Feller got through war, then got hurt

December, 16, 2010
12/16/10
12:05
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At the conclusion of the 1941 season, Bob Feller was 22 years old and he'd won 107 games in the major leagues. At that pace ... well, if Feller had continued pitching that well until he was 42, he would have challenged Cy Young's more impressive records.

A war got in the way.

The way Feller told the story, on the 7th of December he was driving his new Buick from his home in Iowa to Chicago, for a meeting with Cy Slapnicka, Cleveland's general manager, and manager Roger Peckinpaugh. Feller expected to sign a new contract for 1942.

[+] EnlargeBob Feller
AP Photo/U.S. NavyIn this March 6, 1943 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Bob Feller, former Cleveland Indians ace, captains a 40 mm gun crew aboard one of Uncle Sam's battleships.
Car radios were still uncommon in 1941, and expensive. But when you win 107 games before your 23rd birthday, you can afford the radio and a tinny-sounding speaker. Crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, Feller heard the bulletin: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

"I knew that the purpose of our meeting had just changed," Feller would write, nearly 50 years later. He would tell Slapnicka and Peckinpaugh that instead of signing a new contract, he would be signing enlistment papers for the U.S. Navy. Immediately.

He could have waited to be drafted, and almost certainly would have been able to continue playing baseball through 1942, at least; with his father terminally ill, Feller was his family's sole financial support. Some players weren't drafted until after the 1943 season. But Feller went right in, voluntarily. A few months into his enlistment, tired of a cushy stateside posting, he pressed for combat duty and spent much of 1943 and '44 commanding a gunnery crew on a battleship, the U.S.S. Alabama.

By the time Feller returned to baseball in 1945, he'd missed more than three-and-a-half seasons. Among the first stars to come back, Feller would be a sort of guinea pig, as nobody knew what such a long layoff would mean for professional baseball players (many of whom would miss two or three full seasons).

In the event, most (though not all) of them picked up right where they'd left off.*

* Most of the stars, anyway. Many dozens of lesser players lost their prime seasons because of the war -- not to mention all the younger men who lost their lives or their health -- and never played in the majors, or even professional baseball, at all.

Of course, eventually another question would come up. From Feller's 1990 autobiography, "Now Pitching: Bob Feller":
    Then people began to wonder how we would have done if the war hadn't come along. Baseball fans filled many an hour in those days with that "what-if" question. Eventually, an analyst in Seattle, Ralph Winnie, sat down at his computer and figured out the answers.

    He took our individual stats for the last three years before our military services and our first three years after the war, then averaged them out on a per-season basis and projected them across the war years...

    In my case, Winnie projected that I would have 107 more games, finishing with 373 career wins instead of 266, with another 1,070 strikeouts, five no-hitters instead of three and 19 one-hitters instead of 12. He calculated that I would have finished with the sixth most wins in history instead of 28th and the seventh most shutouts instead of 29th.

In his book, Feller tempered those numbers a bit, writing, "It may not prove anything ... We could have been injured and missed a full season or slipped on a banana peel, who knows?"

In the years after Feller's book was published, he became more outspoken in his political views -- somewhat famously in these parts, during an ESPN.com chat he went off on "Hanoi Jane" Fonda -- and more willing to take credit for the statistics that might have been his, absent the war.

Realistically, I think such exercises are more instructive for hitters than pitchers, simply because hitters don't run the same injury risk that pitchers do. Feller might have been injured if he'd kept on pitching during the war years. From his Age 19 through Age 22 seasons, Feller averaged 309 innings per season ... though whether that means he was primed for an injury or was invulnerable to fatigue, I really can't hazard a guess.

Upon Feller's discharge from the Navy in August 1945, he returned to the Indians and pitched well in nine late-season starts. In 1946, he enjoyed one of his best seasons, leading the American League in wins (26), games pitched (48), games started (42), complete games (36), shutouts (10), innings (371) and strikeouts (348).

Feller got off to a fine start in 1947, but hurt his knee in June and was never really the same. From that point through the end of his career, nine mostly humdrum years later, he struck out just slightly more than four batters per nine innings.

People wonder how Bob Feller would have done if the war hadn't come along. I wonder how Bob Feller would have done if he hadn't lost his All-World fastball before he turned 29.

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