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Bob Feller was stubborn and opinionated – and, I must admit, I didn’t care for him too much at our first meeting over 30 years ago.
But the more our paths crossed and the more conversations we had, the more I liked him. I even came to admire him.
Feller, who died last month at age 92, was of course a great pitcher but he was also a savvy businessman. He played a major role in the formation of the players’ union and was the first player to incorporate. He headed off-season baseball barnstorming tours playing with and against Negro League players before the major leagues were finally integrated in 1947.
Feller chartered and even flew his own plane, hired the traveling secretary of the Cleveland Indians to handle bookings, and he paid all players, including the Negro Leaguers, well. Buck O’Neill, one of the Negro League stars born to soon to play in the majors, claimed he made more money with Feller’s tours than he did playing in the established Negro Leagues.
Feller’s story is an interesting one.
He made his big-league debut at the age of 17 in August 1936. The young fireballer pitched 62 innings and struck out 76 that season. And he just kept getting better. He already had won 107 games for the Cleveland Indians when he turned 21 in November 1941. But the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a couple of weeks later and Feller opted to turn in his baseball uniform for a military one.
He didn’t have to give up the big-league life and big-league money. He could have claimed a deferral as a farmer whose father was too sick to operate the family farm in Iowa. But the patriotic pitcher joined the Navy and pushed aside the cushy assignments most big league players were able to get.
Feller wanted to serve as an ordinary American rather than a big-league star and found plenty of action in combat – including at Iwo Jima. He didn’t return from military service until late in the 1945 season, which meant he missed almost four full seasons in his prime. Even without those years, Feller still managed to rack up 266 victories.
As baseball commissioner Bud Selig noted at Feller’s passing, “Bob Feller was a great baseball player, but he was an even greater American.”
Baseball recently lost some other greats.
Cubs broadcaster and former third baseman Ron Santo compiled 342 home runs and a .277 batting average over a 15-year playing career and won the Gold Glove Award for defensive abilities five times. Santo was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 18 but didn’t reveal it to teammates until his fourth season in the majors and fans found out two years after that.
It wasn’t easy dealing with diabetes during his career (1960-1974). Santo, who was a fixture in the Cubs broadcast booth for the last 21 years, liked to tell this story about one of the times his condition was acting up:
“I was in the on-deck circle and Billy Williams was up in the bottom of the ninth inning. I was hoping Williams would hit a home run and end the game so I wouldn’t have to bat, as I was seeing three of everything. Williams walked and I had to go up and bat. Since I saw what looked like three pitchers, I decided I would swing at the ball I was seeing in the middle. I did and hit a home run and somehow made it around the bases and we won the game.”
Santo was 70 when he passed away.
Phil Cavaretta, another Chicago legend, died at 94. He played for the Cubs for 20 years (1934-1953) before going to the White Sox for two seasons.
A first baseman-outfielder, Cavaretta topped the league in 1945 with a .355 average and led the Cubs to the World Series (they haven’t made it since). He batted an amazing .423 in the seven-game series but Hank Greenberg’s two home runs helped Detroit down the Cubs.
The biggest player of his time (6-5, 220), Walt Dropo died a month shy of his 88th birthday. He hailed from Moosup, Connecticut, which gave him the nickname “Moose.” Dropo had a great rookie year in 1950 with the Red Sox, batting .322 and swatting 34 home runs with 144 RBI in 136 games. The popular big guy never topped the .300 or 30-homer mark again in his 13-year career with Boston, Detroit, the White Sox, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Gil McDougald, who spent his entire ten-year career (1951-1960) with the Yankees as an infielder, died at 82. A .276 lifetime hitter, McDougald was a valuable member of the Yankees, helping the club to eight World Series during his 10 seasons with the team, all under manager Casey Stengel.
While this has been an off-season tinged with sadness, teams have been busy, with many faces heading to new places. Since we can expect more wheeling and dealing, especially from the Yankees and Mets, who seem to have fallen further behind some other clubs, I’ll wait a while to give my opinions.
As always, your opinions are welcome.
Next month Irwin Cohen will tell us about being an Orthodox Jew in the baseball field. Cohen, president of the Detroit community’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com