The Heater from Van Meter

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.”

Top image from the Dennis Goldstein collection via the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Comments on “The Heater from Van Meter

    Corey on December 21, 2010 10:22 AM:

    Feller was amazing. Got drafted when he was 16, pitched a full season in the majors when he was 17, and then returned to high school for his senior year and graduated. Dude had 107 wins BEFORE he went off to fight in the Pacific! They sure don’t make em like they used to…

    Thornproof on December 21, 2010 11:32 AM:

    If you enjoy reading about the olden days of baseball and want a history lesson about three of the greatest pitchers of all time, then read Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson

    Christina on December 21, 2010 1:02 PM:

    Such an inspiring story. He used to bring his cars to my uncle’s garage in Chesterland, OH.

    Anne on December 21, 2010 1:49 PM:

    I grew up in NE Ohio and I remember my grandfather talking about watching Bob Feller pitch to sell out crowds at the old Municipal Stadium. (If you ever went to that stadium in the 80’s and saw the crowds, you’d realize how unbelievable this sounded to a child.) He was so proud that he was in the Navy and so was Bob. Thanks for posting this.

    robbie on December 21, 2010 5:18 PM:

    You hear about patriots who also happened to be in the public eye, and its sad to think there are very few who’d step up in this manner these days.

    Michael on December 21, 2010 5:31 PM:

    I grew up about a half hour from Van Meter. Feller was a living legend in Iowa. He had a small museum there in town and would make visits periodically. He was an incredible man.

    Paul Cunningham on December 21, 2010 7:22 PM:

    Growning up in Cooperstown, NY I can’t count the number of times I crossed paths with Mr. Feller. As a Hall of Famer he was an induction fixture, so it sure will be strange not having him around. I remember one year when I was about 12, I collected his autograph six times throughout the weekend, simply by bumping into him around town. This was during a time when the Hall of Famers spent time walking around and mixing with the fans. Those days are long gone, but even in recent years Mr. Feller was a visible and approachable presence. Even into his late 80’s and as he approached 90, he was still able to take the mound and throw strikes. I thought he would live forever…

    johnbourbon on December 22, 2010 10:23 AM:

    i’m not certain that feller’s generation was “the greatest” as penned by tom brokaw but they certainly were the last ‘great generation’. unfortunately they yielded a generation of assholes who in turn, gave birth to my generation, a generation of psychopaths. i can’t begin to fathom the next generation…

    William on December 22, 2010 10:54 AM:

    Not only was their generation “the greatest”, but their nicknames are far greater than anything generated today! Kfed, Brangelina, Speidi..

    Andrew on December 22, 2010 2:12 PM:

    He sure set the bar high for the rest of us left behind. Very inspiring and certainly makes me look at the world in a different way.

    Michael on December 22, 2010 8:53 PM:

    “People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days.”

    I hear this statement from WWII over and over (like in Bob Feller’s interviews in Ken Burns’ Baseball) and, I’ll tell you what, it makes me feel crazy uncomfortable. I’ve got that WWII nostalgia just like you. Trolling the ‘bay for authentic ephemera. What up with that?

    Shit, I was about to turn 18 when 9/11 happened and every time I hear a hero like Bob Feller say something like that I feel like a humongous pussy.

    jordan w on December 29, 2010 2:32 AM:

    terriffic post, inspiring for sure…

    David on December 30, 2010 1:20 AM:

    that is a great article good sir. I know its been mentioned but in all honestly, the whole WWII thing is the best part.

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