The winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indians history, in 1962 Feller became the first pitcher since charter member Walter Johnson to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Though regarded as the fastest pitcher of his day, he himself attributed his strikeout records to his curve and slider. Blessed with a strong arm and an encouraging father, young Feller pitched to a makeshift backstop on the family farm near Van Meter, Iowa. Cleveland scout Cy Slapnicka signed him for one dollar and an autographed baseball.
His velocity became an immediate legend when he struck out eight Cardinals in a three-inning exhibition stint. He came up as a 17-year-old at the end of 1936 and fanned 15 Browns in his first ML start and 17 Athletics shortly thereafter. But he was extremely wild. In 1938 he became a regular starter for the Indians. He won 17 and led the AL in strikeouts with 240. He also set a ML record with 208 walks. Although he led the AL in walks three more times, his control progressively improved. Meanwhile, he led the AL in both strikeouts and wins from 1939 to 1941.
In 1940, he won his personal high with 27, including an Opening Day no-hitter against the White Sox. Yet the year was tarnished, first when Cleveland veterans, including Feller, earned the nickname Crybabies by asking Cleveland owner Alva Bradley to replace stern manager Ossie Vitt. Then Feller lost the season’s climactic game and the pennant to Tigers unknown Floyd Giebell, despite pitching a three-hitter.
He lost nearly four seasons to the Navy during WWII, earning eight battle stars. When he returned, he was better than ever, rejoining a powerful pitching staff that would soon include Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn. He won 26 games in 1946 and broke Rube Waddell‘s strikeout record with 348 (later research indicated Waddell may have fanned 349). He also threw his second no-hitter, against the Yankees. All told, Feller threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters.
In 1948 he started to decline, although he led the AL in strikeouts for the seventh and final time. He salvaged his season with six straight wins down the stretch to help the Indians to their first pennant in 28 years. He opened the WS against the Braves, but lost 1-0 on a controversial call. He’d apparently picked Boston’s Phil Masi off second base, but the Braves’ catcher was called safe. Masi then scored the game’s only run when Tommy Holmes singled.
After two mediocre years, he bounced back with a 22-8 season in 1951 to lead the AL in wins for the sixth time and in winning percentage for the only time. He spent his final seasons as a highly effective spot starter, but was not used in the 1954 WS.
One of the first of the modern businessman-players, he was incorporated (Ro-Fel, Inc.) and made nearly as much money from barnstorming and endorsements as from playing. In 1957 his number 19 was the first to be retired by the Indians. And in 1969 he was voted baseball’s greatest living righthanded pitcher in ceremonies for professional baseball’s centennial. Always outspoken, and a natural promoter, he remains a popular ambassador for baseball.