In my last column, I said I’d complete my series on higher education this week. But with Monday being December 7, the 79th anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” – Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor – and this column being written Tuesday for publication Wednesday and Thursday, I’m postponing that piece to next week.
The horrible Pearl Harbor attack was followed by many heroic actions. I want to recall two of them. As legendary radio and newspaper columnist Paul Harvey said: The rest of the story.
Bob Feller was an Iowa farm boy who, by legend, could throw a baseball through a brick wall. At 17, “Rapid Robert” broke into professional baseball in 1936 with the Cleveland Indians, becoming an instant star. In his first start, he struck out the first three batters and 15 batters total. That strikeout record for a first start still stands today. Three weeks later he tied the then major league record with 17 strikeouts in a game.
His amazing first year made him “the best-known young person in America, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple,” said one sportswriter. By 1939, he was the best pitcher in baseball and fans, especially children seeking autographs, swooned. On opening day 1940, he pitched his first of four no-hitters, the only such opening-day feat ever.
In 1941, Life magazine wrote, “he is unquestionably the idol of several generations of Americans, ranging in age from 7 to 70.” The best hitters of the 1940s and 1950s anointed him the best hurler of his era. Ted Williams: “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw.” Stan Musial: “probably the greatest pitcher of our era.”
On December 8, 1941, Feller drove to Chicago after visiting his terminally ill father in Des Moines. On his car radio, as he drove there to sign a new contract with the Indians, he heard about the Japanese attack. Two days later, he volunteered for the Navy, becoming the first professional athlete to enlist, according to Wikipedia. America loved him.
“I told them I wanted to … get into combat; wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats,” he said. On the USS Alabama, he saw extensive action in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, mustering out in 1945 as a Chief Petty Officer.
He completed one of the greatest pitching careers ever in 1956. During his career, he did much barnstorming with Negro League players to show how good they were. He also advocated for major league players’ rights against management.
Ted Williams was born in San Diego in 1918, two months before Feller. After being a minor league phenom, he made his major league debut in 1939 with the best rookie hitting season up to that time. As with Feller, things only got better from there.
In 1941, he batted .406, the highest since 1924, and the last time anyone topped .400. Many people consider his 1941 season the best ever – even better than Babe Ruth’s top years in 1921 and 1927. Some people even say “The Splendid Splinter’s” career hitting was better than the Babe’s, which “The Kid” denied.
But Williams became as unpopular as Feller was beloved. The rookie was told in 1939, “Wait ‘til you see Jimmy Foxx (his team’s star) hit.” Teddy Ballgame’s answer: “Wait ‘til Jimmy Foxx sees me hit.” He also fought continuously with the press and fans. In 1942, Williams was drafted, but managed to duck going into service. Despite a Triple Crown year, this went down very badly with fans and press.
But in 1943-45, he became a crackerjack Marine Corps Naval Aviator and returned to baseball in 1946 as good as ever. His redemption with fans grew when he returned to the Marines in 1952 for the Korean conflict, where he flew 39 combat missions and earned medals. Leaving and returning to baseball, he was feted a hero.
At ages 39 and 40, he won two more batting crowns. In 1960, in his last at bat, he homered.
At his Hall of Fame induction, he spoke for recognition of Negro League stars, and they soon also were inducted.
Two great WWII heroes. And that’s the rest of the story.