I’m convinced about that after having the pleasure of meeting Feller a couple times.
Josh Pahigian takes us to Feller’s hometown of Van Meter, Iowa and the Feller Museum as place No. 74 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”
I’ve never been there, so I’ll substitute:
Place No. 74A: Bob Feller statue at Progressive Field, Cleveland
It’s a huge statue just outside the rightfield gate at the Indians’ home, a fine meeting spot before or after a game, as you can tell from Will and I hanging out here in the mid-1990s.
If you’re an autograph collector and you don’t have Feller’s signature, that’s on you and not Feller. He is among the nicest and most prolific signers in the game.
My experiences with Feller were a few years prior to the new stadium and that statue. I was living in Connecticut and working in the Bridgeport Post’s Valley Bureau. Feller had relatives in nearby Waterbury.
Each summer he’d visit, and would be sure to line up a handful of appearances in the area. I’m sure he made a few bucks – and not many, based on the low-for-the-time rates he was charging. But I think Feller just liked meeting fans and talking baseball.
I was a little nervous the first time I met him at a card shop in Seymour, Conn. in 1987. I brought a ball for him to sign, and there were only a handful of other people in the small store.
With little prompting, Feller starting telling me about his amazing Hall of Fame career. After asking my name, he wrote on an 8.5 by 11 sheet with his photo on the front, and flipped it over to show me where it listed all his career achievements.
I heard about the 266 wins and three no-hitters, and how he could have had more of each had he not enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, spending 44 months serving his country and earning eight battle stars.
He pointed out the line reading “The only pitcher in Major League history to win 20 games or more games before age 21,” then crossed out “only” and replaced it with “first,” since Dwight Gooden had matched the feat.
While proud of all he had done, Feller was humble, too. I handed the Hall of Famer a new ball to sign, and he chose the spot above the Rawlings logo, instead of the sweet spot, where only, managers and the best players sign. I met Johnny Mize a short while later, and he had no qualms writing his name in that spot on that ball.
I met him again the next year at a New Britain Red Sox game, sitting at a table near the concession stands, signing photos and telling stories. He signed everything for everyone and then walked around the stands talking, signing and shaking hands.
He come off a little crusty in interviews these days, not having a lot of love for modern players who don’t approach the game the same way. Don’t expect Feller to ever welcome Pete Rose, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire into the fraternity with open arms.
But he’s also still throwing in Old-timers Games, too, and he's in his 90s. I think Feller views himself not just as a standard bearer for old school hardball, but as an ambassador for the game. And to that end, few are better than the “Heater from Van Meter.”