All-Time Indians: Bob Feller

Name: Robert William Andrew Feller Position: Pitcher
Nick Name: Rapid Robert Number: 19
Tribe Time: 1936-1941, 1945-1956 DOB: 11/03/1918
Accolades: Hall of Fame (1962), Retired #19, 8 Time All-Star (1938-41, 1946-48, 1950), Top 5 MVP (1939-41, 1951)
Best Season (1946) 26 15 .634 2.18 48 42 36 10 371.1 277 90 11 153 348 1.16 .199
Indians Career 266 162 .621 3.25 570 484 279 44 3,827.0 3,271 1,384 224 1,764 2,581 1.32 .222
Post Season Career 0 2 .000 5.11 2 2 1 0 14.1 10 8 3 5 7 1.06 .191

There are very few players considered the best at what they did in baseball history. Babe Ruth was the Sultan of Swat, Ty Cobb, possibly the greatest hitter ever and Ted Williams some combination of both decades later. The Indians have but one player in team history that can be considered on that level and it was Bob Feller.

Feller’s story is an incredible one, from signing as a 17 year old and striking out 15 in his debut as a starting pitcher that year to his military career and final career numbers. After signing, Feller almost immediately made his debut and never played in the minor leagues or for any other team outside of the Cleveland Indians. In addition to making him the greatest pitcher in Indians history, it also lead him to stick with the team for 53 years after he retired as a leader and a reminder of the history of the franchise.

All this greatness started in 1936 when Indians scout, Cy Slapnicka, pulled Feller off a farm in Iowa to play for the Tribe. Playing illegally at the age of 17, he made eight starts and struck out 76 in 62 innings. It took him almost no time to start setting records as he set the team record for strike outs in a single game with those 15 against the St. Louis Browns in his debut, then pushed that to 17 later on in the season against the Philadelphia A’s. The Indians had never really had a strike out pitcher before Feller and the career leader had been Addie Joss with 920 when he made his debut. In just his fifth season in 1940, Feller surpassed this number and he never gave it up, still holding the Indians career total for strike outs with 2,581.

In 1937, Feller wasn’t a full time starter yet, but threw in 26 games and struck out 150. The next year, he broke the Indians single season record for strike outs that had been held by Vean Gregg since 1912 at 184. He also broke his single game record by striking out 18 Tigers in October. Overall, in 277.2 innings, Feller struck out an AL high 240, the first of seven seasons (in eight years) where he paced the American League. He had a poor ERA of just 4.08 and walked a still team record 208, but won 17 games and made his first of eight All-Star games.

From 1939 through 1941, Feller was the model of consistency. He struck out at least 240 each season, raising his team record to 261 in 1940. Each of the three years he lead the AL in innings (most was 343 in 1941) and wins (most was 27 in 1940) and twice in the three year span he lead the league in complete games (31 of 37 starts in 1940), shut outs (six in 1941) while leading the league in ERA in 1940 with a 2.61. In 1940, he won the Triple Crown and was selected as the Sporting News MLB Player of the Year. He only lost the MVP that year to Hank Greenberg and his 150 RBI.

To begin that 1940 season, Feller did something no pitcher has done since, throw a no hitter on Opening Day. He did this against the White Sox and, while it wasn’t the first Indians no hitter (that was Joss in 1908), it was the first of three in his career (1946 against New York and 1950 against Detroit), more than any other Indians pitcher. In addition to these no hitters, Feller also holds the MLB record for one hitters with 12 during his Major League career.

After all this success, four straight All-Star appearances and three straight top three MVP seasons, Feller did the thing he was most proud of during his life. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy at 23 years old. He was involved in the Pacific theater and refused to play baseball until the war was over.

After missing three straight seasons (and potentially 75 wins, more than 750 strike outs and well over 900 innings), Feller rejoined the team late in 1945. He didn’t lose a step and it is possible that the time off allowed him to come back with a little more power in his arm. After a .250 ERA and 59 strike outs in nine starts to finish the year, he went on to set the current team record for single season strike outs in 1946. That season was the best in his career and unarguably the greatest in Indians history. He also set the team record for innings (371.1) lead the league in wins (26), appearances (48), starts (42), complete games (36), shut outs (10), innings and K’s. If there had been a Cy Young award, he would have won it, but instead he finished sixth in the MVP voting, losing to Ted Williams who considered him the best pitcher he ever faced.

The 1947 season would look tame by comparison, but he still finished in the top ten in the MVP vote after leading the league in wins, shut outs, innings, strike outs and WHIP. He was now 28 years old and when most players would be coming into their prime, he already had over 2,000 innings and 1,800 strike outs under his belt.

The Indians hadn’t been to the postseason since 1920 and with the big three of Feller, Bob Lemon and Gene Bearden leading the way, they would return in 1948. On the field, they were lead by Hall of Fame manager and short stop, Lou Boudreau as well as Hall of Famers in Joe Gordon and Larry Doby. Out of the bullpen was another Hall of Famer, only the greatest pitcher in Negro League Baseball history, Satchel Paige. Feller was undoubtedly the ace on this squad, although neither of the big three were slouching. They combined to throw 67% of the Indians starts that year, 57% of total innings and win 61% of the Tribes MLB best 97 wins.

After a league leading 20 wins, five shut outs and 299 innings, Feller lead the Indians into the World Series against the Boston Braves. He pitched a complete game in game one against Johnny Sain, but allowed a single run on two hits, losing the match. After the Indians won games two, three and four behind Lemon, Bearden and Steve Gromek, Feller lost again in game five, this time against the other Braves super star, Warren Spahn, allowing seven runs in 6.1 innings. Fortunately for him, Lemon would come back in game six and win the Indians second World Series, allowing Feller to collect his ring.

From 30 on, even the downturn of Feller’s career would be better than most All-Stars are in their prime. He went to another All-Star game in 1950, his eighth and final, then lead the league with a 22-5 record in 1951, finishing fifth in the MVP race behind Yogi Berra. In 1949, Early Wynn joined the club and the eventual Hall of Famer would create, along with Feller and Lemon, the greatest pitching rotation in Indians history from 1950 through 1954. Mike Garcia would join during that stretch as a solid fourth and in 1955, Herb Score would win the Rookie of the Year and take over the mantle of flame thrower from Feller.

For the first time in his career, in 1955 and 1956, Feller was used more as a reliever than starter, but still was solid into his late 30’s. He pitched just 58 innings in 1956, his final year, but did earn a save, his 22nd in his career. While he wasn’t as dominant, he was able to push his career record to 266 and 162 in these last two years, still holding the career record for wins as an Indian. In addition, he holds the team records for starts, complete games and innings.

Just a year after he retired, Feller was inducted into the team Hall of Fame, the 12th player inducted after it opened in 1951. He joined the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown just a few years later in his first year of eligibility, 1962 with 94% of the vote. While Joss ended his career with more shut outs and a better ERA and WHIP in less games, Feller lived longer and was able to set numbers that will likely never be touched again. While his single game marks have been surpassed, his season and career marks are so high it is unfathomable that they will not stand the test of time.

Feller was a fixture around the Indians constantly after his playing days up until just before his death in 2010, at the age of 92. Less than a year earlier, Feller had been signing autographs and telling stories during Spring Training and this is part of his legacy as much as his playing career and military service as he created memories for fans from 1936 through 2010.

Bob  Feller

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since its inception in 2011. He also writes for The Outside Corner and the Comeback and hosts the Tribe Time Now podcast. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians. Follow on twitter @BurningRiverBB