Bob Feller, 1918-2010

Bob Feller was an affable Iowa farmboy who happened to have a thunderbolt attached to his right arm. The passing years took away that thunderbolt, but did nothing to diminish Feller's genuine friendliness toward baseball fans who loved the same game he did.

Feller died of leukemia yesterday at the age of 92. When my old pal Alan Snel in Tampa sent me a link to the news story about his passing, I immediately thought of the moment when I met Feller briefly in Port St. Lucie, Florida when he signed an autograph for me in, I think, 1994.

I collect about anything that's related to baseball, and I have the cover from the April 19, 1937 edition of Time magazine that featured "Rapid Robert" on the cover. Feller, 19 years old and still fresh off the farm, had a lopsided, "aw shucks" grin as he fingered a baseball that he could reportedly throw at 104 mph.

Feller was signing autographs before the minor league St. Lucie Mets played a Florida State League game at Thomas J. White Stadium. Feller, a Hall of Famer, wasn't charging for his autograph, something that players routinely do today.

I put the Time cover in front of Feller and asked him to sign it. He seemed a bit surprised to see it, and picked it up to look at it a little more closely. After studying the photo of himself as a teenager, he said he remembered the photo, and also said something about breaking his father's ribs with a pitch.

I didn't quite understand what he said, but there was a long line of people waiting behind me and I didn't have time to quiz him about it. He signed his name on the cover and handed it to me and I stepped aside for the next person in line. Before I was out of earshot, however, I heard Feller finding something to say to each fan who stepped up to get his autograph. Again, that's an unusual courtesy by today's standards.

Later, I discovered that the April 19, 1937 edition of Time included an anecdote about Feller cracking three of his father's ribs with an errant curveball when he was 14.

In 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians from 1936 to 1956, he threw smoking fastballs past American League batters, compiling 2,581 career strikeouts and winning 266 games.

Feller undoubtedly would have surpassed 300 wins and probably added at least another 1,000 strikeouts to his total had he not spent four years in the Navy during World War II.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post is my memento from my brief meeting with Feller. The other photo of Feller was shot by Alan Snel at a ballpark in Florida and is used with his permission.


December 7, 1860: A Nation on the Verge of Exploding

As Christmas approached in 1860, the United States was a very edgy nation. After decades of debate and compromise and political equivocation about the morality of legalized slavery, the issue of institutional bondage was pulling the country apart.

Many Southerners were incensed at the election of Abraham Lincoln a month earlier, and passions were so hot in South Carolina that the state legislature was seriously talking about leaving the Union. And they weren't angry because Lincoln had pledged to end slavery. Lincoln, a pragmatist to the core, hadn't said anything about ending the "unique institution" that underpinned the South's agrarian economy. South Carolinians were furious because he'd said he simply was opposed to the expansion of slavery into territories that weren't even states at the time.

So on Friday, December 7, 1860, the United States was a nation that was about to burst apart even though Lincoln would not take office until March 1861. The newspapers of the day were filled with stories about "the crisis of the Union" and the "disunion question" and worries about whether South Carolina's inflammed passions would spread and prompt other Southern states to withdraw from the Union.

In the South, slaveowners were terrified of an insurrection by their slaves. On December 7, 1860, the New York Times published a letter from an unnamed woman in South Carolina to her uncle in New York City.

"The country here is all aglow with the fires of revolution, and such is the intensity of excitement that we can scarcely find time or inclination to talk or think of anything else than the political topics of the day, and the moral and social consequences directly pertaining to secession," she wrote. "I fear that secession and revolution are, with our people, foregone conclusions; that we have gone too far, retraction and recession are impossible, and that civil war with all its consequent horrors is already upon us."

In that same issue, the Times also published a letter from a young man in Tennessee to his father in which the Tennessee resident worried about the fragmenting of the country and the possibility that slaves would take up arms against Southern slaveowners.

"(T)he passions of the people (are) being aroused, in both sections of the country, and ambitious demagogues (are) urging them on," he wrote.

The letter-writer told his father he had no particular desire to defend slavery but would take up arms to defend his family. "What do you think, father, of going to California?" he wrote. "Not to avoid danger, or to desert any to whom we owe help, but to go, all of us, where we shall be at peace from this question, which is so much to be lamented on all accounts."

The worst fears of these and other Americans came to pass. The Civil War would erupt in April 1861 when South Carolina troops fired on federal troops manning Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

The war is still the bloodiest in the nation's history. And it still stirs passions and causes consternation 150 years later. For most of my adult life, I've been pondering my family's involvement in that war, and I'm still trying to make sense of it. As we observe the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I'm going to post some thoughts, comments and documented family history about that war. Please watch for those posts and comment on them where you think it's appropriate.

NOTE: The illustration at the top of this post is a political cartoon from 1860 commenting on how the election of Abraham Lincoln as president tore at the nation's political bonds.


Study Shows Gulf Coast Hurricanes Weaken Before Landfall

The U.S. Gulf Coast has been pounded by some fierce hurricanes in the past decade, but a recent study shows that cooler waters near the shore kept the storms from being much worse.

The study was conducted by the National Hurricane Center in Miami and Colorado State University.

Hurricanes draw their power from warm ocean water that has been heated to at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit to a depth of around 160 feet. During the summer, the water in the central and southern Gulf of Mexico often is much warmer than 80 degrees, and this water has fueled some of the most intense hurricanes in history.

In 2005, these warm waters allowed Hurricane Dennis to become one of the most powerful July hurricanes on record. On July 7, Dennis's winds reached 150 mph as it roared across the Gulf about 500 miles southeast of Mobile, Alabama. It looked like the eye of the powerful storm was going to go straight up Mobile Bay and into downtown Mobile as a devastating Category 4 hurricane.

But when Dennis got within about 150 miles of the coast, it encountered the cooler inshore water and that helped reduce its fearsome power. Still, the storm made landfall between Mobile and Pensacola as a Category 3 storm with winds of about 120 mph.

The cooler waters near shore also probably helped diminish two other very intense hurricanes just before they made landfall on the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005 -- Hurricane Katrina in August and Hurricane Rita in September.

"It's something special about the Gulf of Mexico," said Mark DeMaria, one of the co-authors of the study.

The study noted that when storms are over the central and southern Gulf of Mexico, they're over warm water from the tropics. On average, storms' winds intensify by about 8 mph for every 12 hours they're over this water, the study said.

But the water in the northern Gulf hasn't been influenced by this tropical warming, and so the warm water inshore isn't as deep.

"When hurricanes move over that water, (the storm's) high surface winds tend to mix cooler water up to the surface, which can lessen a storm's intensity," DeMaria said.

There are, of course, always exceptions. Sometimes, ocean currents bring warmer water closer to the coast, and that can cause devastating consequences if a hurricane reaches that water. In 1969, Hurricane Camille may have crossed one of those freak currents of very warm water as it approached the Gulf Coast. The storm lost little, if any, intensity as it neared landfall, and on August 17, Camille's eye came ashore at Pass Christian, Mississippi with winds of about 190 mph.

The study was published in a recent edition of the Journal of Weather and Forecasting. Viewing the full study requires a paid subscription, but an abstract can be viewed here.

NOTE: The NOAA photo above shows Hurricane Dennis just before it made landfall on July 11, 2005.