Bob Feller, who was pitching in the major leagues before he finished high school and was considered his generation's hardest thrower during an 18-year Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Indians, died of acute leukemia last night in Cleveland under hospice care, where he had been placed on Dec. 8. He was 92.
Feller was diagnosed with leukemia in August, later had a pacemaker implanted to counter fainting spells and recently was treated for pneumonia at the Cleveland Clinic.Signed at 16 in 1935 off his father's 700-acre Iowa farm for a dollar bill and a baseball autographed by the Indians - "It wasn't even a new baseball," he later said - the righthander was known for the fastball that earned him the nicknames "Heater from Van Meter" (his hometown), "Bullet Bob" and, most often, "Rapid Robert," none of which he cared for.
"I prefer to be called Bob," he said.
Feller, who also had an outstanding curveball, earned his first big-league victory at 17 and picked up 265 more wins for the Indians, with six seasons of at least 20 victories, and led the American League in strikeouts seven times, including a peak of 348 in 3711/3 innings in 1946. Despite missing 3½ seasons while serving in the Navy during World War II, he was an All-Star eight times.
In 1938, at 19, he struck out 18 batters, a single-game record at the time. His three no-hitters included one on Opening Day in 1940, when he was only 21, though he once said, "I would rather beat the Yankees regularly than to pitch a no-hit game." He threw 12 career one-hitters.
His best season, 1946, came one year after he returned from military service. He had a 26-15 won-lost record, a 2.18 earned run average, 10 shutouts and 36 complete games in 42 starts (plus six relief appearances).
Jackie Robinson, writing to Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith shortly after he broke the major leagues' color line in 1947, called Feller "one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in major-league ball," and having "faced him a couple of times . . . I feel confident that if it is left to my hitting, I believe I will do all right."
Feller retired after the 1956 season, was named to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962 and, at his death, was the third-oldest living Cooperstown inductee. Former Boston Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr, also 92, is seven months older than Feller. Former Yankees and Baltimore Orioles executive Lee MacPhail is 93.
Robert William Feller was born Nov. 3, 1918, in Dallas County, Iowa, west of Des Moines, and grew up on his parents' farm in Van Meter. Both of his parents were on the local school board and his mother was a registered nurse. Their son earned his high school degree by taking a brief sabbatical from the Indians for final exams.
He began throwing rubber balls almost as soon as he could walk and said he was throwing curveballs by the time he was 8. When he was 12, his father built a "field of dreams" baseball diamond on his farm - complete with bleachers and scoreboard - and young Robert envisioned himself a second baseman like his favorite player, Rogers Hornsby.
Instead, he became a member of Cleveland's "Big Four" pitching rotation with Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia in the 1950s and is immortalized - in mid-windup - by a statue outside the Indians' ballpark.
Feller had strong opinions and was not hesitant to express them. "All major-league baseball players," he said in recent years, "should visit Cooperstown and walk the Hall of Fame. When you go there, you see you're not the greatest thing on Earth. There were people before you. Too many of the players today, I think, don't know what the Hall of Fame looks like or why it's there."
Feller's first wife, Virginia, died in 1981. He is survived by their three sons - Steve, Martin and Bruce - and by his second wife, Anne.