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A visit to the Bob Feller Museum

The heater from Van Meter

The building is starting to show its age but being made of brick, it’ll stand for several more decades. The stone mural still graces the north side and looks tremendous. Even the pitching rubber is still there, on the handicap slope, right outside the front door. Somewhere, 60 feet 6 inches away in the parking lot there used to be a home plate, but now it’s missing. The City of Van Meter now occupies the building, the building that once housed the Bob Feller Museum.

We stopped in a couple weeks ago as part of an anniversary road trip. Who knew that the gift for 37 was books? We stopped at the building on a lark and asked the nice lady behind the desk what happened to the artifacts? She swung her arm behind me and said that most of what used to be in the museum was still here and that we were free to enjoy. Sweet!

The city has moved everything to a series of display cases and has done an excellent job of presenting the life of a true American hero from another age.

Iowa is a small state, home to only about three million people. Being a northern, cold weather state, it’s never been known for producing top-notch baseball talent, but there have been some outstanding athletes come out of Iowa. Former Chief great Ed Podolak is from Atlantic. Olympic star Shawn Johnson and track star Lolo Jones are from Des Moines. Football greats Roger Craig, Nile Kinnick, Jay Berwanger and Elmer Layden were all from Iowa. Berwanger won the very first Heisman Trophy and Layden was one of the Famous Four Horsemen. The University of Iowa’s football stadium bears the name of Kinnick, another Heisman winner. Dan Gable, the Babe Ruth of wrestling, is from Waterloo. Hall of Famer Kurt Warner hails from Cedar Rapids and last but not least, you have Bob Feller. Feller, known as the Heater from Van Meter, or as he was fond of saying, Van Meter, 15 miles west of Des Moines.

Iowa has an unusual baseball lineage. When the movie Field of Dreams opened in the spring of 1989, it struck a nerve with baseball-playing fathers and sons. The town of Dyersville capitalized on the movie’s success and the movie site became almost a pilgrimage for many baseball fans. Over the years, the crowds started to thin until Major League Baseball stepped in and started the Field of Dreams game in 2021. That has sparked a revival of sorts, as a new generation of baseball fans flock to the site.

Before Field of Dreams was even conceived, Bob Feller’s father, Bill, built a field at the Feller farm for 13-year-old Robert. Bill recognized his son’s gifts at an early age. Young Bob started throwing at the age of five and when the weather turned cold, father and son moved inside the barn. The farm is on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the field was built, complete with a small grandstand section, the Feller-led team was named The Oakviews, on account of all the oak trees in the area. Bill did what was necessary to nurture his son’s prodigious talent. He switched the farm's main crop from corn to wheat, with wheat maturing earlier and being less labor intensive. When the local Catholic priest complained about the Feller’s playing ball on Sunday, Bob later said, “that’s when we became Methodists.”

The Oaks were comprised mainly of semi-pro and high school players and would routinely draw several thousand fans to the Feller farm to see young Bob pitch. For a time, Nile Kinnick was Bob’s catcher. When he wasn’t playing for the Oaks, Feller was pitching for Van Meter High or the Farmers Union team of the American Amateur Baseball Congress. By the time Bob was 16, several big-league teams were professing their love and offering signing bonuses. Bob did sign at the age of 17, with the Cleveland Indians. Local scout Cy Slapnicka, a Cedar Rapids native, who naturally went by the nickname of Slappy, signed Feller for $1 and an autographed baseball. Slappy was a story in his own right, a former pitcher for the Cubs and Pirates who only appeared in ten big league games. He played 15 years of minor league ball and went seven years between his major league appearances.

Said Slappy of Feller, “this was a kid I had to get. I knew he was something special. His fastball was fast and fuzzy, it would wiggle and shoot around. I didn’t know that he was smart and had the heart of a lion, but I knew that I was looking at an arm the likes of which you see only once in a lifetime.”

By signing Feller, Slappy tried to circumvent the then rule that only minor league teams could sign amateur players. After a three-month investigation, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared Feller and another Indian signee, Tommy Heinrich, free agents. Heinrich jumped ship and signed with the Yankees. Feller held true to his word and stayed with Cleveland.

Feller made his major league debut on July 19th, 1936, in Washington against the Senators. He was just 17 years old. He walked the first two batters he faced before getting a groundout and recording his first major league strikeout, getting 3rd baseman Buddy Lewis, who was an excellent player in his own right and came into the game hitting .305. One of Feller’s teammates on that Cleveland team was slugging first baseman Hal Trosky from Norway, Iowa. Trosky still stands sixth all-time on the Indians/Guardians career home run list.

Feller made his home debut at League Park in Cleveland on July 24th with two innings of relief work in which he hit two batters, gave up two hits, struck out two and uncorked a wild pitch.

Feller made his first start on August 23rd at League against the St. Louis Browns. Cleveland manager Steve O’Neill had a pitcher up and warm in case young Bob would be consumed by nerves. He didn’t need to worry as Feller struck out five of the first seven batters he faced, en route to a 15 strikeout, 4 wild pitch performance. The Browns only managed six hits off Feller in a 4-to-1 Indian win. Feller made seven more starts that season, including four more complete games. Then he returned to Van Meter for his senior year of high school. That’s the part that continues to blow my mind. Can you imagine the conversations in the lunchroom?

“What’d you do this summer?”

“I worked on the farm and fished a lot. How about you?”

“I pitched in 14 games for the Cleveland Indians.”

The closest modern comparison could have been David Clyde, the precocious lefty drafted #1 by the Texas Rangers in 1973 out of Westchester High in Houston. Many scouts thought that Clyde had the potential to be another Sandy Koufax. Ranger owner Bob Short, desperate for revenue, scuttled those plans by rushing Clyde to the majors about a month after his high school graduation. Clyde gave it his best shot, but as an 18-year-old, he was in no way ready for that type of jump in competition. The Rangers' use of Clyde borders on malpractice. He soon developed arm problems, which circumvented a once-promising career. That makes Feller’s accomplishments more astounding. Feller threw over 1,400 innings by the time he was 22. By comparison, Dwight Gooden, another teenage prodigy, only threw 924 innings by the age of 22.

Feller rocketed to stardom during the 1938 season when as a 19-year-old, he went 17 and 11 with 20 complete games over 277 innings of work. He won 24 games in 1939 and won 20 each full season for the next nine years. The key word here is full season. Feller missed the entire 1942, 1943, and 1944 seasons and only played in nine games in the 1945 season. During those years, he probably missed somewhere north of 180 starts, which given his win percentage at the time probably cost him 115-120 wins.

About those missing years. Feller, then only 23 and with already 107 wins to his name, became the first American professional athlete to enlist for military service when he joined the Navy two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was a chaotic time for Feller. He told the Navy that he wanted to serve on a combat ship and was assigned to the USS Alabama. Shortly before he left the states, his father died of brain cancer. Five days later, he married Virginia Winther, to whom he remained married until 1971. Serving as a gun captain, Feller saw his first combat in November of 1943. By the time he was discharged as a Chief Petty Officer, he had received six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. While serving on the Alabama, he kept his arm in shape by throwing to other sailors on the deck of the ship.

Feller returned from the war with a vengeance. And why not? After being shot at and surviving the war, playing ball would be a walk in the park for men like Feller, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn and Ralph Houk.

In 1946 Feller led the league in wins (26), games (48), starts (42), complete games (36), shutouts (10), innings pitched, strikeouts, batters faced, hits allowed, walks allowed, well you get the idea. He was almost unstoppable. Feller finished sixth in the league MVP race, which was rightfully won by Ted Williams. Bob’s close friend Hal Newhouser finished second that season. The Cy Young award wasn’t given out until 1956 unfortunately, as Feller would have won several.

Feller and Newhouser

Feller’s last great season was 1951, when as a 32-year-old he went 22 and 8 with a 3.50 ERA. Over his 18-year Cleveland career, he helped the Indians win the 1948 World Series (their last) and he threw three no-hitters, the most famous of which was his opening day no-no on April 16th, 1940, against the White Sox. That remains the only opening day no-hitter in major league history. Feller always insisted his April 30th, 1946, no-hitter against New York at Yankee Stadium was his finest. “I had to get past Snuffy Stirnweiss, Tommy Heinrich, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller in the bottom of the 9th.”

In addition to the no-hitters, Feller also threw 12 one-hitters.

By the time he called it quits after the 1956 season, Feller had accumulated a record of 266 wins against just 162 losses. He started 484 career games and completed 279 of them. Of course, it’s important to note that baseball didn’t integrate until the 1947 season though Feller did spend many an off-season barnstorming with Negro League stars.

In retirement, Feller served as the first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and spoke to Congress about baseball’s reserve clause and the rights of a player to enter free agency. He was also a tireless ambassador for the game, attending memorabilia shows, youth baseball games and events held at his museum in Van Meter. I had the pleasure of meeting Feller twice and he was a joy to be around, happily signing anything and everything and sharing stories. He carried a piece of paper that he would often pull out and discuss. The paper showed how many games and strikeouts he thought he would have had if not for the war years. Said Feller, “It’s not a complaint. I’m happy I got home in one piece.” This is an important designation, as Feller’s former battery mate, Kinnick did not make it back. Kinnick, the Heisman winner from Adel, perished when his Grumman F4 Wildcat crashed into the sea on June 2, 1943. His body was never recovered.

Time finally caught up with the Heater from Van Meter in 2010. He underwent treatment for leukemia in August. In October he was fitted with a pacemaker and treated for pneumonia. He went into hospice on December 8th and was called home on the 15th at the age of 92.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never see another like Bob Feller. He lived a remarkable life, much more than I can fit into this page. I was happy to make his acquaintance.