Update: Bob Feller died Dec. 15, 2010 at age 92.
When Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller, 88, looks back over his life and career, he knows where to give credit. “It was my upbringing,” he says. “I think it’s a shame that all boys and girls can’t be brought up in a small town or on a farm.”
The man designated by professional baseball as its “Greatest Living Right-Handed Pitcher” frequently returns to the small town of his childhood, Van Meter, Iowa (pop. 866), to reconnect with his roots and sign autographs at the museum created and named in his honor.
The idea for a museum to honor Feller took root in 1990, when a local committee began exploring fund-raising options for a facility to honor the town’s favorite son, who played for the Cleveland Indians from 1936 to 1941 before taking a 44-month hiatus to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After his military duty, he returned to play for the Indians for 12 more years. Renowned for his blistering fastball, Feller received numerous awards during his career and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
A local bank donated land for the museum, and ground was broken in April 1994, with Feller’s son Steve as architect. The grand opening was held the following year.
Today, the Bob Feller Museum remains a popular spring and summer destination for locals and tourists alike. Director Scott Havick says attendance is especially heavy when the museum schedules special events, such as personal appearances by Feller, who today makes his home in Gates Mills, Ohio (pop. 2,493), with wife Anne.
“We’re right off Interstate 80, so we get people who see the signs and think it might be a good time to get in the baseball spirit and stop by,” says Havick, who lives in Des Moines and manages the museum part-time.
The facility has two exhibit rooms and a gift shop, and houses artifacts such as several of Feller’s uniforms, all bearing the number 19, and trophies from his 266-win career. Visitors can browse through newspaper clippings, some of which refer to Feller by his early nickname of “Rapid Robert,” autographed bats and baseballs, and hundreds of photos.
Feller says one of his favorite items on exhibit is the bat on which Babe Ruth, ill and frail, was famously photographed leaning during his retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium in June 1948. The Cleveland Indians were playing the Yankees that day, and the bat that Ruth, dying of cancer, grabbed to lean on as he addressed the crowd just happened to belong to Feller.
“That bat means a lot,” he says.
The history displayed is the reason Gerald Johnson of Clive, Iowa, took his two sons, ages 6 and 8, to the museum. “My boys think Mr. Feller has a very cool story,” Johnson says. “They’re amazed when I tell them he was just 17 when he signed with the Indians, and that he took a train out there, then had to take one all the way back to Iowa just to graduate from high school.”
Feller earned eight battle stars as a gun captain in the Navy, but also found time during the war to keep up his famous fastball.
“We played catch on the ship, conditions permitting, and I gave exercises to the crew,” he says. “It helped me stay in condition. We played games against other ships in the Third Fleet, played on the Fiji Islands, anywhere we could. It helped keep me ready for when I came back.”
Feller feels the Bob Feller Museum is a testament to how hard work can make dreams come true. “I’m reminded of that fact every time I come here,” he says. “I started out playing ball in the kitchen, then later in the yard with my little dog as the outfielder. And look what happened to me.”