Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Time Machine

Time Machine: The day Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller came to Cedar Rapids

Famed Iowa-born pitcher promoted baseball to kids

Iowa-born, all-star pitcher Bob Feller gives 8-year-old Robert Hoffman of Cedar Rapids a few pitching tips during a clinic Feller conducted May 1, 1957, for about 300 youngsters at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette archives)
Iowa-born, all-star pitcher Bob Feller gives 8-year-old Robert Hoffman of Cedar Rapids a few pitching tips during a clinic Feller conducted May 1, 1957, for about 300 youngsters at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette archives)
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It was a big deal on May 1, 1957, when Iowa native and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller came to Cedar Rapids as part of a 100-city tour in 42 states to promote baseball to youngsters.

Feller arrived at the Municipal Airport at 9:10 a.m. and was greeted by Mayor Jim Meaghan. The press got a shot at interviewing him before he moved on to Newman’s downtown department store to sign free baseballs and books.

After radio and TV interviews, Feller held a free baseball clinic for kids at Veterans Memorial Stadium. He rounded out his visit with a speech at an Elks Club baseball stag at 6:30 p.m. and an appearance at 8:45 p.m. on KCRG-TV.

Freshly retired from his 18-season career as a star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, Feller’s appearance was sponsored by Motorola and Newman’s.

The sponsors gave away the autographed baseballs and copies of Feller’s book, “How To Improve Your Baseball.”

‘strikeout king’

Feller became Iowa’s baseball darling in 1935 when, as a 17-year-old, he earned the nickname “America’s strikeout king” after striking out 17 batters in a Cleveland game against the Philadelphia Athletics.

That prowess had begun on his family farm in Van Meter, in central Iowa, under the tutelage of his dad, Bill Feller, who made it a point to practice with his son every day. If it rained, the two played catch in the barn.

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Bill Feller’s support of his son’s talent included plowing up a field a quarter mile from the house and turning it into the original “field of dreams.” The field, named Oakview, had a diamond, bleachers and a scoreboard.

Feller played in high school and with local leagues, including an American Legion team in nearby Adel, where his catcher was a young man named Nile Kinnick, who would make some waves as a football player at the University of Iowa. Bill Feller also organized games at Oakview.

Feller was signed by Indians scout (later general manager) Cy Slapnicka. That generated a problem when the Des Moines Western League, where Feller was supposed to play, charged the signing was illegal. It was an unwritten rule that players play in the minors before advancing to the majors. Commissioner K.M. Landis ruled in favor of Cleveland but fined the club $7,500 to be given to the Des Moines league.

Feller was nonplused by the controversy, stating to reporters he would be happy to stay with the Indians but regretted he could no longer play forward with his high school basketball team, which was good enough to qualify for the state tournament.

to the navy

After turning 18 in November 1936, Feller began what became a lifelong mission to teach youngsters how to pitch. He, along with Dizzy Dean, another Hall of Fame pitcher, signed to tutor at the Ray Doan baseball school in Hot Springs, Ark., starting Feb. 15, 1937.

By December 1939, then-Indians Vice President Slapnicka said he “could not deny” that in 1940 Feller would get $23,000, the highest salary ever paid a Cleveland pitcher.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy and saw 28 months at sea as a gunner on the battleship Indiana. Then he was put to work with the Service All-Stars baseball team at Great Lakes for the next year-and-a-half.

After 44 months in the Navy, he mustered out and returned to civilian life and the pitcher’s mound at Cleveland.

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The first Bob Feller Day was Aug. 13, 1951, when Cleveland honored him at a game against Detroit. Feller had 226 victories for Cleveland at the time, second only to Denton True “Cy” Young, who had 268. Three months later, he was named the Indians’ Man of the Year on Nov. 13.

The next two days, Feller was in Cedar Rapids. He spoke to company athletic teams at a Wilson & Co. banquet at the Roosevelt Hotel the first day. On the second, he mingled with kids at an open house at Memorial Coliseum and showed a movie on “How To Pitch” and then spoke at the Young Men’s Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce.

retirement

A 37-year-old Feller celebrated his 20th year with the Tribe in 1956. Press reports said he seemed slower. He had said that when he felt he wasn’t helping the club he would retire. “When Feller’s time is up,” he said about himself, “he will know before anybody else, and he won’t hang around.”

That time came a month after his 38th birthday in November, when he announced that after 18 seasons with the Indians, he was ready to retire.

“I arrived at the decision only after much thought,” he said. “I had several offers to continue pitching, but I decided to give up baseball in favor of business.”

Feller left with the modern major league record for no-hit games at three, shared with Cy Young, a dozen one-hitters, a record 18 batters struck out in one nine-inning game and a record 348 strikeouts for a season.

back to C.R.

Feller was not eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1962, even though he had more victories than 15 of the 24 pitchers already in the Cooperstown shrine.

Feller returned to Cedar Rapids in 1966 for an appearance at the C.R. Cardinals game. When he arrived, his first stop was to visit former Indians general manager Slapnicka, who had landed in St. Luke’s Hospital after a car accident. He then caught up with former Cleveland teammate Dick Rozek at Veterans Memorial Stadium during a home run hitting contest.

Feller was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 when he was 44.

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Van Meter, with Feller’s help, raised enough money to open a 2,100-square-foot museum in 1995 filled with Feller memorabilia.

When Feller died in Cleveland in December 2010 at age 92, attendance at the museum fell off. The building became Van Meter’s City Hall but half the space still contains Feller artifacts. It is open to the public during City Hall business hours.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d,fannonlangton@gmail.com

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