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Feller always a small-town boy

Joe Skerk places an “A” — representing the USS Alabama, on which Bob Feller served during World War II — with Feller’s No.  19 written on it at the base of Feller’s statue at Progressive Field in Cleveland in honor of the late Hall of Fame pitcher.

Associated Press

Joe Skerk places an “A” — representing the USS Alabama, on which Bob Feller served during World War II — with Feller’s No.  19 written on it at the base of Feller’s statue at Progressive Field in Cleveland in honor of the late Hall of Fame pitcher.

VAN METER, Iowa — In his tiny hometown, Bob Feller was the farm boy who never forgot his roots.

The flags that defined him — those representing the United States, the Navy and the Cleveland Indians — flew at half-staff on a snowy Thursday morning at the Bob Feller Museum, a day after he died of acute leukemia at the age of 92.

"It's such a great loss. Bob was a guy who was a little bit bigger than life," said museum member Ed Brown, who stopped in to drop off flowers. "He had a lot of pride about being an Iowan and about the game of baseball."

Feller's path toward the Hall of Fame began to take shape at age 16 when he caught the attention of an Indians scout. In 1936, he made his first major-league start two months before his 18th birthday, showing off a rocket right arm that earned him the nickname "Rapid Robert."

Feller won 266 games in 18 seasons with the Indians despite missing three full years and most of a fourth for service during World War II. He was elected to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility.

Scott Havick manages the Bob Feller Museum, which is filled with artifacts from Feller's youth, time with the Navy and playing days. Among the items: the bat an ailing Babe Ruth used to prop himself up during his famous farewell at Yankee Stadium in 1948.

Havick said Feller was always proudest of his service during World War II. Feller enlisted two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed; longtime lore always had it as the next day, but the museum says it was Dec. 9, 1941.

"He was the most patriotic person I've ever known in my life," Havick said. "People would ask him, 'What's the greatest win you've ever had?' You would think it would be a no-hitter. He'd say, 'World War II,' without even blinking."

Feller wasn't afraid to speak his mind, either, and his propensity for being blunt was well-known in Van Meter and beyond. But he was also remembered as a gracious man, especially with museum guests, and he loved to share his stories with anyone who'd listen.

"He had many sides to him. People think of Bob as being a gruff man that was outspoken, but Bob always said that he would speak his mind and you would never have to guess how he stood on a subject," Havick said.

Museum staffer Delores Jones said she got a "hug and a kiss" every time she saw Feller, who'd always greet guests with a cry of "Welcome to the Wigwam!"

"He just seemed like family. He'd come in and he was always so friendly, and we'd always enjoy him talking and telling the different stories," Jones said. "We loved him dearly."

In Cleveland, fans gathered at Progressive Field to pay tribute.

The centerfield flag was lowered to half-staff and crews hung red, white and blue banners marking Feller's baseball career and Navy service. Fans placed memorials, including a bouquet, a bag of sunflower seeds and an inscribed "A" for Feller's wartime service on the USS Alabama, on the base of the statue bearing his likeness.

"The only signed baseball I've got is by Bob," Rich Aber of Kent, Ohio, said. "I'm really glad I had a chance to meet him and shake his hand, which was very large and strong."

Fellow Hall of Famers also remembered Feller fondly. Gaylord Perry, who pitched for the Indians from 1972-75, remembered Feller's tales of the clubs from decades past.

"I really enjoyed Bob's company and hearing his stories about history, from baseball to war and everything else, from out of the cornfields to the major leagues," Perry said. "He did so much for baseball and had so many great stories, particularly about barnstorming and his memories of players like Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. I was very fond of Bob."

Fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, 92, was a friend of Feller's and would visit him in Van Meter, a town of about 1,000 people west of Des Moines.

"Bob was just a regular, solid person. He was the same guy, all the time. He gave his opinions, and he said what he thought. He didn't hedge around anything," Doerr said in a statement. "He was one of the top pitchers I saw in my time."

Feller always a small-town boy 12/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 10:04pm]
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