Yesterday, the baseball world lost a legend.  Due to leukemia and pneumonia, plus other health problems, Hall of Fame pitcher, war hero, and Cleveland Indians icon Bob Feller passed away at the age of 92.

Being a New York Yankees fan, I never knew much about Feller’s career growing up.  Honestly, my only experience with him prior to writing this article was meeting him on a summer camp field trip to a minor league baseball game when I was 14 or 15.  I remember fans mobbing him before the game, and he was more than happy to sign autographs.

When I passed him my baseball glove, he of course signed it.  Yet, his attitude wasn’t one that I would have expected of a baseball Hall of Famer: he smiled, asked me my name, shook my hand, and even asked if I did well in school before handing me my glove back and telling me to enjoy the game.

To this day, I can’t remember experiencing that same feeling any other time.  A Hall of Fame pitcher had just taken the time to talk to a kid he’d almost definitely never see again.  Where was the arrogance?  Where was the “just going through the motions” look on his face? 

As he threw out the game’s first pitch (and after learning more about him in the past week), I saw a simple man.  He loved the fans, he loved his life, he loved his country.  But most of all, he loved baseball.

I could go on and on about Feller’s career stats.  266 wins (probably could have hit 300 if not for military service), 162 losses, career ERA of 3.25 and 2,581 career strikeouts. But, instead, I’m going to talk about Bob Feller the man.

Ever since his days growing up on an Iowa farm, Feller seemed to love baseball.  His family even built a baseball diamond on their property so he could practice outside of school, where he was the ace of the team’s pitching staff.  He was drafted by the Indians at age 16, making his debut two years later in 1936.

He of course made an immediate impact and remained humble about his success, but showed a whole new side of himself after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Immediately after hearing about it, Feller became the first MLB player to voluntarily enlist! 

In four years with the U.S. Navy, he reached the rank of Chief Petty Officer.  To this day, he is the only member of the Hall of Fame with that title.  When asked why he enlisted, his answer was simple: “I don’t consider myself a hero. I did the job that most Americans should have done, and most of them didn’t do. Serving my country was the proudest moment of my life.”

Even after retiring in 1956, Feller stayed close to the city that had embraced him for nearly 20 years.  He and his wife lived in the Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills, and even after his playing days were over, Feller remained involved with the Indians organization.  His number 19 was retired in 1957 and just this past season, at 91 years old, Feller threw out the first pitch at the Indians’ first spring training game.

So, Chief Petty Officer Feller, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?  What honor can I bestow upon you that you haven’t already received?  Eight All-Star berths, one World Series ring, your number retired, and being possibly the most beloved athlete in Cleveland sports history.  That’s quite a list.

I was never an Indians fan.  Heck, most of the time I was cheering for them to lose badly!  Yet, my one short encounter with you proved to me that you weren’t like all the rest.  You loved your work, you loved your country, and most importantly you loved your fans. 

And I’m going to say, if there is “another side,” I hope to see you there someday and would be honored to have a catch with you.  That all being said, Mr. Feller, I salute you!

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