller sold the house and the farm years ago, after his parents passed away. At the time he sold the 300-acre land, it went for roughly $40 or $50 an acre. Today, with Van Meter becoming a prime area for development for those who commute to Des Moines, that property could snatch thousands of dollars an acre. A few years after the Angel family bought the Feller home, Jeanie Angel looked into getting the barn listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The complication, however, was that Feller is still alive. But the National Register eventually decided that because Feller's prominent baseball career had ended more than 40 years earlier, the barn qualified for recognition. As Jeanie's kids hovered around Feller on this visit, he schooled them on the barn's finer points. "Listen close," he instructed him. "Maybe in 50 years, you'll be doing the same thing I'm doing, telling people all about this barn." A life on display It's a short drive from Feller's farm to the main section of Van Meter, whose downtown area boasts little more than a post office, Shirley's Salon & Tan, and Fat Randi's Bar & Grill. But on the nearby corner of Mill and Elm streets sits a building that serves as a fitting capstone to Feller's career and his connection to his hometown. The Bob Feller Museum is a charming building designed by Feller's son, Steve. Its exterior features an elaborate brick mural capturing Feller's delivery. Its interior contains some of Feller's most cherished mementos. Scott Havick has been running the museum, which opened in 1995, for the past year and a half, despite holding a full-time job with the Iowa Lottery. He visited the museum so often to get autographs that he became friends with Feller. And when the building was in need of a new operator, Feller asked Havick to run it. "I'm not a museum guy," Havick says. "But I am a baseball fan, and I know what baseball fans like." Havick laments that a construction project up the road has robbed the museum of its easy access from I-80. Regardless, the museum did between $70,000 and $80,000 of business last year, with roughly 10,000 people passing through its doors and Internet merchandise sales going strong. The museum makes efforts to line up autograph sessions with Major League greats several times a year. Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage and Jim Rice are all scheduled to visit before '07 is through. But those who devote their time to keeping the museum afloat light up most when Feller strolls in. "I love Bob like a grandfather," Havick says. Family ties Feller doesn't have much family in this area anymore, and perhaps that's for the best. "Some family members you don't want around," he jokes. "Sometimes you want to prune the family tree down to its roots." But on this day, Feller's entrance into the museum finds him face-to-face with a family member he doesn't mind seeing. He is greeted warmly by his cousin, Hal Manders, who is clutching one of his most prized possessions. It's a wooden bat Manders used to hit a home run off Feller when their rival schools, Waukee High and Van Meter High, faced off in May of 1935. The bat is signed by Feller and Ted Williams -- for no apparent reason, other than the fact that he's Ted Williams. A stranger recently called Manders, who lives 12 miles from Van Meter in Dallas Center, out of the blue to offer him $800 for the bat. The 90-year-old Manders politely declined. "He's bringing that bat with him," Feller says, "right to his casket." Like Feller, Manders was a pitcher in the Majors. He is adamant in professing that he threw as hard as his famous cousin. In fact, Manders actually had a higher career winning percentage than Rapid Robert. He went all of 3-1 in 30 career appearances with the Tigers and Cubs between 1941 and '46. "Bob and I had the same offer to go play ball," Manders says. "He signed with Cleveland, and I went to the University of Iowa." Feller once visited his cousin at Iowa, and Manders took him out for steak at a restaurant where he was working. Manders incorrectly assumed his boss would give Feller a free meal. "I worked seven extra hours, washing dishes," Manders says with a moan, "to pay for that T-bone steak." Bonded by blood and baseball, Feller and Manders grew up together. When the John Hopkins Sporting Goods store in Des Moines arranged for Feller and his dad to get tickets for the 1934 World Series in St. Louis, Manders went with them. "They had White Castle hamburger stands all over St. Louis," Manders recalls. "Hamburgers were five cents each. My Uncle Will bought 18 hamburgers, and that was our lunch at the ballpark. I don't know how many we ate." Feller apparently didn't eat much in those days. "Up until his junior year of high school, Bob was small," Manders says. "They called him Little Bobby Feller. He grew up all at once. But he always had a great arm, even when he was really little." A living legacy Feller takes the video crew on a tour of his museum, telling the stories behind its many artifacts. The museum's most interesting item might be the bat Feller loaned to Babe Ruth on June 13, 1948. Ruth, stricken by cancer and two months from death, was making his final visit to Yankee Stadium, before a game the Yankees played against the Indians. He dressed in the visiting clubhouse and, struggling to stand on his own accord, needed a bat to lean on during his appearance on the field. He grabbed Feller's. Several years back, Feller had to pay $90,000 to pry the bat out of the hands of a memorabilia collector. It now sits in a case in one of the museum's two exhibit areas, next to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Ruth standing before the Yankee Stadium crowd, one last time. Throughout the walls of the museum, one can read several framed advertisements that had alerted Van Meter's residents to Feller's annual "homecoming" celebration each October, when the Indians' season ended. Rapid Robert would always pitch in an exhibition game to raise funds for the town. Van Meter has given back to Feller in that most tried-and-true of ways. East of the museum, at the top of Van Buren Drive, sits Feller Curve -- the street named in Feller's honor. But Feller's legacy truly rests within the walls of the museum. It's a building he hopes will serve as a lesson to all the young baseball fans who wander its halls. "This can show the kids you can come from anywhere and make it if you have good parents and good people around you," Feller says. "And if you work a little now and then." That's a wrap The filming has ended, so Feller's work for today is done. But he'll remain in Iowa through the weekend for an autograph signing at the museum and an appearance at the state high school tournament quarterfinals at Principal Park in Des Moines. When it's over, Feller will bid farewell to his native state and return to his Gates Mills, Ohio, home, his wife, Anne, and his cat, Felix. But the Angel family knows Feller, still sharp and still spry after all these years, will be back in Van Meter soon enough to check up on his museum, his red barn and the six young kids who now inhabit his old house. One of those kids, 6-year-old Antonio, recently asked his mother, "Why do I have to go to school when I can just work on the farm?" Upon hearing this story, Feller, standing in front of the barn where he mastered the skill of throwing a baseball, puts his hand on the young boy's shoulder and gives him a little advice. "Decide what you really want to do early in life, then do it," Feller says. "Then you never have to work a day in your life. That's what I did. I played ball for a living."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.