Remembering a Legend: My Trip to the Bob Feller Museum

Yaneek SmithContributor IIIJuly 20, 2011

It was on this day in 1936 that one of the greatest players in baseball history, Bob Feller, made his Major League debut at the tender age of 17.

In remembrance of Feller, I wanted to recount my trip to his museum last fall.

Here it is:

As I was traveling west on Interstate 80 through the great state of Iowa, having just passed through Des Moines, I embarked upon a sign that read, “Bob Feller Museum 10 Miles Away.”

Being an Ohioan and having followed the Cleveland Indians through the years (for the record, I am a Detroit Tigers fan), I figured this would be a wonderful opportunity to visit an establishment honoring one of Ohio’s great sports heroes, the 92-year-old legend Bob Feller.

Sadly, Feller passed away last December.

His career, which spanned 18 seasons, was interrupted during its prime because of his decision to enlist in the Navy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

As Feller so modestly put it, “I was never a big hero. It was just time for me to help in any way I could.”

Feller was actually the first Major Leaguer to enlist in the military during World War II.

A remarkable career which saw him win 266 games as a pitcher, some baseball historians have estimated that had he not missed three and a half seasons because of his military service, he would’ve won 350 games. The greatest player in Cleveland Indians history, he was part of their last championship team (1948), pitched three no-hitters, was an eight-time all-star and was ranked No. 36 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

To this day, Feller, who lived in the Cleveland area until his death, remains an inspiration for Indians fans. An integral part of the team’s history, he still made appearances on the team’s behalf, having thrown out the first pitch during last year’s spring training opener in Goodyear, Arizona.

Feller’s story is similar to that of many of the game’s greats. He grew up playing catch with his father in the family’s backyard. The son of a farmer and a teacher, his mother was also a registered nurse. Feller strengthened his arm at an early age by performing chores like milking cows, picking corn and bailing hay.

As he put it, “What kid wouldn’t enjoy the life I led in Iowa? Baseball and farming, I had the best of both worlds.”

The family built a baseball diamond in its backyard, completing it in 1932. It was here that Feller learned to play the game.

His career began in 1936 at age 17, when he struck out 15 against the St. Louis Browns. After missing nearly four-and-a-half seasons due to his military service, Feller returned late in the 1945 season. In 1946, to the dismay of the naysayers, Feller returned to old form, winning 26 games, throwing a no-hitter and striking out 348 batters to lead the majors.

Taking the exit off the interstate into the village of Van Meter (population 866), I noticed a town of modest proportions—a small, farming community stuck right in The Heartland. Traveling through the town and speaking with some of its residents helped me to better understand how such a hard-working, modest individual like Feller, nicknamed “The Heater from Van Meter,” could come from such a place.   

The museum, which was designed by Feller’s son, Stephen, an architect, is a small, one-story building located less than a mile from the Raccoon River.  On the outside of the building, known as “The House That Bob Built,” are several depictions of Feller.

On the inside is what you’d expect: memorabilia, pictures, artifacts celebrating Feller’s life, most especially his time in the Major Leagues as well as his service to our country in WWII. And to top it off, Hall-of-Famer and former pitching great Goose Gossage was there signing autographs and telling old baseball stories.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the museum’s manager as well as watching a video of Feller discuss his career.

For a baseball historian, or a sports fan for that matter, visiting this place would surely be a thin slice of heaven.

When viewing pictures from the 1930s of the young Feller, you can see the youthful exuberance displayed in his face and smile. It was quite similar to the youthful exuberance the United States was exhibiting at the time. Granted, we had been a country for well over a hundred years at that point, but, like Feller, this nation was about to take a step that would lift it to new heights. Feller did his part, serving as a Chief Petty Officer and helping to secure victory for the Allied Forces in WWII, leading this nation, and the rest of the world, into the modern era.

One of the reasons baseball is considered to be our national past time is because of the historical impact its had on our country. When our nation was modernizing and advancing itself in beginning of the 20th-century, there was one constant: baseball. Through World War I, The Great Depression and WWII, baseball was there, giving Americans something to latch on to, something to believe in.

Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Lou Gehrig, Bob Feller—those were the stars of yesteryear. In the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, baseball was king in the U.S. Back then, the National Football League was in its infancy and the National Basketball Association had yet to be established.

A special artifact enclosed in a glass case in the middle of one of the rooms is the Louisville Slugger that Babe Ruth carried out onto the field just before he made his last public speech. There is also the glove Feller used when he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day in 1940. There are also old Indians uniforms Feller used to wear, pictures of him through the years, constant reminders of who this man was and what he accomplished.

There are pictures of great players from the game’s past, pictures of Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente and George Brett that help us to remember what the game was and what it has become through the years.

You might be asking yourself, “Why should we as sports fans in 2011 care about history so much?”

Think about how much we enjoy modern-day sports. It’s important to remember that today’s sporting events and today’s athletes wouldn’t be what they are without the former players like Bob Feller. Those men were the “pioneers” of modern-day baseball, and they helped to make the game what it is today.

It was truly a pleasure to visit the Bob Feller Museum. I departed with a key chain, two Feller baseball cards, some wonderful memories and a new-found respect for Mr. Feller.


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