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Friday, December 17, 2010
Sickels: Knowing Bob Feller

My friend Rob Neyer asked me to share my thoughts regarding the passing of Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Feller had been ill for several months, and while his death from leukemia at age 92 was not unexpected, it was also quite fitting that he put up a valiant fight to the very end. Feller was many things over the course of his long life, but he was always a fighter.

There will be many paeans to Feller in the coming days, and you’ll find many expositions about his exploits on and off the field: his storybook rise from Iowa farm boy to major league star, his domination of the American League for several years, his service in the Second World War, his barnstorming, his role in integration and the rise of the baseball labor movement, etc. But I want to focus today on Feller as a person, which was just as interesting as what he did on the diamond.

Seven years ago, I wrote a biography of the Cleveland Indians legend called "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation."

Bob Feller
Bob Feller, who died Wednesday at 92, was always interesting.
I chose to write about Feller for several reasons. He was from Iowa, as I was. My father, born in 1930, had been an Iowa farm boy, just like Feller. Feller had been my father's favorite player and childhood idol when he was growing up in the late 30s and early 40s, and I wanted to write something special for my father (who had been very ill for years) before he passed away. Another reason was that no one had actually written a serious, scholarly biography of Feller, which I thought was an amazing oversight considering his place in baseball history.

When I began researching the book, I was warned by multiple people that Feller could be “difficult” at times. After acquiring his phone number from the curator at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa, I called Feller at his home near Cleveland and told him that I was planning on writing a book about him, and hoping for his cooperation and some interviews. He pleasantly said “Sure,” and told me to come see him at his next appearance in Iowa, but to first call him again to set up the details.

A month later, I called him back to arrange the meeting, and this time it was like speaking to a different man. He sounded like he was in a horrible mood, and the first thing he asked me was why I was writing the book, and how much money I was planning on making from it. I explained that I was writing it to make money, yes, and that I had picked him as a subject because no one else had done it. He asked if I was planning on making it an “authorized” biography, and I said no, it was more scholarly and that while I would love to have his cooperation, I needed to be free to write what I wanted to write, and that if he didn’t cooperate I would still be writing the book. He didn’t like that at all. But when I explained further that I was also writing the book was for my dad, he softened and asked me about my father. We finished that conversation on a positive note, but the call left me rather shaken and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

A few months later, I met him for the first in-person interview, which went well. He was in a good mood, answered every question, and gave me some “inside” information on various aspects of his life, not all of which I put in the book, including a few things he supposedly had never told anyone else.

The second interview I did with him, a few months later, wasn’t as easy. He didn’t like my questions and seemed concerned about the money again. The third and final interview, in contrast, was the best of all, much of it spent talking about our fathers, always a favorite topic of conversation with Feller.

Shortly after I finished the manuscript, I got a note from Feller’s lawyer, asking me to bring it to Bob’s next appearance at Van Meter so he could review it and decide if he wanted his museum to sell the book. This scared the hell out of me: My book discussed all the sides of Feller, both the positive (generosity, graciousness, a strong sense of honor) and the negative (abrasiveness, irascibility, a tendency to make “insensitive” comments), and tried to make sense of them. There were plenty of people who loved Feller, and plenty of people who hated him. The book laid out in great detail all the reasons why this was so, and I had no idea how he would react.

When I presented the manuscript to him, he turned immediately to the conclusion, and read the following: “His personality is more complex than either the purely positive or the abjectly negative myths imply. The all-American athlete image contains a great deal of truth that his detractors ignore, while the negative image pouts out the flaws in his personality that the all-American image papers over. Ultimately, Feller is far more interesting when considered as a whole human being ... There is much to admire in Bob Feller, and much of what he takes criticism for is unfair. There are also things that we can rightfully criticize about him, though this is true of any of us who fall short of divinity.”

He read it, thought for a moment, looked up at me with a firm look in his eye, and said, “That’s fair.”

He then turned his attention to my then-five year old son, said “hello” very kindly to Nicholas, shook his hand, then turned to my wife and said, “He’s a cute kid, but needs a haircut.”

I’m greatly honored to have known Bob Feller in the small way that I did. He was a remarkable man.

John Sickels wrote <a href="" target=newBob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, published by Potomac Books in 2005. John's work is featured regularly at Minor League Ball.