My childhood ticket to major league baseball came from Bert Wilson, the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs during the 1940s. A Cedar Rapids native, Wilson greeted listeners with his cheery trademark: “I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s the Cubs.”
I was a Cubs fan, all right, and looked forward to listening to Bert Wilson’s description of the exploits of Stan Hack, Peanuts Lowery, and their teammates. But I faced a dilemma. My favorite player was not a Cub. That spot in my heart belonged to Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians.
Feller hailed from Van Meter, a short distance from my hometown of Guthrie Center. In my ten-year-old mind I dreamed of one day becoming his teammate. But in the meantime, the Indians’ radio broadcasts did not reach Iowa and the Cubs would never play Cleveland, unless they met in the World Series — an event that never occurred.
My information on “The Heater from Van Meter” came from newspapers and the “Sporting News” I found at Bill Sanger’s barbershop. The year before, 1946, Feller won 26 games and struck out a major league record 348 batters. But my only connection to those important events came via newsprint.
“Why don’t you write and ask for his autograph?” Mr. Sanger suggested.
Such a good idea! I should have thought of that. After all, I had received an autograph book for my birthday. The signature of Bob Feller on the first page would be perfect.
I scampered home and addressed an envelope to: “Mr. Robert Feller, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland, Ohio,” and asked if he would send me a signed photograph. I waited anxiously for a reply, saving a spot on my bedroom wall for my hero’s photo. Time passed — May, June, July. No response. Nothing.
Feller won another 20 games in 1947, but I struck out trying to obtain his autograph. Then my luck changed when I learned he would appear in a postseason barnstorming game in Van Meter. Jackpot! If I could go to the game, I could watch my idol pitch and get his autograph as well.
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I begged my dad to take me. I promised to mow the lawn and scoop walks. Finally, I wore him down. On a sunny October day, I sat in the back of Dad’s ’37 Hudson Terraplane with two buddies, “Pink” Dowd and “Fizz” Reed. We were on our way to Van Meter for the thrill of a lifetime.
And there he was — Bob Feller on the mound! Whack! His fastball jolted the catcher’s mitt. Whack! Another hapless batter struck out.
I was spellbound watching my hero mow down batter after batter, but left the game in the eighth inning to take a spot in front of the locker room where Feller would exit. I would be the first in line to get my idol’s autograph.
I waited patiently. The game ended. A barrage of bigger boys rushed to the scene, forcing me backward in a riptide of pushing and shoving. By the time Bob Feller appeared I could hear his voice, but barely see him from the back of the jostling crowd.
“Take it easy, boys,” he said. “You’ll all get your turn.”
Feller’s words gave me confidence. I had waited a long time for his signature. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt.
I held my autograph book high, hoping I would be the next in line. Five minutes passed. Then ten.
“Sorry, fellas, but I gotta run,” Feller announced. “I’ll catch the rest of you next time.”
The gray locker room door closed behind him. He was gone, and my hopes with him.
There would be no “next time” for me. I would never get to Cleveland, and I knew Bob Feller would never visit Guthrie Center. I was crushed, heartbroken, and faced with telling Pink and Fizz of my failure.
Light bulb! I had an idea.
I went to a nearby picnic table and carefully, in my best Palmer penmanship method, wrote “Bob Feller” on the first page of my autograph book.
As we returned home, Pink asked, “Did you get his signature.”
“Sure,” I replied, and proudly displayed the pseudo autograph.
“That’s your own handwriting,” Fizz retorted.
“It says the same thing,” I replied with satisfaction.
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I continued to follow Bob Feller’s remarkable career, but our paths were not getting closer. When his pitching days ended in 1956, I was a freshman at Grinnell College. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, I was living in Geneva, Switzerland, in the Diplomatic Service.
Decades passed. I lived in France, Great Britain, and California where I retired. Always keen on maintaining my proud heritage, I visited Iowa at every opportunity.
On such an occasion in 2006, I learned Bob Feller would be visiting the museum erected in his honor in Van Meter. I just had to go. Fifty-nine years had passed since I first tried to get his autograph. Childhood memories and the disappointment of that day resurfaced. I made the trip, paid the $40 for his photo and signature, and found myself, at last, face-to-face with my boyhood idol, now 87-years-old.
The crowd was small with no rush for Feller’s attention as in 1947. I told him I waited 59 years for his autograph. He smiled and said, “I’m so sorry. I’ll make it up to you.” With that he grabbed a photo of his 1940 no-hitter against the White Sox and inscribed: “To Carroll, my number one fan.”
I think I earned that.
Note: Bob Feller died four years later. He is immortalized with a statue outside the Cleveland Indians baseball stadium.
The Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter is now the town’s city hall. Memorabilia of his career remain in that location.
The picture of Bob Feller with his autograph hangs on the wall of my office, along with a photo taken together on the day of my eventual success.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: email@example.com