Bob Feller passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Without question, one of the 10- or possibly five- greatest pitchers in baseball history, Bob was his own man, and not someone to be trifled with.
I had multiple encounters with Bob over the past 30-plus years. He used to schedule appearances at minor league ballparks across the country and throw batting practice before the game in a contemporary Cleveland Indians uniform. Then he'd change clothes and dutifully sign autographs at a table on the concourse until everyone was satisfied. In 1978, Feller came to Alexandria, Va., to throw BP before a evening tilt between the Alexandria Dukes and the Lynchburg Mets of the Carolina League. Bob would pretty much just lay it in there, and let the prospects swing away.
The Mets had a catching prospect named Jody Davis, who would go on to have a pretty good career with the Cubs and Braves. Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, behind Cora Kelly Elementary School, was well beneath the standards of professional baseball, and if the players spoke much above a whisper, you could hear what they were saying without it being true eavesdropping. Anyway, Feller, who was 60 at the time, was throwing strike after strike, and Davis, who was 21, was talking smack.
Davis, loud enough for others to hear, was saying derisive things about Feller - how embarassing it must be for Feller to have to stoop to throwing minor league BP, and how Davis would have to show him the error of his ways.
Bob - who, as I said, didn't suffer fools - heard enough to start the juices flowing. Known as "Rapid Robert" for his fastball, Feller also had a devastating curveball, and when Davis' turn came, here was Bob's old Uncle Charlie.
Davis swung and missed a few times, hit nothing very hard and walked away with, I think, new respect for on of the game's elder statesmen. He had to know the joke was on him.
Feller returned to Alexandria in 1981, and I got an opportunity to take a few hacks myself. The Dukes had asked me to round up some local retired pros to swing the bat, and I got ex-Senators Chuck Hinton, Fred Valentine, Frank Kreutzer, Walt Masterson, Steve Ridzik and Jackie Jensen to come by. Jensen showed up in his 1961 Red Sox uniform, but the hitting star was Kreutzer, who, in a suit (he took off the jacket before he picked up a bat but still wearing the vest and tie) hit three screamers to the gap in left field.
The night before this event, I had Feller on my show on WTOP for a couple of hours. He assured me that when my turn came, he'd throw me something I could hit. So, 24 hours later, I picked up a bat and stepped into the box. True to his word, he threw me a pitch belt-high, right over the middle of the plate.
There was no protective screen in place in front of the mound, and I proceeded to hit the ball right back at him, straight up the middle. I laughed. He didn't.
Everything I saw from that point on appeared to be coming at me down the third base line. At 63, the breaking ball was still there, and I think I managed a dribbler or two. But obviously, Feller was not going to risk personal injury to pacify some radio talk show host.
I interviewed Bob another five or six times over the years, the most recent being this past spring. He talked about how he still went outside and threw almost everyday, and how much he disliked the way the game had changed, pitching-wise.
He could be irascible and difficult, short on patience and at times extremely rude, but Bob Feller knew who he was and didn't care what you thought. He was a patriot to the nth degree - he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor - and a genuine phenom as a ballplayer. His high school graduation - which came after he'd made his major league debut - was carried on network radio. He truly was a household name, whether you were a baseball fan or not.
Wherever Bob is now, you can bet he's getting his own way.