An American Hero

He was an American Hero. At the age of 17, when he struck out eight of nine St. Louis Cardinals in an exhibition game. He was, in fact, already a legend shortly thereafter, when he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first American League start and followed that by setting an American League record by fanning 17 Philadelphia A's, all during the 1936 season and all prior to his 18th birthday.

Although wilder than the March Hare, he would go on the dominate AL hitters through the end of the 1941 season, after which he confirmed his American Hero status by enlisting in the Navy and spending most of the next four years as an anti-aircraft gun captain on the U.S.S. Alabama. It was this action, on top of his pitching exploits at such a young age, that made Bob Feller what he became, an icon. Thus, with his recent passing, it is not at all surprising that the farm boy from Van Meter , Iowa , was lionized, and almost deified, as the epitome of both the Great American Hero, and, maybe even an American Saint of the nation's secular religion, the National Pastime.  

In reality, the truth of Bob Feller the person was much more interesting, and much more complex. Either almost everyone eulogizing Feller hadn't read up too much on his history, or chose to ignore some of it, because there are numerous references in print to some of his less-then-sterling personal characteristics, especially in regard to his fellow players, and especially if they happened to be African-American. If these aspects of Feller's persona were mentioned at all in any of the recent stories about him, they tended to be glossed over with statements like, "he was always outspoken," or "he was never afraid to speak his mind." Very true... the problem was that his brain and his mouth weren't always closely connected. Actually, most of the recent Feller tributes focused on his relationship with the fans, which apparently tended to be pretty good. Without going into extensive detail, since Feller's Foibles are not the main thrust of this essay, let's just note a couple of examples... 

Photo: Rich Pilling/Getty Images

In his biography of Satchel Paige ("Satchel"), respected journalist Larry Tye pulls no punches in describing Feller, who, it should be noted, spent many a fall barnstorming with Paige (in addition to being his teammate on the 1948 and 1949 Indians)... "The truth is that Feller did not have a great relationship with many players, black or white. He had few social skills and no humility." Tye also recalls a previously well-known Feller interview in 1946 with "The Sporting News" that everyone else seems to have forgotten, and wherein Feller said that none of the Negro League players he had barnstormed with were of major league caliber, not Paige ("maybe when he was young") and not Jackie Robinson. Feller, to his credit, quickly back-tracked, and ate those words in '47 and '48, when Robinson was the Rookie of the Year and when Paige went 6-1 to help lead the Indians to the AL pennant. 

Another statement on the Feller persona came from Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella in "The New Biographical History of Baseball," wherein they presaged Tye's comments by noting that Feller had a, "personal venality that would never qualify the righthander as Mr. Charm... although one of baseball's more articulate players for his era, Feller also had a long suit in crankiness against what he perceived as underappreciation of his talent or overappreciation of the skills of others. Nowhere was this clearer than in his constant criticisms of the significance of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in 1947." 

OK, so despite the Halo Effect concomitant with his passing, Feller wasn't perfect. The more interesting question for the historian is the unanswerable one... how good would Feller have been, and what sort of numbers would he have piled up, if he hadn't won eight battle citations in World War II, and missed almost four full seasons in what looked to be his prime? As is the case with the subject of his personality, there are two sides to argue; one, that the war cost him dearly, and two, that his missing almost four years might have actually extended his career. 

Feller's actual career can be broken down into four phases -- Breaking In (1936 and 1937); Stardom (1938-1941 and 1946-1948); Decline (1949-1953); and Hanging On (1954-1956). Statistically, they average out yearly as follows... 

             Wins     IP     K     K/9

36/37        7      106   113   9.6

38-48      22.6   313   245  7.0

49-53      14.4   215   96    4.0

54-56       5.7     94    34    3.3

Looked at simplistically, and just extrapolating his missing years (the 1942 to 1944 seasons, plus all but 72 innings in 1945) without any further thought, you can come up with some impressive numbers. In the three years before he went into the Navy, the 20, 21 and 22 year old Feller won 76 games and struck out 767 batters, averages of 25 wins and 255 Ks. And, when he came back at the end of 1945, he was still, after almost four years of being hors de combat, able to strike out 7.4 batters per nine innings and post an ERA+ of 130 with five wins for 72 innings -- figures both better than the corresponding ones for his 1941 season. And, since he then proceeded to strike out 348 batters in 371 innings for 26 wins and a 151 ERA+ in 1946, it seems safe to say that his missing years probably would have been as good as those that came immediately beforehand. 

Taking this simplistic (and possibly conservative) approach, we'll then fill in the blanks for his missing 1942 to 1944 seasons, and give him a full 1945. If Feller had pitched straight through from 1941 to 1945, his Stardom period, his peak years, might have looked like this... 

             Wins       Strikeouts

1939        24              246

1940        27              261

1941        25              260

1942*      24              275

1943*      27              235

1944*      24              251

1945*      25              259

1946        26              348

1947        20              196

1948        19              164

The yearly totals for 1942 to 1945 are arbitrary -- no one is THAT consistent -- all that really matters is that the added years average out to 25 wins and 255 Ks per season. For 1945, we're giving Feller 20 extra wins and 200 extra strikeouts over what he actually accomplished (five wins and 59 Ks). In this alternate universe, the rest of Bob Feller's career through 1956 is the same and, instead of finishing with 266 wins and 2581 strikeouts, he ends up with... 361 wins and 3,542 strikeouts. That's just if he maintained the average performance of his first three years of stardom for the next four years, and that's also Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove territory (as in the debate for the best pitcher, ever.)

But... could he have done that? Or, more exactly, even if he had won 95 more games and struck out 965 more batters from 1942 to 1945, would the rest of his career have been the same? Ah, there's the question. And there would seem to be several indicators that would lead one to believe he would have flamed out even earlier than he did in real life. And, it WAS a flameout of cosmic proportions... something you also don't see commonly mentioned in discussions about Bob Feller, maybe because, well, he WAS Bob Feller, American Hero. The facts, however, are clear, as are the statistics. Although he had a few good years after that Mt. Everest in 1946 (notably 1947, 1950 and 1951), he was never great, he was never even the same pitcher afterwards. His decline really started gradually with the 1947 season, and became a downhill slope in 1949. For example, look at his strikeout rates. Having averaged between 6.8 and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings from 1938 to 1945 (he actually fanned more than that in cameo appearances in '36 and '37), he blew away 8.4 batters per nine in 1946, and then fell off to 5.9 in 1947 and 5.3 in 1948. And then the bottom really fell out. Here's the record...

1938  7.8

1939  7.5

1940  7.3

1941  6.8

1945  7.4

1946  8.4

1947  5.9

1948  5.3

1949  4.6

1950  4.3

1951  4.0

1952  3.8

1953  3.1

1954  3.8

1955  2.7

1956  2.8

At the same time his strikeout rate was falling, so were his innings pitched. Although he still was over 200 IP in 1949, 1950 and 1951, his totals steadily declined from '51 on; 250, 192, 176, 140, 83, 58. In case you haven't figured this out yet, Feller's Hanging On phase began in a season when he was 35 years old... an age at which Jamie Moyer, for instance, was just getting started. And his last major league pitch was thrown when he was just 37 years old. Feller's Flameout is not unprecedented, several very young (i.e., teenage) and very good major league pitchers were toast by the age of 35 (or even, in many cases, younger)... Dwight Gooden, Gary Nolan, Charles Albert Bender, Wally Bunker, Smoky Joe Wood, Larry Dierker, even Amos Rusie, if you care to go back that far. (One exception here is Bert Blyleven, which may be one reason why he's likely to be announced as one of the newest members of the Hall of Fame this week.)

In Feller's case, this flameout took place starting just three complete seasons after he took off from pitching for almost four years. Even though he didn't throw a professional pitch at ages of 23, 24 and 25 (and most of his age 26 season as well), Feller still burned out young. What might have happened if he'd thrown another 1200 innings between 1942 and 1945? (He'd averaged 320 IP per season in 1939, 1940 and 1941.) Would he have burned out four years sooner, say after the 1948 season? No one can say, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to predict the following win pattern for Feller in still another universe...

1941  25

1942  24

1943  27

1944  24

1945  25

1946  26

1947  20

1948  19

1949  10

1950  13

1951   4

1952   0

Is it unrealistic to propose that Feller could have been totally washed up at the age of 32? Not if you go by the careers of the young flamethrowers mentioned above. Gooden threw his last major league pitch at 35, but none of the rest lasted past 33, when Bender finished up with the Phillies (although he pitched a couple of innings for the White Sox eight years later.) Dierker was 31 in his last season with the Cards, and early fireballers Rusie and Wood were 30. Gary Nolan was 29, and Wally Bunker just 26. No, it's not far-fetched to "end" Feller's career at 32. If, in effect his age 34 through age 37 seasons became his age 30 through 33 seasons, he then would have won 299 games with about 3120 strikeouts -- still excellent, but no longer numbers that elevate him into the Walter Johnson/Lefty Grove debate.

What caused Feller's Flameout? That's even more speculative, but the signs point towards that 1946 season. As Indians owner Bill Veeck noted, they were pushing Feller very hard that year to set the AL strikeout record, partly because Indian fans didn't have much else to root for in 1946. And he was pushed very hard. While having just taken almost four years off might have rested his right arm, it might have "rusted" it a bit too. Imagine the strain of pitching 371 innings in 1946, after having pitched exactly 72 in the previous four years.

Except, Feller didn't pitch 371 innings in 1946, because, in the 30 days after the season ended, he went on one of those barnstorming tours with the Satchel Paige All-Stars (read, the Negro League All-Stars) and threw another 54 innings against competition as good as that he faced during the regular season. Add it up... between early April and late October 1946, Bob Feller pitched 425 innings! The last pitcher prior to 1946 to throw more than that against this level of competition was Ed Walsh in 1908, and only Walsh, Jack Chesbro (both spitballers) and Iron Man McGinnity (who threw underhanded) topped 425 IP in the 20th Century.

Bob Feller is said to have injured a knee in 1947 (then how did he still pitch 299 innings that year), and that might well have slowed him down. But, it seems more likely that his incredible workload in 1946 (along with World War II) was more to blame for him having to settle for being a two-time American Hero, and not the greatest pitcher of all time.



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