Bob Feller, one of the all-time greatest sports figures to ever come from Iowa, died Wednesday. I interviewed him in his downtown Cedar Rapids hotel room in May 1994. He was in town for an autograph session at a supermarket.
He liked to talk. He liked to sign things. He signed an amazing number of autographs in his life, many for cash. But he basically forced an autographed photo on me after the interview was done. I don’t know where it is. I hope I have it somewhere. I’m not a collector in any way, shape, or form. But there weren’t many people in sports like this man. Check the record books. He was phenomenal.
Here’s my column from that day:
Bob Feller was called “Rapid Robert” when he whizzed fastballs past American League hitters from 1936 to 1956. At age 75, he’s still a man of motion.
A promotional appearance in Denver. A baseball card-dealers show in Hawaii. A tour of U.S. military bases in Germany. That’s part of Feller ‘s itinerary in a monthlong period that included signing autographs at a Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee Saturday, and a trip to southern Iowa to give today’s commencement address at Seymour High School.
Later Saturday, Feller went to his hometown of Van Meter to see how work is progressing on the Bob Feller Museum.
“All my memorabilia will be there,” Feller said Saturday morning in his downtown Cedar Rapids hotel room. “It’ll open this September, but the official opening will be next year. DiMaggio wants to be there. So does Ted, but Ted’s health isn’t as good as we’d like.”
DiMaggio is, of course, former New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio. Ted is ex-Boston Red Sox outfielder Williams. They were the hitting legends of their generation. Feller, winner of 266 games and author of three no-hitters as a Cleveland Indian, was the pitching legend of that era.
Feller still works for the Indians in public relations. Outside the brand-new Jacobs Field stadium in Cleveland is a statue of Feller , the player. When the stadium was christened in April, Feller threw one of the ceremonial first pitches. On the mound with him was President Clinton.
“Regardless of what else I might be doing,” Feller wrote in his 1990 autobiography, “I am a baseball man first, last and always, and baseball is where I want to be.”
At 17, Feller was whisked off his Iowa farm by Cy Slapnicka, a Cleveland scout who was a Cedar Rapids native.
“This town is very important to me because of Cy Slapnicka,” Feller said. “I’ve been here many, many times. I’ve spoken at many clinics Pinky Primrose put on at Washington High School. I’m still a dues-paying member of the Iowa High School Coaches Association.”
Feller drops names a mile a minute. He has known presidents and captains of industry. But he seemed to speak with a little more passion when discussing World War II and the military, having voluntarily joined the U.S. Navy and serving through much of the war as chief of an anti-aircraft crew on the U.S.S. Alabama.
Feller was 25-13 for the Indians in 1941 and 26-15 in 1946. Outside of nine games in 1945, he missed four full seasons because of the war. Many believe he could have won another 100 games had his career not been interrupted. He didn’t have to join the war effort since he was the sole financial support of his family. But he enlisted anyway.
“I’m a big believer in the military,” Feller said. “People today could use more military discipline. They’re obviously not getting it anywhere else.
“I wish they’d leave the military alone. Everything now is symbolism. There’s no substance, just a lot of rhetoric. Nobody’s speaking softly and carrying a big stick anymore. They’re speaking loudly and carrying nothing.
“I’m disappointed in the lack of leadership in this country. We’ve got a lot of politicians and very few statesmen and leaders. People don’t work as hard as they used to. There are a lot of problems in this country, and nobody’s really facing it. You and your kids, the next generation, aren’t going to have the standard of living I had.”
When you think of names like DiMaggio, Williams and Feller, you might think of a golden age of baseball that makes today’s game pale in comparison. Feller says many of today’s players are admirable. He raves about Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton, for instance. But he doesn’t like how the game has progressed.
“The players today don’t know the rulebook,” he said. “The only thing they know for sure is their agents’ phone numbers.
“The game is basically bottom-line all the way across. There’s free agency, arbitration and the bottom line. Winning or losing probably isn’t as important as it used to be.
“There’s no money in bunting, or in catching ground balls or pop-ups. Good defensive players make peanuts. The money goes to the pitchers and the guys who hit the long balls.”
Feller, who has made countless appearances at minor-league ballparks, was disappointed the Cedar Rapids Kernels were out of town Saturday.
“The best places to see baseball are the nice minor-league parks around the country,” he said. “Fans can get autographs, talk to the players and it doesn’t cost two arms and a leg to go to a game.”
Ironically, Feller did not play in the minors. The boy from the farm never played on a farm team. He was one of the best pitchers the game has seen, and his name still carries weight. Even at Seymour High School.
“I’m going to ask those kids if they’re the best in the world at something,” Feller said. “You don’t have anything to talk about until you’re the best in the world. Unless you’re the best there is in your profession, you can always improve. And even then, you can still improve.”
And off Feller went to sign autographs at a supermarket, to check on a museum in progress, and to continue living the life of a baseball ambassador.