03/31/11 7:05 PM ET
Indians, fans pay tribute to Feller
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
As they made their way through the middle of 20 wooden pews, the pace was slow and their faces somber. The music that filled the auditorium, brightened by daylight pouring through stained glass, struck a decidedly different tone.
The organist was playing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
It was a fitting way to begin Thursday morning's public memorial service for Indians great Bob Feller, who passed away in December at the age of 92. Months after his legendary story ended, and one day before Cleveland begins its season against the White Sox, the team done in by Feller's Opening Day no-hitter in 1940, the city he loved paid tribute to his life.
Acta's comment was worth repeating, for Feller lived a life twice as full as most.
"Bob was an icon of a muscular era," said T. Conrad Selnick, the Rector of St. Christopher's by-the-River Episcopal Church in Gates Mills, Ohio, where Feller made his home.
Feller's exploits on a ballfield are the stuff of legend. He honed his famous fastball by playing catch with his dad in the barn of his childhood home in Van Meter, Iowa. Discovered by an Indians scout, and pulled out of the Iowa cornfields, Feller signed for $1 and became one of the game's first prodigies.
In the midst of turning himself into a true baseball icon, Feller added to his legend with a decision that seems practically unfathomable today. During the height of his career, Feller was struck to the core by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The next day, he put baseball aside and enlisted in the Navy.
"I don't know how many athletes," Acta said, "in any sport, you name it, at 23 years of age, would volunteer to go right now to Afghanistan for four years in the middle of their prime. That's something that a lot of people out there don't know about, especially the young kids.
"That's something we all have to value."
Acta was in attendance for Thursday's service. Indians team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti joined him, as did current Cleveland players Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez and Justin Masterson. Former players such as Mike Hargrove, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Andre Thornton were also there.
Seated in the first row -- a few feet away from a photo of Feller raising his cap to an unseen crowd, a solitary candle flickering on stage, and a folded American flag -- was Feller's widow, Anne. Her daughter, Rachel was also on hand, as were Feller's boys, Steve, Bruce and Marty, and the pitcher's grandson, Daniel.
Among those who spoke at the ceremony was Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, who first got to know Feller during a presidential campaign. When Kasich was considering a run to the Oval Office, he received an unexpected phone call. It was Feller, and he wanted to help.
"I thought it was impossible," Kasich recalled with a smile. "He said, 'Kid, if you're ready to do it. I'm there with you. Let's roll. No time to waste. I'm coming with you to Iowa.'"
That led to a trip back to the barn where Feller's baseball journey began. Then, a visit to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, where the baseball diamond made famous by the movie of the same name is cut out of a cornfield.
"He said, 'You be my catcher,'" Kasich said with a laugh.
Stories of Feller dominated the morning, bringing tears of joy to a room that included many Indians fans, who braved the cold weather to honor their fallen hero.
Beyond Kasich, those in attendance also heard anecdotes from Bob Dibiasio, the Indians' vice president of public relations, and Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as Indians team owner Paul Dolan and Bill Tunnell, a representative of the battleship USS Alabama.
It was aboard the Alabama where Feller commanded a 24-man gun crew during World War II. Feller -- with his "heater from Van Meter" and a devastating curveball -- set a franchise record with 266 career wins for the Indians. That was plenty for earning induction to the Hall of Fame in 1962, but Feller might have had 100 more had his career not been interrupted, by choice, from 1942-45.
While at war, Feller kept his arm in shape by throwing on the starboard side of the USS Alabama by gun turret No. 3.
"I've had probably had at least 2,000 other guys that served with Bob who said they caught Bob Feller," Tunnell said. "Of course, as hard as he threw, and as thin as those gloves were, they might've been right.
"Off the ship, he was a genuine baseball hero. On the ship, he was just one of them."
After he spoke, Tunnell walked off the stage and presented Anne Feller with a flag. Then, as everyone sat in silence, the sound of a trumpet playing "Taps" filled the sanctuary. Earlier in the service, those in attendance joined together in a singing of the national anthem and the Navy Hymn.
"It's too bad that the majority of the young people in our country," Acta said, "really don't know what Bob Feller actually meant to America and to baseball. Bob Feller gave his life, his soul to the Cleveland Indians, Major League Baseball and, most importantly, to America."
Feller never liked being called a hero for his military service, though.
"He said the heroes didn't come home," Idelson said.
Feller did not mind living up to his legend on the ballfield, though. Consider what took place just two years ago, when Idelson contacted Feller about participating in the annual Hall of Fame Classic. At 90 years young, Feller was immediately interested in putting his "monkey suit" on and toeing the rubber.
"Bob was into it," Idelson recalled. "He said, 'I'll be there and I'd like to start. I don't know how long I'll be able to pitch, but I've had plenty of time to rest my arm.'"
Truth be told, Feller still liked to test out his aging firearm every now and then.
When the Indians moved their Spring Training site to Winter Haven, Fla., in 1993, Feller headed to the field one morning with a glove in hand, preparing for a ceremonial first pitch. Former Indians player Carlos Baerga bolted from the dugout and told Feller he'd help warm him up.
"The two of them played catch," Dibiasio said. "That became tradition. Before every game that the two of them were there, they played catch. Carlos cherished those days. I know all the fans did as well."
Feller would have likely been looking for a throwing partner come Opening Day.
Instead, without Rapid Robert in attendance for the first time in decades, it will be Anne Feller who will be taking part in a silent ceremonial first pitch before the Tribe takes on the rival White Sox. During the pregame introductions, the Indians' players and coaches will each wear Feller's No. 19 jersey.
Inside the pressbox at Progressive Field, seat No. 85 is now off limits. That is where Feller spent his time taking in Tribe games long after he hung up his spikes. On the wall by his former perch is a plaque honoring his life and career. On the counter in front of his seat rests a glass case, containing a mold of Feller's hand gripping a baseball, among other items.
Outside Gate C at the ballpark stands a statue of Feller. He is in mid-delivery, his left leg high in the air -- the moment before his heater was unleashed upon a hitter. It is the same image caught as a silhouette for the memorial path that will be worn on a sleeve of the Indians' jerseys this season.
Feller is gone. His story is not.
"We're all going to be looking at that statue in front of that stadium for the rest of our lives," Kasich said. "Bob never got old. He may have aged, but he never got old. He's frozen in time.
"That young, handsome, athletic, strong man that's enshrined as long as Cleveland shall exist, in front of that stadium, sending a message to every kid that goes by."