Thursday, December 16, 2010

The measure of a man

Much will be written about Bob Feller in the upcoming days and weeks following his death last night at age 92. Feller’s stratospheric pitching stats will be paired with sepia-toned images of a man who wore a military uniform as comfortably as he did the Chief Wahoo-emblazoned gear of the Cleveland Indians.

Of all the accolades and superlatives surrounding the Hall of Famer’s life and career, there’s one thing that may be said with relative certainty: Feller was not a person who suffered fools lightly. An outspoken critic of Pete Rose’s possible reinstatement into baseball, for example, he told The Associated Press in his usual straight-shooting style, “I'm tired of talking about it. I'm fed up. (Rose) is history.”

The Rose quote seemed typical of Feller’s unabashed old school nature – a fiercely patriotic former Iowa farm boy who as gun captain of the USS Alabama stared down Japanese kamikazes as they came barreling toward his position. In a two-part interview with The Plain Dealer last spring, Feller called joining the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor the “best decision” of his life. In the wake of his death, online commenters are calling Feller “an American hero."

I’m too young to have ever seen “Rapid Robert” (a nickname Feller disliked) throw his trademark blazing fastball. However, I did have two brief interactions with the Indians legend, and while neither is a stone cold, be all-end all representation of a man’s nine decades on Earth, they gave me pretty fair insight into Feller’s famously no-BS disposition.

The first instance was after a Tribe game at then-Jacobs Field in the late ‘90s. Feller was standing on the grass near one of the baselines getting ready to sign autographs for fans. Before the impromptu autograph session began, Feller clearly and very specifically told waiting signature seekers not to toss him their baseballs if they wanted those mementos signed.

Well, CST contributor Ryan either misheard the announcement or chose to be a wise guy, because he immediately lobbed his ball to Feller. The ex-hurler threw it right back, sans signature as promised (Ryan’s lucky that ball didn’t come back high and tight at 90 mph). Being a pal, I took Ryan’s place in line to get him the autograph. I think my friend learned a valuable lesson that day.

Or not.

Anyway, if you read the spiffy new bios on the CST homepage as part of our upcoming site redesign, you’ll know that I work as a reporter for a weekly community newspaper. In 2006, I interviewed Feller for a piece about the Baseball Heritage Museum in downtown Cleveland. The former Indian had been helping museum founder Robert Zimmer find artifacts for the space.

Our 20-minute conversation began, without preamble, with Feller berating me for speaking too fast on his answering machine. He accepted my apology and the interview moved on to more interesting topics, including Feller’s participation in pre-Jackie Robinson era “barnstorming” exhibitions pitting white major leaguers against the best Negro Leaguers players.

Feller fondly remembered those games. He was not so affectionate when relaying his distaste for the country’s newfangled predilection for hyphenating the cultural identities of its citizens.

“I don’t care if you’re African-American, Irish-American or German-American ¬ we’re all Americans,” Feller said sharply. “If you don’t like it, I’ll pack your bags for you.”

I’ll admit that my left-of-center behind was a bit taken aback by the man’s candor, and, for what it’s worth, I ended the interview thinking Feller was maybe not the world’s nicest person. I’ve thought about that conversation and its meaning often over the years and more so since Feller was entered into hospice in the days before his death.

After reading a number of interviews with one of Cleveland’s greatest athletes, as well as further pondering my own conversation with Feller, I see a man who was both disarmingly straightforward and curiously complex. Yes, by most accounts Feller was a grump, but he was also someone of surprising modesty who believed those who didn’t come home from war were the true heroes, and who preferred to be called plain old Bob instead of Rapid Robert.

Feller’s simply not a man you can put in a box and say, “This is how it was.” He was a product of a different era, and spent his life respecting the hardscrabble upbringing that built him into the man he became.

That should be enough for those of us trying to write Feller’s epitaph without really knowing him. In truth, I doubt he would care what we think, and perhaps that single-mindedness of purpose is what made him a legend in the first place.