Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rapid Robert

On Christmas Day in 1960, I received a present that I had not asked for. It was a large soft covered book with a drawn picture, highly colorized, of a baseball player immediately after he has finished his swing. The book was called “Big Time Baseball” and I read it from cover to cover many times in the years to come. At the age of seven, I had played baseball for one year and had not yet discovered that baseball had a history. If it had not, I would have paid no attention to the sport for the rest of my life because ,to say I was a mediocre player is to insult that fine old word “mediocre”(which means moderately ordinary).The history of the sport kept me interested in the game and kept me playing for another seven years.


The book contained a section on the World Series. One of the stories was about Bob Feller’s famous start in game one of the 1948 series. Feller was a superstar of the highest degree in the 30s and 40s. No pitcher today comes near the awe he inspired. The last one who came close was Roger Clemens whose memory is now mixed up with the steroid era of the sport. Feller began pitching in the American League at 17  in the 30s and pitched up until 1956. His record is not what it would be because several years of his career were lost to World War II.  The career was still spectacular and when I started watching baseball, he held many strike out records and was the only player ever to pitch three no hitters, a record broken by Sandy Koufax and later shattered by Nolan Ryan.


But Feller had the misfortune to play in the same league as the New York Yankees and so his often very good team, the Indians of Cleveland   did not reach the World Series until he was past the time of his true greatness, in 1948. But even then, he was an outstanding pitcher and started the first game of the series that year against Johnny Sain of the old Boston Braves (and the “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain “ ditty). Feller pitched a whale of a game, giving up only two hits. Sain gave up only four. The score was tied until the bottom of the eighth when Phil Masi, a journeyman catcher was sent in as a pinch runner for  the Braves. He was sacrificed to second and had a long lead off of that base when Feller wheeled and threw to Lou Boudreau on a pickoff move which appeared to all but one person in the ballpark to catch Masi off the bag at second. Unfortunately for Feller and his teammates, the one person who disagreed was a man named Bill Stewart who happened to be the umpire at second base that day. Stewart called Masi safe and despite protests from Indian shortstop/manager Lou Boudreau, the call has stood forever. ‘Pictures” allegedly show that Masi was out, although I have never seen one. The only picture I ever saw of the play was on the opposite page of the story in my Big Time Baseball book. That picture shows Masi on second and Boudreau holding up his glove as if he has cleanly tagged Masi out. It also shows a look of marked irritation on Boudreau’s face which I can only presume presaged an explosion. The picture shows something else. It shows an umpire of that era, squatting and looking at second, his arms spread and palms down in the universal sign of “safe”.


The next batter was Tommy Holmes, who hit a single, scoring Masi  for the first run. The only one of the game. Feller was defeated and would never win a World Series game. That was the poignant point of the story I read forty eight years ago. That’s exactly how the story ended, and how I always remembered it. “Bob Feller never did win a World Series game.”


Fast forward to 2009, Goodyear, Arizona. I am returning to my seat at the stadium, the spring  training grounds of the Cleveland Indians and I look to my left at an elderly  gentleman sitting behind a table, wearing an Indians hat. It is “Rapid Robert” Feller. Feller is now 90 and makes an excellent living by signing his name on various items for whatever amount the market will bear. At a spring training game in Goodyear, Arizona, the market will bear $10 a signature and, if you want, Bob will throw in one of three or four different 8x10 glossies of himself in his prime. My mind retreats back in Christmas of 1960 and that story and that picture of the disdainful disbelief on the face of Lou Boudreau.


My seat is directly in back of where Feller is seated and I watched him sign items for seven innings. By my estimate he signed somewhere between 800 and 1,000 items which, even for the math challenged author, adds up to a nice sum. I am told by a seatmate that Feller appears every day of the spring games which means that his annual  trip to Arizona (and before that Florida) probably grosses between $75,000 and $100,000. Not bad for a vacation.


I was in awe of one thing. Feller is in incredible shape. He can still throw a baseball like it is meant to be thrown, having to hold  back for the kids he throws signed balls to, so that their dads can remind them one day that they once played catch with Bob Feller.About the 7th inning, the line disappeared for a few moments and Feller walked over to the concession stand to  buy himself an order of ballpark nachos with one of the ten dollar bills he had recently taken from a fan. I could write an entire blog about the hideousness of ballpark nachos, but this story has gone on too long already. At any rate, as  Feller returns to his seat , my memories get the best of me. I leave my aisle and walk over the Feller, my Indian hat in hand for him to sign and two five dollar bills. As I handed the hat to him I said “There’s one thing I always wanted to ask you….” Feller looked me straight in the eye. “Was Holmes out in 1948 ? “ I asked, forgetting that it was Masi and not Holmes on second base. “No !” came the strong reply. I was taken aback. Surely he had misheard me. “Holmes got the hit, Masi was on second base.” “Was HE out ? “ I repeat. “He was out by two feet.” Then Bob’s mind races back to 1948, something it has to do every time someone over 50 asks him this question, which is probably every day of his life. “It was a timing play.” Here he brings his hands  together in the “set position”. “The shortstop broke to the bag and I turned and threw.” “And he was out ?” I repeated for the third time. “He was out by two feet.” Confirmed Feller. “Years later” he went on, “the umpire, Stewart, admitted to me that he had been asleep on the play.” Then he continued, “You know that play did not cost me a win, just a tie.” I thanked Bob and left, ten dollars lighter, but immeasurably richer.


It was not until I got back to my seat that I began to think about his last statement. It was an interesting thought. “Don’t feel sorry for me” he was saying. To do so would change the story. The Indians that day could not score a run. That was the story, Johnny Sain and his four hit shutout was the story. The pitchers duel was the story. If the call had been made correctly the game might still be going and Feller might still not have been a winner. In one short sentence Feller had done three things, forgiven Stewart, honored Sain and told me that I had nothing to feel sorry for him about. It was true economy of language.


My signed hat now sits in my study, but it represents something different than I thought that it would. It represents  the generosity of a man who is not known for such an attribute. But that’s how I will always remember Bob Feller.




Blogger Paul D. Frazier said...

Wonderful story.

10:28 AM  

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