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.