Last Wednesday MLB great Bob Feller passed away at the age of 92. Feller, known as “Rapid Robert” had one of the strongest arms — and one of the fastest fastballs — of all time. “The Heater from Van Meter” (as he was also known) is easily among the top five pitchers to ever play the game. A fact that is even more impressive when you consider Feller, who grew up on a farm in Van Meter, Iowa, left the game during his prime years to join the U.S. war effort in the Pacific. It is this sacrifice that makes Bob Feller not only a great baseball player, but a great American.
The story of Pearl Harbor and Bob Feller’s decision to join the military from Once Upon a Game: Baseball’s Greatest Memories via The New York Times.
“I was driving my new Buick Century across the Mississippi River, across the Iowa-Illinois state line, when my world — everyone’s world — changed forever.
It was Dec. 7, 1941. I was driving to my meeting with my Cleveland Indians bosses to hash out my 1942 contract, and out it came on the radio: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
The last thing on my mind right then was playing baseball. I immediately decided to enlist in the United States Navy. I didn’t have to — I was 23 and strong-bodied, you bet, but with my father terminally ill back in Van Meter, Iowa, I was exempt from military service.
It didn’t matter to me — I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese. We were losing that war and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting. So on Dec. 9, I gave up the chance to earn $100,000 with the Indians and became the first professional athlete to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor.
It was one of the greatest experiences in my life. You can talk about teamwork on a baseball team, but I’ll tell you, it takes teamwork when you have 2,900 men stationed on the U.S.S. Alabama in the South Pacific. I was a chief petty officer. I helped give exercises and ran the baseball team and recreation when we were in port. But I was also a gun captain — I was firing a 40-millimeter quad at eight rounds per second.
The Alabama was involved in one of the most important battles of the Pacific. In June 1944, we were supposed to shell the beaches of Saipan for two hours so that our Marines could land safely. The Japanese tried a surprise attack — but we were ready. The American Navy and Air Force, we had all the big carriers and battleships like the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, the Alabama, you name it, we had them all. Our pilots and gunners shot down 474 Japanese aircraft, sank three of their carriers and got several of their escort ships. And when the sun went down that night, it was the end of the Japanese naval air force. We made it look so easy, ever since they’ve called it the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”