The Heater Makes History
CHICAGO – When Bill, Lena, and Marguerite Feller filed into Comiskey Park on April 16, 1940, little did they know that they would witness history. On the mound for the visiting Cleveland Indians was their son and brother, Bob. Getting the Opening Day nod against Chicago, Robert William Feller was coming off of a fantastic 1939 season. He threw two one-hitters and led the league in wins, complete games, and strikeouts – his 246 being the highest total since Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance struck out 262 in 1924. His tribe had finished in 3rd place that year, a steady rise out of the cellar from whence they came before Feller had joined the team.
“Rapid” Robert’s rise to greatness is a story that embodies the very small town nature of the game. At the Feller farm in Van Meter, Bob learned how to play baseball from his father Bill, strengthened his arm by baling hay and milking cows. He was signed by scout Cy Slapnicka for an autographed baseball and $1. Moving the young Feller to Cleveland in 1936 to keep a closer eye on him, Slapnicka put Bob to work with the concessions department at League Park, and much like Feller’s father had, Cy supervised his development into a ballplayer. Trading in his peanut and popcorn vendor’s cap for a Cleveland Indians uniform, Feller struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings during an All-Star Break exhibition game on July 6. In mid-September of that same year, the 17 year old high school senior tied Dizzy Dean’s Major League record by striking out 17 batters in a game against the A’s. In that first season alone, he fanned 76 batters in 62 innings.
Missing most of the 1937 campaign because of chronic arm trouble, Bob came back in 1938 to throw his first one-hitter, as well as win the American League strikeout title. In the final game of the season against Detroit, with Hank Greenberg chasing Babe Ruth’s single season home run mark, Feller struck out his final 18 victims – setting a new single-game record.
Mowing down his opponents with a blazing fastball and devastating curveball – both of which ranged from being thrown overhand to three quarters to sidearm – the twenty-one year old had quickly become one of the most exciting players in the Major Leagues, as well as one of its biggest drawing cards.
However, not even the great Babe Ruth could have drawn more fans to the ballpark that April day in 1940, as only 14,000 brave souls sat in the stands to face the howling, icy winds coming from Chicago’s Lake Michigan. Cleveland coaches were concerned how the weather would affect their starter, as Bob took extra time warming up his stiff arm before the start of the contest. He had taken the off-season to relax, while keeping a strong arm by playing billiards, shooting skeet and hunting.
From the outset of the game, there were no indicators that it was to be a truly special contest, as Feller was having some problems with his control. In the second inning, he walked two men, and centerfielder Roy Weatherly committed an error, loading the bases. With two out, rookie third baseman Bob Kennedy struck out to end the threat. By then, it was evident to Feller that throwing his curveball would be nearly impossible, as he couldn’t manage to grip the slippery ball properly.
In the third, Joe Kuhel led of with a walk, Bob’s fourth of the game. It was then that he decided to abandon his curveball entirely. Feller would retire the next twenty men in a row.
As effective as Bob was to that point, White Sox pitcher Edgar Smith was almost as good. The stocky lefthander had fared well against Feller during the summer of ’39, winning two of the three contests against him. Smith allowed only six hits from the Indians, and only once was there two in a single inning. However, that specific inning would be the undoing of the Sox.
In the Indian fourth, first sacker Hal Trosky slammed a terrific drive into right field, only to have it caught by the wind, and drop into the glove of Taffy Wright against the wall. Jeff Heath rolled a single through the infield and into left, and though third baseman Ken Keltner flew out to “Moose” Solters for the second out, Heath eventually made it home on a triple by catcher Rollie Hemsley, tallying the first run of the game.
Starting in the seventh inning, the Cleveland dugout was as quiet as a tomb. Feller himself was quiet, swabbing his forehead with a towel, and looking straight out onto the field. Heath tried to break the ice, clearing his throat and uttering Bob’s name. Harry Eisenstat interrupted him, and threatened to stick his hand down Heath’s throat to the elbow. Lefty Weisman leaped in between an over-zealous photographer and Bob to thwart yet another jinx. Even the first base umpire, Bill McGowan, was uttering his amazement of Feller’s possible impending feat, much to coach Oscar Melillo’s chagrin.
Pictured is a scene in the eighth inning, with Feller delivering a final fastball to Kuhel, who would strike out to end the frame. Behind home plate Hemsley can be seen in his crouch, as well as Lou Boudreau at shortstop. The chest guard of umpire Harry Geisel can also be seen above Rollie’s head. This moment was to be Bob’s eighth and final strikeout of the game.
In the ninth, Bob easily retired center fielder Mike Kreevich and left fielder Moose Solters. Shortstop Luke Appling, however, gave Feller and the Indians some anxious moments, as he had already smashed a liner that Ben Chapman came up with in the third inning. Additionally, Luke was a selective hitter, slashing at and fouling off pitches until he got the one he wanted. Working the count to 2-2, he drove four foul smashes to deep right, before drawing a walk after ten pitches. Appling was the sixth White Sox player to reach base that afternoon. Up next was Taft Wright, a good contact hitter. Wright drove a hard grounder in between first and second base, which was knocked down by second baseman Ray Mack before it could bounce into rightfield. Wright was thrown out at first by a step and Feller had the first Opening Day no-hitter in history, as well as the first of his career.
Red-faced Cleveland manager Oscar Vitt exploded with joy from the bench. Feller’s teammates rushed the field to congratulate the right hander, shaking his hand and smacking him on the back as they led him into the clubhouse, where the Indians celebrated while the photographer’s flash bulbs flared.
Feller’s family had been invited to the game because Bob would be unable to make it back home to Iowa for either Mother’s or Father’s Day. Just inviting them would have been thoughtful enough, but Bob must not have been satisfied with just that, as he gave them a show that they would not soon forget. Being interviewed after the game, Feller’s father Bill was asked whether he had been excited as the game neared its end. He responded with a drawl, “well, I didn’t have any trouble keepin’ awake.”