The Ballplayer Who Swapped His Uniform for Uncle Sam's

The Ballplayer Who Swapped His Uniform for Uncle Sam's

Why you should care

Because the most consequential “Decision” in Cleveland sports history wasn’t aired on ESPN.

Some details just don’t make it into the box score. On Aug. 24, 1945, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller threw a complete game four-hitter, striking out 12 and beating the Detroit Tigers 4-2. A great outing by the numbers. And nothing short of phenomenal once you know the full story.

“Rapid Robert” Feller’s performance on the mound that day came just nine days after VJ day, and just two days after he had been discharged from the Navy. Oh, and 1,428 days since he’d last pitched in the major leagues. But of all the numbers associated with Feller’s amazing baseball career, perhaps the most significant is this: two. That’s how many days it took the premier hurler of his generation to enlist in the Navy after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, making him the first major leaguer to enter the service.

Feller was different from other players — and he always had been.

Almost 60 years before another Cleveland athlete made “The Decision,” Feller made a far more consequential one while driving his Buick Century from his hometown in Iowa to discuss his 1942 contract with his Indians bosses. That’s when he heard about Pearl Harbor on the car radio and decided then and there to enlist. Feller was likely exempt from service (his father was dying), and he was a star athlete on the verge of earning $100,000 per year. But none of that mattered. “We were losing that war,” Feller reflected before his death in 2010. “People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting.”

Not every ballplayer, though, was eager to swap their team’s uniform for Uncle Sam’s. Many avoided service; others were reluctant enlistees. Yankees star Joe DiMaggio, for example, did not join until after the 1942 season, and spent most of the war playing Army baseball in California and Hawaii. But Feller was different from other players — and he always had been.

The 6-foot, 185-pound baseball prodigy grew up in Van Meter, Iowa, a town of 300 with no traffic lights. Almost half a century before the publication of Shoeless Joe, the 1982 novel that inspired Field of Dreams, Feller’s father leveled one of his pastures and erected bleachers to create a private ball field for his gifted son, a high-kicking right-hander with a 100 mph fastball and a curveball that even DiMaggio said just “isn’t human.”

If you build it, he will come … and so he did — in the form of Indians scout Cy Slapnicka, who signed a 16-year-old Feller for a nominal $1 and a baseball autographed by the Indians (allowing him to retain his high school eligibility). The young prospect joined the team the following year in 1936 and, as George Will later observed, Feller “was a major leaguer before he was old enough to shave, the only major leaguer who returned to his hotel to do high school homework.”

In his first major league action, an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Feller, just 17, struck out eight of the 12 batters he faced. After his first pitch, a called strike, the Cardinals batter turned to the catcher and said, “Let me out of here in one piece.” Feller became the biggest sensation in baseball since Babe Ruth, his photo on the cover of Time magazine. By the time he made his “decision” at age 22, he had pitched a no-hitter and won more than 100 games.

And during his 44 months in the Navy (primarily as a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama), Feller racked up equally impressive numbers. He participated in eight Pacific landings, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. As Feller told a newspaper reporter, “The bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama [was] the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that … the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial.”

But not everything the outspoken Feller said was conduct becoming an All-American. After watching Jackie Robinson play in 1946 before the baseball legend broke the game’s color line, Feller suggested that Robinson was too muscle-bound to hit major league pitching and would not make the cut if he were white — a prediction that would prove wildly inaccurate and lead to accusations of racism. But the two players eventually mended fences and entered the Hall of Fame side-by-side in 1962.

Despite missing almost four years in the prime of his career, Feller’s numbers, including 266 career victories, were good enough for the Hall of Fame, even if he could have won 100 more in a more peaceful world. But Feller didn’t waste time on such hypotheticals — and never regretted his decision. Plus, he got to play ball in the service, when he and some other sailors leveled coconut trees to make room for makeshift baseball diamonds in the Pacific Islands, just as his father had once cleared the Iowa pasture. And if his fellow major leaguers balked at his scorching fastball, just imagine how it looked to some poor petty officer batting for another ship in the 3rd Fleet.

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