Bob Feller Early Career

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A Big-Leaguer at 17

Standing at six feet tall and consisting of 185 pounds of solid muscle, Bob Feller arrived in Cleveland at the completion of his junior year at Van Meter High School in 1936. On July 19 of that season, Indians manager Steve O’Neill summoned Feller from the bullpen to relieve Johnny Allen in an Indians losing effort at Washington. He walked the first two batters he faced, but then he settled down and retired the next three batters in a row without giving up a run.

After five more relief appearances, O’Neill decided to give Feller a start on August 23 against the lowly St. Louis Browns. With his unique windup that included a high leg kick, Feller responded in dominant form, striking out 15 batters – still a record for a first career start, now shared with Karl Spooner and J.R. Richard – and only allowing six hits and one run in a complete-game victory.

Feller’s performance cemented his role in the Indians’ starting rotation, and three starts later, he struck out a then-record 17 Philadelphia Athletics batters in one game. He finished his season with five wins against three losses in 62 innings, and he averaged over 11 strikeouts per nine innings – an astonishing number for almost any player, let alone a 17-year-old.

By the following season, Feller had become a full-blown phenomenon. The American public was so fascinated with “The Heater from Van Meter” that NBC Radio broadcast his graduation from Van Meter High School to a national audience. He continued to strikeout over a batter an inning that year, finishing with a 9-7 record.

“Rapid Robert” had his breakout year in 1938, leading the American League with 240 strikeouts, though he also led the league in walks with 208 – a number he would never approach again. He started the season by throwing a one-hit shutout against the Browns and ended it by establishing a new record for strikeouts in a game, striking out 18 Detroit Tigers on the final day of the season.

1939 witnessed Feller dominating the American League, once again leading the league in both strikeouts and walks, and also leading it in wins (24), complete games (24), and innings pitched (296.2). This campaign included one-hit shutouts against the Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. He closed the 1930s with three one-hitters but without a no-hitter.

The 1940s changed that, though. In his first start of the decade, Feller gained his first no-hitter – an Opening Day masterpiece against the Chicago White Sox on a blustery day in Comiskey Park. This remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in Major League Baseball history, as well as the individual feat that people most associate with Feller on a baseball diamond.

He ended 1940 once again leading the league in strikeouts, wins (a career-high 27), complete games, and innings pitched, as well as ERA (2.61) and shutouts (4). Around this time, Feller participated in the first test of his fastball’s velocity, measuring it against a racing motorcycle. Feller’s fastball easily beat the motorcycle – which was traveling at 86 mph – to its destination, despite Feller having inadvertently given the motorcycle a ten-foot head start. The fastball ended up being calculated at around 104 mph.

In 1941, Feller began his sixth season in the American League despite being only 22 years old. By this point he had made enough money to build his parents a new house on the family farm – a brick house that was roomy enough to serve as a community meeting area.

On the mound, Feller continued his dominance over American League batters. He was a workhorse that year, just like the previous ones – he attributed his durability to working on the family farm, as well as being an innovator of year-round training – and led the league by appearing in 44 games, 40 starts, and 343 innings pitched. He also paced the league with 260 strikeouts and six shutouts, while adding 28 complete games and a 3.15 ERA.

Feller was on top of the world, playing the game he loved and seemingly in control of American League batters during the summer and returning home to Van Meter to help his dad on the farm in the winter. On December 7, two months after the 1941 season ended in Cleveland, Feller headed from Van Meter back to the Forest City to sign his contract for the 1942 season.