Monday, January 6, 2014

“After The War”

As published in The County Times ( in Jan 2011

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting former Cleveland Indians pitcher and Hall of Famer, Bob Feller.  In his 18 seasons with Cleveland between 1936 and 1956, Feller won 266 games, was an 8-time all-star and led the league in wins 6 times, innings pitched 5 times and strikeouts 7 times.  Feller was best known for his fastball, for which he earned the nickname “Rapid Robert”.  In an age before radar guns, Feller once participated in a quirky stunt with a speeding motorcycle to calculate just how much heat he had on his heater.  The result, 104 M.P.H., may or may not have been accurate but his 2,581 career strikeouts and 0.67 average strikeouts per inning, prove this: Feller threw serious smoke.  In fact, Feller’s strikeouts/inning ratio was superior to Walter Johnson’s (0.59) and Lefty Grove’s (0.57), perhaps the two most heralded flamethrowers until Feller’s arrival. 

With all due respect to the Cleveland Indians franchise (but hey, there’s a reason the Indians were chosen for the goof-ball “Major League” movie series), had Feller played in Boston or New York, his legacy likely would have been even more significant and his place among the games greatest all-time hurlers further solidified.  Nevertheless, meeting Feller, a member of baseball’s royal court, left me awestruck.  I certainly didn’t need a cardiologist to tell me that my heart rate and blood pressure had spiked.  And so, as a thousand creative questions rattled around in my mind, all I managed to verbalize was, “Who was the toughest batter you faced?”  The answer wasn’t Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, as expected, but Tommy Henrich, an outfielder for the Yankees from the late 30’s through the 40’s.  Curious about Feller’s more famous contemporaries, I asked him what it was like to face DiMaggio.  Feller said that earlier in their careers DiMaggio worked him over pretty good, but “after the war, I got the better of him.”

For a time, I was focused on Feller’s interesting identification of Henrich as the deepest thorn in his side.  As the years have gone by, the lasting memory of my encounter became a phrase he used: “ after the war”.  He was, of course, referring to World War II.  Feller volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor.  He was the first of many major leaguers to trade a glove for a weapon.  Like many of his contemporaries – DiMaggio and Williams included – the war cost him several years in the prime of his career.  Yet, there wasn’t even a trace of bitterness or regret in Feller’s war reference.  To the contrary, the casual, matter-of-fact way in which Feller referred to his heroic military service spoke to his and his generation’s perspective on their call to arms: it was their responsibility to serve.                                                                                                  

Feller’s generation is often called America’s greatest and while our country has had many challenging periods, it just might be.  Personally, I wonder whether my generation and those subsequent would have been as selfless and aware of a greater cause beyond the individual (and certainly the game of baseball) as Feller’s was in answering the country’s call and mobilizing and sacrificing on a national level.  Certainly times have changed.  As a people we question our Government more now, a product of the information age, and the bad guys aren’t as definable as the Axis powers were.  Still, if there was a serious global threat to democracy, an attack on American soil and a declaration of war, would Tom Brady so willingly and without reservation volunteer for war?  Would LeBron James?  Would I? 

Fortunately, because we had Bob Feller, his generation and the lessons of WWII and we have the men and women that serve today, the large majority of America’s youth haven’t had to answer that question.  Like all too many of “The Greatest Generation”, Feller passed on recently.  Death and the passage of time though should never dull our appreciation for his or his generation’s contributions to freedom and the advancement of democracy.  More simply, if the phrase “after the war” isn’t part of your personal vernacular, you can thank Bob Feller.        

No comments:

Post a Comment