On April 16, 1940, seventy-six years ago last Saturday, Bob Feller pitched the only Opening Day no-hitter in the history of baseball. The following article about Feller is excerpted from my latest book, The Baseball Buff’s Bathroom Book.
On August 23, 1936, Bob Feller made his first Major League start as a pitcher with the Cleveland Indians. He faced the St. Louis Browns in Cleveland’s League Park # 2 and pitched a complete game six hitter, giving up just one run in the sixth inning as the Indians won, 4-1. Feller struck out 15 Browns’ batters that day, getting every batter in the Browns starting lineup, except third baseman Harlond Clift, at least once.
On August 30, he made his second start and lasted just five innings, giving up four runs on six hits to the Red Sox in Boston as the Indians lost, 5-1, and he got the loss. He got his second loss on September 3, when he only lasted one inning, giving up five runs on three hits and three walks, against the Yankees in New York.
Four days later, he got his second win, again pitching a complete game, again against the Browns, this time giving up seven hits and one run and striking out ten against the Browns. Six days later, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics batters, while pitching another complete game, giving up two runs on two hits.
He ended the 1936 season with five wins and three losses, throwing 62 innings and striking out 76, with eight starts and five complete games. Not a spectacular beginning but not bad for a seventeen year old.
That’s right, at age 17, three months and two weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Bob Feller was already making a name for himself as a strikeout pitcher. Major League batters were already finding out what Hall of Famer Ted Lyons said later ‘ It wasn’t until you hit against him that you knew how fast he really was, until you saw with your own eyes that ball jumping at you.’
Robert William Andrew Feller was born November 3, 1918, in Van Meter, Iowa. He was signed as a Free Agent by the Indians at age 17.
In 1937, at age 18, he won nine and lost seven, with a 3.39 ERA. In 1938, he began, at age 19, to come into his own, winning 17 and losing 11 and leading the league in strike outs with 240.
In 1939, he won 24 and lost 9 with a 2.85 ERA and 246 strikeouts. In 1940, with 27 wins, 11 losses, a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts, he won the Triple Crown for pitching and was named the Major League Player of the Year. On April 16 of that year, he threw his first of three no hitters, beating the Chicago White Sox, 1-0.
In 1941, he won 25 and lost 13, led the league in strikeouts with 260 and had a 3.15 ERA. In that period, from 1939 to 1941, he won 76 and lost just 33 while striking out 767 batters.
On December 9, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy, even though he had a deferment, and was the first of many Major League players to do so. He was in the Navy from then until late in the 1945 season, missing almost four full seasons at the prime of his career.
He returned to the Indians on August 24, 1945, nine years and one day after he made his first Major League start. He started nine games at the end of that year, won five and lost three and had six complete games.
In 1946, he came back like he’d never been away, winning a league leading, 26, and losing 15 with a 2.18 ERA and 348 strikeouts, a modern record total, which stood until Sandy Koufax struck out 382 in 1965. He also had his second no hitter on April 30, beating the New York Yankees 1-0. He also had 36 complete games to lead the league.
In 1947, he led the league in wins again with 20 wins and 11 losses and a 2.68 ERA and 196 strike outs. It was his fifth season with 20 or more wins and he he also threw his third no hitter on July 1, beating the Tigers 2-1.
In the five full seasons, before and after his service time, he had won 121 and lost just 59 while striking out 1,311 batters, an average of 24 wins and 262 strikeouts per year. If he had been able to pitch those four years, at the peak of his career, it is not unreasonable to assume that he would have at least had four average years. If he did, he would have finished with 357 wins, tenth highest of all time, and 3,670 strikeouts, sixth highest of all time.
In 1948, when the Indians won their only pennant while he was with them, he won 19 and lost 15 with a 3.56 ERA. In the World Series, against the Boston Braves, which the Indians won four games to two, he lost the two games his team lost. In Game 1, with Johnny Sain pitching a four hitter for the Braves, Feller gave up just one run on two hits to lose, 1-0. The run scored in the eighth with two outs when Braves right fielder Tommy Holmes hit a little bloop pop fly down the right field line to drive in the only run of the game. In Game 5 he gave up seven runs in 6 1/3 innings as the Indians lost 11-5.
In 1951, at the ripe old age of 32, fifteen years after his debut, he had his sixth season with 20 or more wins, winning a league high 22 and losing just eight with a 3.50 ERA. He also had his third no hitter on July 1, beating the Detroit Tigers, 2-1.
He spent his entire career with the Indians, winning a total of 266 games while losing 162 and compiling a 3.25 ERA. He made 484 starts and threw 279 complete games with 2,581 strikeouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 and made the All Star team eight times.
In 2013, the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award was created by MLB and the Navy to honor baseball players and Navy personnel who reflect the values of honor, courage and commitment in recognition of Feller’s dedication to his country. Feller received six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars during his almost four years service.
On his page at the Hall of Fame, he is quoted as saying about his service ‘ I didn’t worry about losing my baseball career. We needed to win the war. I wanted to do my part.’