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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bob Feller - Baseball and American Legend

I posted this last month for Veterans Day, marking Bob Feller's service in World War II. I figured I would post it again as the baseball legend and American legend passed away last night at the age of 92.

Museum case honoring Bob Feller's Navy service. The case is on display at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa

On Dec. 7, 1941, Bob Feller was looking forward to the next season. He was headed to Chicago to negotiate his next contract with the Cleveland Indians when the first news came over the radio: Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

Feller didn't play baseball in 1942 or for the two years after that. It was in Chicago on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the attack, that Feller signed a contract, but it wasn't a baseball contract - it was his enlistment papers. He later volunteered for combat duty.

"I've never regretted my military service," Feller told The Chicago Tribune in 1991. "I'm very proud of it. I'm no hero. The heroes are the ones who didn't return. I was lucky."

Feller's story, both the military story and the baseball story, are told in a small museum about 20 miles west of Des Moines in Feller's hometown of Van Meter, Iowa.

My wife and I had the opportunity to stop and tour the Bob Feller Museum in August, during our vacation to Iowa. We went with my parents, on our way to Omaha to see one of the final games at Rosenblatt Stadium. I'd been waiting for a good spot to write about our trip to Van Meter. Veterans Day seemed the perfect time, honoring one of the many baseball men to serve our country and, more importantly, one of the many Americans to simply serve our country.

I had wanted to stop at the museum since reading about in in a book my wife gave me, 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out. We were in the area last year, but the timing didn't work out.

This year was perfect because we I got to take my mother. She's the big baseball fan in the family. She also remembered seeing Feller when she was a kid, at a hospital she was at in South Dakota. She didn't really know who he was at the time, she didn't become a baseball fan until later.
The relief on the outside wall of the museum
The museum is located off Interstate 80 a couple miles. There are signs off the highway. It's a smaller building. There's that relief of Feller in his playing days on the outside wall. Inside there are two large rooms marking Feller's baseball career and his Navy career.

The Navy display includes photos of Feller in his service uniform and other photos and memorabilia from the war. There's a write-up titled Bob Feller in the Military. You should be able to click on the photo above and read it up close. It has an account of Feller's trip to Chicago, hearing of the attack on the radio.

Among the pictures is one of his bunk on the U.S.S. Alabama. There is also the cap Feller wore on the ship. Feller started wearing the khaki cap on the ship, the museum card read, and everyone else then wanted one. The cap, however, wasn't official Navy dress.

Feller participated in a total of five major campaigns and won eight battle stars, according to the write-up. The write-up also notes that Feller was able to keep his baseball skills sharp, playing whenever the Alabama was in port.

"It was a war that had to be won," Feller told ESPN's Page 2 in November 2009. "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."

Leading up to the war, Feller had pitched three straight seasons getting no fewer than 24 wins in a season. He picked right up after the war, getting no fewer than 19 in a season in his first three years back.

The home plate from Feller's third no-hitter

There are displays on his three no-hitters, including cups awarded to him after the feats. There's also a photo from his opening day no-hitter, the only one on opening day in baseball history. Then there's memorabilia from his high school days, including his varsity letter and a baseball signed by both Feller and his father.

The Babe Ruth bat. To the right is the no-hitter case. Behind the bat is a case honoring Feller's service in the Navy.

Also housed at the museum is something related to Feller only because it was something he lent. It's also literally a centerpiece of sorts, displayed prominently in the center of one of the two rooms.

It's the bat used by Babe Ruth in his final appearance at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948. It was Feller's bat in the famous photo of that day, the deteriorating Sultan of Swat having to use the bat almost as a cane.

"It might not be the most famous bat," Feller said in an article on the bat's return in 2001, an article accompanying the display, "but it ranks right up there with the pine tar bat of George Brett."

There's also a lot of other stuff there in the museum and in the gift shop. I picked up this plaque in the gift shop with the many different Feller baseball cards.

The display on Feller and Ted Williams

One last thing about the museum. There was also this photo display of Feller and another Hall of Fame baseball veteran, World Wrar II and Korea veteran Ted Williams. The two are pictured together at Des Moines' Sec Taylor Stadium in September 1993.

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