From fan to star and back

Written by: Emily Cooper

Before Bob Feller became a star, he was a fan.

The name not only represents an outstanding Hall of Fame career, but also a hero for the millions of young fans who grew up watching him play. And though he spent much of his life as an inspiration for future big leaguers, Feller himself never stopped playing the role of a fan.

The national platform of Major League Baseball facilitates the production of public personas. An individual’s success on the field, broadcast nationwide, fosters a public image that extends beyond statistics and records. Their names and career accomplishments remain cemented into the collective public memory because of this persona. Continually remembered through the admiration of their fans, these players possess a legendary, mythic quality.

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Before signing with Cleveland in 1936 and stepping into this public role, Feller was a fan. Desiring a souvenir, a tangible memory of meeting the man he admired, Feller is seen in this photo from the Museum’s collection standing alongside Hank Greenberg, baseball in hand, waiting for an autograph. Feller first saw Greenberg play in 1934 at his first Major League Baseball game when Feller and his father traveled to Detroit to watch the Tigers play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

One year later, Feller, a high school junior, was signed by Cy Slapnicka, scout for the Cleveland Indians, and assigned to Fargo-Moorhead, a Class D farm team of the Indians. Two years later on July 6, 1936, Feller had the opportunity to pitch the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings of an exhibition game against the Cardinals. Facing the same team he watched in the World Series, on the night before his departure for North Dakota, Feller struck out eight of the nine players. Commenting on the exhibition game, umpire Emmett (Red) Ornsby stated, “He’s the best pitcher I have seen come into the American League. I don’t care if he is only 17. He showed me more speed than any I have ever seen from an American League pitcher, and I don’t except Walter Johnson.” Feller never went to Fargo. Signed that night to Cleveland, Feller became the youngest pitcher to ever start as well as win a Major League Baseball game.

Bob Feller poses for a photograph with Detroit Tigers' star Hank Greenberg. Feller, standing on the spectator side of the fence, is seen holding a baseball and marker, waiting for an autograph. PASTIME (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

By signing with the Indians, and stepping into his own public role, Feller was no longer able to be simply a fan of baseball, or an admirer of Greenberg. Feller, overnight, was now competing at the highest level of the sport. It was necessary for Feller to his shift entire mentality regarding Greenberg, as he was now a competitor.

Greenberg, first baseman and outfielder for the Detroit Tigers from 1930-1947, achieved the sixth-highest career slugging average in major league history – and in 1947 became the first player to earn $100,000 in one season. As further evidence of Greenberg’s legendary persona, in 1938, with 58 home runs, Greenberg challenged Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season. On Oct. 2, the final day of the season, at bat against Feller, Greenberg recalled, “Feller’s curve was jumping wickedly and with that and his fast ball, he was murder.” Greenberg struck out in both the second and fourth innings. In the sixth inning Greenberg made contact with Feller’s fast ball, driving the pitch 380 feet. Unable to clear the fence, Greenberg was left with a double, ending the season with 58 home runs. Striking out 18 men that night, Feller set a record that stood for 21 years.

Retiring at the end of the 1947 season, Greenberg accepted a front office position with the Cleveland Indians. As the general manager and part-owner of the Indians from 1948-1958, Greenberg personally negotiated many of Feller’s contracts. Changing the dynamic once again between these players, for the last eight years of Feller’s career Greenberg was his boss. Just as Feller influenced Greenberg’s career during that October 1938 game, Greenberg was now in charge of Feller’s career. Greenberg evaluated his performance and personally negotiated the terms under which Feller would play.

At the end of Feller’s career, Greenberg announced to the public Feller’s withdrawal from the sport and the retirement of his number. Greenberg, in an interview, when asked to compile an all-time all-star team, Greenberg picked Feller as his right-handed pitcher.

Greenberg had become a fan of Feller’s.

Emily Cooper is a 2017 digital strategy intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development

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