Thursday, December 16, 2010

RIP Bob Feller, union activist

What a tremendous guy he was, what a tremendous life he led. Born on a farm 92 years ago in Van Meter, Iowa, he came up to the Major Leagues at the age of 17 and won 266 games -- despite interrupting his career for 3-1/2 years to fight World War II.  He signed his first contract with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball. In 1962 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and at 90 years old he was a starting pitcher in the first Baseball Hall of Fame Classic.

He was called the "Heater from Van Meter," as well as "Rapid Robert" and "Bullet Bob," because of his fastball, once clocked at 107.6 mph. He was the greatest pitcher of his era. He threw three no-hitters, 46 shutouts, led the league in wins six times and pitched an astonishing 279 complete games. According to the Baseball Almanac, Joe DiMaggio once said,
I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does. And his curveball isn’t human.
One of Feller's proudest achievements was his election as the first president of the Major League Players Association in 1954. He helped draw up a new pension plan with the team owners, working on the project after he retired from baseball after the 1956 season, according to Mike Peticca of the Plain Dealer. That plan became the pension that players have today.

He had firm opinions about players' rights and said what he thought. In a 1957 television interview with Mike Wallace, his strong words are welcome today as the expected lockout of NFL players looms.

Wallace asked Feller, "in view of your phenomenal success how can you charge that ballplayers are getting a bum deal from their bosses?" Feller replied,

As far as I'm concerned, Mike, the setup is wrong. It's not a matter of how much they make. It's the structure, the principle that a ballplayer is not in a strong bargaining position, especially the ballplayer that was not blessed with a 'good arm,' a 'good eye.' I was very fortunate, and very fortunate to have a father to develop it but the average ballplayer's life is only approximately four and three quarters years in the Major Leagues and they make much less than such... some of the... we lucky fellows like DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Roberts...
He had no use for the reserve clause, calling it "medieval": are the property of a ball club as long as they want you. Your career lasts five years or twenty years, you sign with that ball club. However, you're obligated to the ball club for the entire life of your baseball career, but the ball club is obligated to you for thirty days. You can be released in... with thirty days... no thirty days' pay.

Feller also revealed to Wallace that the Indians had offered him a front-office job and he turned it down because he had more challenges working with the players' association.  And he made clear why he agreed to do the interview:

I am here to let the people know a few things about what goes on at the economic end of baseball. We have some great athletes in this country, Jim Thorpe, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Joe Louis; we don't want the baseball players, if we can help it in the future, or the athletes in the future, to wind up as some of those gentlemen have. (Thorpe, Alexander and Louis all died broke.)
He died of leukemia on Thursday in Cleveland, where he was beloved by fans. He had no regrets. "I've had a great life," he said a few years ago. "Mother Nature doesn't owe me a thing."