Bob Feller

From the April 2008 DePaulia

As Opening Day has come and passed for another year, a feat that hasn’t happened in 68 years still wasn’t accomplished – and that’s longer than the Cubs World Series drought. This year the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians squared off, with the Indians winning 10-8. But in 1940, at old Comiskey Park, the two teams played an Opening Day that would be remembered for the ages.

Indians 21-year-old right hander Bob Feller threw the only no-hitter in the history of Opening Day. Today Feller, 89, can be found hanging around the Indians Spring Training home in Winter Haven, Fla. where he signs autographs and chats with fans before the games. He’s put on some pounds since his playing day and looks his age, but he was out on the field before the contest playing catch.

He’s very approachable, happy to take photos and sign items (for a $10 fee), although he is known to be standoffish at times. He wears a full Indians uniform as he sits, complete with stirrups, and it’s possible to squint enough, it’s possible to imagine the man behind the oversized glasses throwing 100 m.p.h. But he has a sharp memory and recalled much about the game as if it happened Monday.

“It was a cold day in Chicago. The wind was blowing off the lake from the northeast. I didn’t have all that great stuff. I had the bases full and struck out a hitter with two out in the second inning. We got a run in the fourth inning, my roommate Jeff Heath hit and single and Rollie Hemsley hit a triple in the alley in right center. We coasted along, but the weather was getting cooler and cooler. It was a gray day, very cool. There was only about 14,000 at the ballpark. Because it was Opening Day, my dad, mother and sister were there from Van Meter, Iowa where I’m from.”

In the final moments of the game, he ran into trouble.

“I walked Luke Appling with two outs in the ninth. Taffy Wright hit a hard hit ground ball to Ray Mack, the second basemen who dove for it to his left, knocked it down and threw out the running Hal Trosky at first.”

The 1-0 win was the first of three no-hitters that Feller would throw in his career that landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1962. He said that he didn’t try to do anything difference when he realized he was throwing a no-hitter.

“You don’t think about throwing a no-hitter until you get about two outs in the 8th inning,” Feller said. “You’re concerned. There’s a lot of luck in the game. When the batter hits the ball and it goes at an infielder, you’ve probably got an out. If it goes in between the infielders and outfielders you’ve probably got a base hit. There’s a lot of luck in sports, particularly in baseball. When a batter hits a ball, you’ve got no control over it.”

Like today, Feller played during war time, but unlike today, many of the greats liked Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio enlisted (both of whom Feller is happy to tell you he struck out). But Feller was the first player in baseball to enlist in the Navy during WWII, giving up four years of his prime.

“I swore in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor in Chicago,” he said. “I was coming to Chicago to meet my general manager of the Cleveland Indians to sign my contract for ’42. On the day of Pearl Harbor I just crossed the river into the Quad Cities and then I decided that day that I was going to join the Navy. I already knew we were going to be in the war from 1939. I swore-in in Chicago, went to war college, and went aboard the Alabama after boot camp in Norfolk, Vir. I rode the Alabama for 34 months before coming back in 1945.

While in the Navy, he played on a baseball team that was so good, he said, they beat the last Cubs team to make the World Series.

“We had the best team in the United States,” Feller said. “We had all Major Leaguers but one. We played all the ball clubs of the lakes. We entertained the sailors, we had 100,000 sailors there. We beat the Cubs 1-0 and they went on to win the pennant that year before losing to the Tigers in four games in 1945.”