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December 16, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Goodbye, Rapid Robert

by Steven Goldman

Consumed with coaxing Baseball Prospectus 2011 to life as I am, I haven't had much time to write for the site lately, but I don't want to let Bob Feller's passing go unremarked upon here at BP. So many others have already written wonderful things, especially, as always, Joe Posnanski (who has been good enough to provide us with the forward to this year's book). To his portrait of an unabashedly outspoken pitcher, World War II veteran, and elder statesman, I want to add this recollection of my one encounter with the man.

Back in 1999, Feller appeared at the Yankees' annual Old Timers Day. I'm not sure why he was there--they invited him, I guess, and he accepted. As Posnanski discusses in his piece, Feller apparently didn't turn down many invitations. Dressed in his Indians uniform, he held court in the center of the Yankees clubhouse. Despite being just six feet tall, far shorter than the young athletes around him--and by "around" and "held court" I don't mean that the players crowded around him like they did Ted Williams at the All-Star game. We in media paid attention to him. The players didn't seem to notice he was there--he was an arresting presence. He was going on 81 at the time, but there was nothing decrepit about him, he hadn't shrunken with age, but stood proudly erect. 

I was fortunate enough to speak with him one on one for about ten minutes. There was nothing for me to do with the quotes at the time, I just wanted to have had the pleasure of picking the great man's brain. What I got from Feller is the same thing you see or hear in any of the interviews you might have seen played on TV yesterday or today: the clipped, almost rehearsed typewriter sound of his speech--he had been talking about baseball for so many years at that point that he didn't have to think much about what he was going to say to almost any question. There was no introspection, no uncertainty, almost no inflection, just the sound of a tape being played back--if he had ever had moments of doubt, if he ever had had to consider his words, those days ended long before I was born.

I did try to get him off the beaten path, as I always do in interviews. I only got him off script once, and it came when we were talking about managers he had played for, as well as his impression of some others he had observed. Billy Martin was on my mind that day, as Christmas that year would bring the 10th anniversary of his death. One of my goals for that Old Timers Day was to ask some of his former players for their memories, and I must have mentioned this to Feller. I don't recall how I phrased the question, but here, via my notes (the recording is somewhere here in the chaos that is my office), was his response:

Any coach or manager who says they’re playing this game, no matter what game it is, like they’re fighting a war, that idiot has never been in a war. I was there four years. I was a gunner’s mate on a battleship. It’s only a game. Take it seriously, work at it, try to win, do your best. You’re gonna get your paycheck at the end of the month, you’re gonna have your family, you’re gonna eat your meals and get your sleep—it’s not a matter of life and death.

That's not how players of his era were supposed to think about the game, but Feller had seen a greater truth in the fight against fascism. We have lost a man who not only pitched to Gehrig and DiMaggio and Williams and held his own against them, but was also part of something bigger than baseball and understood that. He was a unique player, something like a combination of Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden, with a unique perspective. The latter led to his saying some ill-considered, impolitic things, but this was a small price to pay to have so much history walking among us. I mourn his passing.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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