Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shallow Reflections on Bob Feller

Like many other Cleveland kids of the last couple of generations, I met Bob Feller and got his autograph once. It was at a Discount Drug Mart. Feller made countless such appearances, at drug stores and county fairs and other places where the pay couldn't have possibly been that lucrative. I'm not an autograph/memorabilia aficionado, but I recall reading that Feller's autograph was one of the least valuable for any player of his stature because of the huge supply.

At least in Cleveland, the legend outranked the ballplayer. There's only one player statue outside of Jacobs Field, and it is of course of Bob Feller. Feller is nearly unique in Indians history--a great, Hall of Fame level player that spent his career with just the Tribe. Even counting half-career Indian stars, only Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie would be able to contest the title of greatest Indian. While Lajoie spent most of his career in Cleveland (65% measured by games played), with the team called the "Naps" for many years, he played before the radio era, before the liveball era, before the team was called the Indians, and never won a pennant in Cleveland.

Thus, Feller's status as a singular franchise icon is arguably unique for one of the sixteen franchises that made up MLB for sixty years. The Yankees (Ruth, Gehrig), Giants (Mathewson, Hubbell), Dodgers (Robinson, Snider), Red Sox (Williams, Yaz), White Sox (Thomas, Fox), Cardinals (Musial, Gibson), Tigers (Cobb, Kaline), Pirates (Wagner, Clemente), Cubs (Banks, Santo), Phillies (Schmidt, Roberts), Reds (Rose, Bench), and Braves (Aaron, Mathews) all have at least two players who, had they been Indians, could compete with Feller for that title (before you complain about omissions from that list, I stopped at two for each team even if there were more, and I'm not suggesting that all of the listed players were better than Feller by any stretch).

The A's might have the situation that most closely parallels the Indians--many of their stars were half-career guys. Still, Foxx, Grove, Simmons, Plank, Cochrane, Collins, Baker...the sheer bulk of icon candidates has to count for something. Among the teams that have used a name change to make a clean break from their past, the Browns/Orioles boast Ripken and Palmer and the Senators/Twins combine for Johnson and Puckett. I might be overselling my case, but I think it's safe to say that if there are any other long-time franchises with a player that is equally Mr. [Nickname] as Feller is Mr. Indian, it's due to that individual's transcendent greatness and not to the dearth of other candidates.

If my thoughts ring a little cold when offered upon the passing of a legend, please reconsider. I said the legend outranked the ballplayer in Cleveland, but I said nothing about the legend outranking the man.

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