Joe Posnanski has the best Bob Feller obituary. Even as people write a bunch more over the coming days, Posnanski’s will be the best because that’s just how it goes when (a) you’re the best sports writer in the business; and (b) you grew up in Cleveland, steeped in Bob Feller as Joe did and was. If you only read one thing about Feller today, read Joe’s take.
I don’t think I have anything to add about the big points of Feller’s life and career that aren’t going to be covered better elsewhere. He was a war hero. And he saw real combat and faced real peril, unlike many ballplayers did. He is undoubtedly in the conversation of the best pitchers of all time. You can’t help but look at his career and wonder how much gaudier the already gaudy numbers would have looked if not for the war. He lost his age 23-25 seasons to combat after entering his peak and pitching lights out the previous three years. It’s not hard to imagine that he would have had three more 24+ win seasons and maybe a couple of 300 strikeout performances to add to an already elite career. Between Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver, it’s hard to point to any pitcher who was better.
The part of the Posnanski obituary that I can relate to the most is the stuff about post-career Feller and — let’s not dull the point because the guy died yesterday — the unequivocal cockiness of the guy. Except in Feller’s case it was a justified cockiness because unlike whatever flavor-of-the-month NFL wide receiver who comes down the pike, Feller’s claim to greatness was more than legitimate. And for that reason — not just because we’re now mourning him — I don’t have much of a problem with it. Muhammad Ali can get away with calling himself the greatest of all time. Feller could too. Partially because they may have been, but partially because even if it’s debatable, they never doubted it for a minute themselves. Boasting is usually a function of insecurity. Feller wasn’t insecure. He wasn’t boasting to convince himself of anything. There’s something beautiful about that. Not many can pull it off.
Joe mentions that Feller worked hard at self-promotion. That jibes with what I’ve observed living in Ohio for most of the past 20 years. If you were in Ohio and wanted to meet Bob Feller, it wasn’t a big trick. He was always available to fans, be it at Indians games, card shows, grand openings of car dealerships or any number of other events. Such self-promotion could be criticized. In Feller’s case I think it was pretty great. Because thanks to how sure he was of himself you never got the sense that he questioned whether he was overexposed or felt like he was dragging himself out there because someone besides himself expected it of him. And because, again, he was an all-time great. Would that several generations of fans had Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams available to them in such a way. Would that they enjoyed meeting the public the way Feller so obviously did.
I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife. But if there is one, Feller is busy explaining to whichever omniscient being in whom you choose to believe that he was the greatest of all time. And he’s making a damn good case.
Rest in Peace Rapid Robert Feller.