The Story of the Hall-of-Fame Pitcher Who Put His Career at Risk to Serve on the USS Alabama
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Major League Baseball All-Star Break begins today with the popular Home Run Derby tonight. Billed as a clash of the titans between power hitters Giancarlo Stanton and rookie Aaron Judge, the event is likely to be one of the most exciting in years.
Kids from across the country will tune into both events to watch their heroes at work. But not so long ago, one all-star gave up the opportunity to play in several Mid-Summer Classics to serve his country in World War II.
In the late 1930s, Bob Feller was a teenage pitching phenom for the Cleveland Indians. He made his first appearance for the ballclub at the age of 17 with a killer fastball and a nasty curve. His talents quickly caught the attention of the league’s best, and Feller even had the legend Joe DiMaggio on edge. “I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does. And his curveball isn’t human,” the renowned New York Yankee once said.
Feller earned a bid to the American League All-Star team every season from 1938 to 1941. From ’39 to ’41, he led the AL in wins, and he even accomplished the rare Pitching Triple Crown in 1940. Earning the praise of Hall-of-Famers Stan Musial and Ted Williams, Feller was one of the most feared pitchers in all of professional baseball. Needless to say, he was on top of the sporting world.
But his perspective changed after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He heard about the attack on his way to visit his sick father in his home state of Iowa, and he was about to sign a new lucrative contract with the Indians. Instead of going back to Cleveland to play for fame and fortune, he volunteered for the U.S. Navy and hoped to see action as the first American pro athlete to enlist in the military. Even though his father’s death gave him an exemption from service, Feller still wanted to help his country. “I told them I wanted to get into combat,” he said. ” [I] wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats and making ball fields out of coral reefs.”
Feller got his wish and was assigned to serve on the USS Alabama in Europe. He served as the gun captain aboard the ship and would practice his pitching with his fellow servicemen near the turrets. When the Alabama was rerouted to the Pacific, Feller saw action during Operation Galvanic, Operation Flintlock, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After the Japanese had surrendered, Feller was discharged from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
When he returned home, Feller went back to the Indians without missing a beat. He led the AL in wins the first two years after the war and did so again in 1951. He returned to the All-Star Game four more times in his career and won the world series with the Indians in 1948. In 1992, Feller was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with almost 94 percent of the vote on the first ballot. He finished his distinguished career with 266 wins, 2,581 strikeouts, a 3.25 ERA, and three no-hitters all with the Cleveland Indians.
To both his teammates and his country, Feller was loyal through and through. He passed away at the age of 92 in 2010.
When watching the All-Star events the next few days, keep folks like Bob Feller in mind. After all, they’re the real heroes.