It’s impossible to list the greatest pitchers in baseball history without putting Bob Feller near the top.

In an astounding career that included 18 Major League Baseball seasons – all with the Cleveland Indians – Feller amassed jaw-dropping numbers. They include:

  • A 266-162 record
  • 279 complete games
  • 44 shut outs
  • A lifetime 3.25 earned run average
  • 2,581 strikeouts for an average of 167 per 162 games across his career

But as with all the greats, Feller’s story is about a lot more than just statistics. It’s no wonder that volunteers still run a great museum dedicated to Feller in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa. He not only burst onto the baseball scene as a remarkable teenager but continued to live up to his own high standards.

Bob Feller. A Prodigy

Born Robert William Andrew Feller in 1918 in Van Meter, Iowa, Feller pitched for his local high school team while also playing on the local American Legion team. Many teams offered him a contract, but he signed with Cleveland. He left the family farm without finishing high school, going immediately to the Indians’ big league club.

Bypassing the minors is a rare event for any player. But Feller proved he belonged right away, striking out 15 in his debut against the St. Louis Browns. Later in his rookie season, he set an American League record by striking out 17 in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Then, he went back home during the offseason and finished high school.

If his story stopped right there, Feller’s accomplishments as a 17-year-old rookie would still be the stuff of legend. But Feller was just getting started.

Between 1939-1941, Feller won 24, 27 and 25 games. During this era, Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris advised his hitters who faced Feller: “Go on up there and hit what you see. If you can’t see it, come on back.”

World War II

Another part of the Feller legend is his conduct during World War II.

Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On Dec. 8, the U.S. declared war on Japan. And on Dec. 9, Feller drove to a Naval Station to enlist. He did this despite having draft deferment status.

Feller was the first professional sports player in the country to volunteer for military service. Enlisting in the Navy cost Feller four years of his Major League career, right in his prime. He never regretted the decision, saying, “I didn’t worry about losing my baseball career. We needed to win the war. I wanted to do my part.”

Feller saw combat on many occasions as a gunner on the USS Alabama. In 2013, after Feller’s death at age 92 in 2010, baseball and the U.S. Navy established the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award given each year to one Major League player and one member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

An Endearing Memory

In his first full season back after the war in 1946, Feller won 26 games, picking up where he left off. The following year, he won 20 and would average 19 wins a season over the first full six seasons after his military service. In 1948, he started two games in the World Series that the Indians won over the Boston Braves.

He retired after the 1956 season. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He also became the first president of the player’s association and was among the first to fight for a player’s right for free agency.

Feller was a player and person of accomplishments. But, at the age of 88, when asked what great moment he would relieve from his memorable life if he had the chance, Feller quickly answered:

“Playing catch with my dad between the red barn and the house.”