A version of this story originally ran in December 2021, on the 80th anniversary of Bob Feller enlisting in the Navy.
By the age of 21, Bob Feller had gone from small-town Iowa farm boy to teenaged pitching sensation to one of the top hurlers in Major League Baseball, but that was only the beginning of his incredible odyssey.
In 1941, at the height of his career, a 23-year-old Feller decided to step away from the game to defend his country in World War II.
Today marks the anniversary of the date Feller enlisted in the United States Navy, becoming the first American professional athlete to volunteer for World War II. In honor of his heroism, let’s take a look back at the events surrounding Feller’s decision as well as his subsequent return to baseball to put the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career.
The Heater from Van Meter
Feller’s professional baseball career was atypical from the very start.
Born in the small town of Van Meter, Iowa, the right-hander signed with Cleveland for $1 and an autographed baseball in 1936, when he was still in high school. Armed with a blazing fastball that earned him the nicknames “The Heater from Van Meter,” “Bullet Bob” and “Rapid Robert,” Feller went directly to the Majors and was a rookie star at the age of 17 for the Indians, striking out 15 batters in his first big league start, 10 in his fourth and 17 in his fifth.
Cleveland nearly lost Feller after the 1936 season due to protests from other teams -- including an independent club in Des Moines, Iowa, that contended its scouts had initially discovered Feller -- claiming his deal violated the rules governing the signing of amateur players. (At the time, baseball rules prohibited Major League teams from signing amateurs to contracts before they played a Minor League game. Feller’s initial deal was technically with the Indians-affiliated Fargo-Moorhead Twins, but he was transferred from Fargo-Moorhead to the New Orleans Pelicans and eventually Cleveland without playing in the Minors, thus the controversy.)
Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis could have made Feller a free agent, but the teenager wanted to stay with Cleveland, and Feller’s father threatened to sue if Landis didn’t allow it. Landis ultimately ruled that Feller could remain with the club, which had to pay a $7,500 fine to the Des Moines club.
Thereafter, Feller blossomed into one of the game’s best and most durable pitchers, going 76-33 with 767 K’s in 960 innings from 1939-41. In 1940, he threw the first of his three career no-hitters, firing the only Opening Day no-no in AL/NL history.
But after a 1941 season in which he led the Majors in wins (25), innings (343) and strikeouts (260), everything changed for Feller.
Enlisting in World War II
Dec. 7, 1941, is “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously put it after Japan launched a surprise military strike upon the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It’s also the day Feller decided to enlist in the armed forces, stepping away from baseball to fight for his country in World War II, which the U.S. joined on Dec. 8 after previously taking a neutral stance.
“I was on my way to meet with the general manager of the Cleveland Indians to sign my 1942 contract the day of Pearl Harbor,” Feller told ESPN in 2009, one year before he passed away at the age of 92. “It was about noon; I had the radio on in the car and had just crossed the river into Quad Cities when I got the news. That was it. I had planned on joining the Navy as soon as the war broke out. Everybody knew that we were going to get in it sooner or later and that was the day.”
On Dec. 9, Feller enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He didn’t have to; he was eligible for deferment because his father was terminally ill, but he wanted to join the fight.
“It was a war that had to be won,” Feller said. “I needed to join the Navy. If you ask the people in Europe who won World War II, they don't say the Allies, they say the United States won the war and saved the world. Now, I'm no hero -- heroes don't come home from war, survivors return from wars. I'm very lucky, you know that.”
Feller was assigned to the USS Alabama, aboard which he served as a gun captain. During his service, he played baseball for the Naval Station Norfolk and Great Lakes teams and kept his arm in shape by playing catch aboard the ship.
Return to MLB
Feller was discharged from the Navy on Aug. 22, 1945, earning six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. Two days later, he donned his familiar No. 19 and took the mound for Cleveland once again, firing a complete game with 12 strikeouts in a 4-2 win over the Tigers, who would go on to win the World Series.
The next year, at the age of 27, Feller turned in what was arguably his finest season, posting personal bests in ERA (2.18), innings (371 1/3), strikeouts (348), complete games (36) and shutouts (10) and winning 26 games. Altogether, he appeared in 11 seasons after the war.
Feller lost three entire seasons and most of a fourth due to his military service. In his three seasons prior to enlisting, he averaged 25 wins, 320 innings and 256 strikeouts, so it’s possible he left 90-plus wins, 900-plus strikeouts and 1,200-plus innings on the table, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars. With those extra years, Feller easily would have reached the illustrious 300-win and 3,000-strikeout marks.
But despite all the time lost, Feller was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot alongside Jackie Robinson in 1962. And while his military detour prevented him from achieving statistical milestones few pitchers have reached, Feller wasn't lamenting his decision when he looked back on his service in an interview with author Alan Schwarz for the 2006 book, "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories."
"A lot of folks say that had I not missed those almost four seasons to World War II during what was probably my physical prime I might have had 370 or even 400 wins," said Feller. "But I have no regrets. None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world’s time of need.
"I knew then, and I know today, that winning World War II was the most important thing to happen to this country in the last 100 years. I’m just glad I was a part of it. I was only a gun captain on the battleship Alabama for 34 months. People have called me a hero for that, but I’ll tell you this -- heroes don’t come home. Survivors come home."