(Editor's note: Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller died Dec. 15, 2010, of acute leukemia at age 92. This story, published Feb. 26, 2009, profiles Feller at 90, still robust, still slinging the high hard one.)
GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Bob Feller signed a photo of himself pitching in the 1948 World Series, looked up at the man who'd asked for the autograph and shook his head.
"I've never won a World Series game," Feller said, as if he might get another shot.
Moments earlier, Feller had stood on a mound in a full Cleveland Indians uniform, thousands of fans on their feet cheering, a baseball in his right hand and a glove on his left. He rocked and fired.
For a moment it almost seemed like 1936 again, when Feller struck out 15 in his first major league start, a few weeks after his junior year of high school. Or 1941, when he had 25 victories to give him 76 in three seasons, only to lose the next four years to World War II. Or 1946, when he returned a war hero and pitched 36 complete games, including 10 shutouts.
Goodyear Ballpark, the Indians' sparkling new spring home, was officially christened when the team's enduring icon threw out the first pitch Wednesday. Feller doffed his cap to more cheers, then took his place behind a foldout table on the shaded concourse behind home plate and signed several hundred autographs at $10 a pop, not stopping until the game ended.
He had his picture taken with babies. He addressed men younger than himself as grandpa. He wolfed down two jumbo hot dogs slathered in mustard. He reminisced about his childhood in Van Meter, Iowa, his three no-hitters, his distinguished Naval service, and, yes, his two World Series losses.
He was at it again Thursday and won't miss a game this spring. Check that.
"I won't be at the Oakland game," Feller said, his eyes narrowing as he flipped through a mental calendar.
The curious case of Robert William Andrew Feller is at once familiar and astonishing. After so many years repeating the same routine at the Indians' dilapidated spring-training facility in Winter Haven, Fla., the longest-tenured Hall of Famer is reborn amid the arid Arizona suburbs.
Feller is 90 years old. In a game that embraces nostalgia like no other, he is the starter in the sourdough, one of the last living links to the baseball of Cy Young, Connie Mack and Walter Johnson, all of whom Feller vividly remembers. He faced Lou Gehrig. He struck out Joe DiMaggio while pitching a no-hitter. There's a photo on the fold-out table to prove it – a stack of them, for that matter
Feller will sign one for $10, the proceeds, he says, going to the humble Bob Feller Museum back in Van Meter.
He is a healthy-as-a-horse personification of a bygone era, yet the better trick is that he embraces the present and relishes the future. May a lesson, however nebulous, however imbued with dollar signs, be imparted.
"This place is going to exceed the Indians' wildest dreams," Feller said, surveying the surroundings. "The move was overdue.
"You've got to follow the money."
The same right hand that produced 266 victories and 2,581 strikeouts remains his meal ticket. He signs autographs "Bob Feller, HOF '62," choosing from an array of blue, black and white pens and Sharpies, depending on whether he's signing a cap, a photo, a program or a baseball.
"I've signed more autographs and shaken more hands than anybody alive," he said as a point of pride. "These folks get something from approaching me, saying a few words and leaving with my name on a baseball. There's an appeal to it."
Fans approach Feller with reverence. Many begin by asking him, "Do you remember … " a bygone name or place or ballgame, passed down a generation or two. He usually does.
And he'll set the record straight when necessary.
"Is the barn you threw rocks at to build your arm strength still standing?" an autograph seeker asked.
"I never threw rocks at the barn," Feller replied. "My old man would have kicked my ass."
During his 70s and 80s, Feller was a loose cannon, given to curmudgeonly bluntness, leaning on his WWII years as a gunboat captain aboard the USS Alabama as license to weigh in on political issues, usually from a far-right point of entry.
He told Condoleezza Rice during a visit to the White House a few years ago that problems in Iraq would end if the United States increased troop levels to half a million and established curfew.
But like a stone that's rolled around for eons, his edges have smoothed. As two fans in their 20s approached him for an autograph Wednesday, one said to the other: "He's outspoken on politics. I'll get him going."
"What do you think of Barack Obama?" the man asked Feller. "I can't stand him, myself."
Stone silence. Feller didn't even look up from his chair. He signed a baseball, handed it to the man and moved on to the next autograph.
"I've learned when to express my opinions, and it's not here and not now," Feller said later.
The extent of his unsolicited advice came on the subject of the sagging economy.
"You know what would get this country going again?" he said. "Producing durable goods. Things that don't break down."
On that topic, Feller is an unqualified expert. By the end of the game, his right hand was speckled with blue ink. A money bag held a neat stack of small bills – he'd probably signed 500 autographs.
He stood and stretched.
"You've got to have a lot of luck, and I've had it," he said. "There are a lot of hazards in life. I've never met one. I get my sleep. I go swimming a little.
"Tonight I'll sit in the hot tub, watch a little TV, see how much the stock market lost."
An elderly couple approached him and said they were Indians fans visiting from Ohio.
"I have a big picture of you I bought on a cruise ship," the woman said. "They said it was the only one."
Feller shook their hands, chatted amiably and asked for her husband's cap. One more autograph, the only freebie he offered all day.
"We'll do that for you," Feller said, popping the cap on the Sharpie. "Come back again tomorrow. I'll be here."