Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bob Feller

  Pitching great Bob Feller passed away last week at the age of 92.  Plenty of sport's pages talked about the speed of his fastball which was once clocked at 102 m.p.h..  That would certainly be a wicked blur coming up to the plate and the hitters back in his day didn't wear any head protection, batting gloves or elbow guards so if one of his pitches nailed you, you definitely got nailed.  I got to hit against him.
  When I was playing pro ball(in El Paso, TX) for the California Angels in 1970,  Feller came through town and doing promotions for Campbell Soups as I recall.  It was kinda strange to have him in our club house, getting suited up in an old, wool Cleveland Indians uniform and being over 50 years old.  It was a good 100 degrees outside in the blazing sun there at Dudley Field but he went out there and warmed up.  Wow, Hall of Famer Bullet Bob Feller shagging fly balls and stretching his legs on our minor league field.  We were playing the San Antonio Cubs that night and they gawked and asked, "Who the hell is that?" 
  I think we told them he was a rookie who was trying out for our team and might be pitching tonight!!
But, actually he was touring for the Campbell Soup Company and conducting a Home Run Derby at various minor league parks.  Volunteers(one was me) from each team were asked to hit off Feller who was out on the mound going through some wild, herky-jerky wind-up and throwing soft-tosses to home-plate.  If you hit one out, you won $100.  That was good money back then, peanuts now.
  Nobody could touch the guy and he was getting pretty amused.  Come on old man, throw it in here.  His pitches would come in pretty slow but dart about two feet sliding from left to right.  We, pro hitters, looked like idiots up there waving and cussing after whiffing thin air.  Where in the world did he come up with that kinda pitch?  The fans were yelling and booing us, too.
  After the exhibition and torture was over, he came into the dugout and I went up to him while he was toweling off and drinking a coke.  "What were you throwing out there?"  And he laughed and picked up one of the balls he was using and tossed it to me..."The balls weren't rubbed up with the umpires mud...they're slick as ice"..."and when you hold them on (with) the seams and throw directly overhand, they get thrown with an uneven tumble and slide or run to the left and right"..."try it" and I went back out on the field and was soon throwing a ball that moved like his.  Actually, it's called a "cut fast ball or a cutter" these days if you hear it on a broadcast.  Many times balls don't "cut" and wind up in the stands for a jack but most of his must have.  But, back then, it was a called a moving or running fastball and he must have used it in his career.  My God, check out his strikeout year, he rung up 348 K's.  That's huge!
  I thought it was so interesting in his obit to see an old newspaper picture of him gripping a baseball in front of himself back in the 40's.  And wouldn't you know it, there it was...he was holding the ball with the seams...throwing a "cut fastball"...I can't even imagine trying to hit one of them blazing at 95+ miles an hour.  I couldn't do it at 55 mph. 
  But, you know.  I hit off the legend and I learned one of his pitching secrets.  People who don't know the complexities and nuances of baseball say it's slow and boring game...but...there are dozens of micro-scenarios all going on at one time during a major league game...the fascinating, real story is not how fast Bob Feller could throw a ball, but what his ball did in the 60' 6" trip it took from his finger tips to home plate.  Now, that's a story.  Thanks, Bullet Bob. 

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