Bob Feller's Missing Years Helped His Career

Bryan KamenetzContributor IJanuary 25, 2010

WINTER HAVEN, FL - MARCH 3:  Former Indian and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller plays catch before a Spring Training game against the Houston Astros on March 3, 2005 at Chain-O-Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida. The Indians won 7-3. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The Second World War devastated much of Europe and Asia, and cost millions of lives.  It drew heavily upon the resources of the United States, both in personnel and industrially. 

Major League Baseball was no exception to that.  Many promising careers were cut short: Cecil Travis never again came within 100 points of the .359 he hit in 1941.  Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, and many others lost significant portions of their careers. 

Would Warren Spahn have topped 400 wins if he had not missed 1943 through 1945?  It is hard to say, since Spahn had only thrown 15 innings before going off to war.

But one of the most interesting questions concerns Bob Feller, who won 76 games in the three seasons from 1939-41, and was only 23 years old coming into the 1942 season. 

Many have contended that Feller would have been able to post as many as 100 wins from 1942 through 1945, instead of the five he actually tallied, and believe Feller would have wound up with 350 or more wins in his career, instead of the 266 he actually accumulated.

I believe that Feller’s career actually benefited from his military service, and that he would probably have had fewer wins were it not for the enforced absence from the mound. 

Baseball since the end of the deadball era has not been good to pitchers who start as teen-agers, and Feller worked as a young pitcher like no one else since the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1936, the Cleveland Indians brought to the major leagues schoolboy pitching sensation Bob Feller.  Feller was 17 years old when he made his debut on July 19, and he would not turn 18 until after the season ended. 

The Indians were making their rush for the pennant; they were in the midst of a nine-game winning streak that would take them from fifth place to second, but the never got closer than seven games out on July 22. 

They held onto second place into September, but it was a more and more distant thing, and on Sept. 1, second place meant being 17 games out. 

As the season wore down, with nothing to lose, manager Steve O’Neill threw Feller out there on a regular basis, and Feller showed that he had talent.  He could not find the plate, but hitters could not find his fastball. 

Feller struck out 76 men in 62 innings.  The 11 strikeouts per 9 innings was unbelievable in a league in which the average 9 inning game features 3.3 strikeouts, and the official league leader in strikeouts per 9 innings was Tommy Bridges, with 6.1.

Feller was also incredibly wild.  He walked 47 men in those 62 innings, 6.8 per 9 innings. 

They were wild times, though, with the average game featuring 4.0 walks, and Lefty Gomez allowing 5.8 walks per 9 innings to lead the league in wildness.  The best control artist in the American League was Ted Lyons, allowing 2.2 walks per nine innings. 

For a comparison, in 2009 there were 3.3 walks per 9 innings in the American League, and Roy Halliday had the best control, with 1.3 walks per 9 innings, while A.J. Burnett had the worst control, with 4.2 walks per 9 innings.

All those strikeouts and walks meant a lot of pitches for Feller.  The innings alone were unprecedented for a 17-year-old.  Feller was not the first young pitcher, or even the only one in 1936. 

The Philadelphia A’s, reeling from Connie Mack’s deconstruction of the 1929-31 American League champions, lost 100 games and sent 18-year-old Randy Gumpert out to pitch 62 innings. 

Gumpert would go on to play for 10 years in the major leagues, but he threw only 24 more innings in the big leagues before he turned 28.

The Senators had used Reese Diggs for 21 innings in 1934, and that was his entire career.  Other than that, since 1922, only one pitcher who was 18 years old had thrown more than 10 innings:  Mel Harder had tossed 49 innings in 1928. 

Feller followed up his 17-year-old season with a more strenuous workload for his 18-year-old season in 1937. He pitched 148 innings that year, including 150 strikeouts and 106 walks.  Just as Feller had set a new record for most innings by a 17-year-old, he now set the record for most innings by an 18-year-old, breaking the record of Pete Schneider, set in the dead-ball days of 1914, whose 144 innings that year included 62 strikeouts and 56 walks. 

Schneider’s career ended early, finishing by age 23. 

The American League record for an 18 year-old was set in 1922 by Jim Brillheart.  Brillheart’s 120 innings included 47 strikeouts and 72 walks.  Brillheart pitched only 166 more innings in his career. 

In 1938, O’Neill was replaced as Indians manager by Ossie Vitt, a former infielder who had spent a decade playing with Detroit and the Red Sox.  Vitt made Feller the mainstay of his staff, and the 19-year-old threw 277 innings.

Not only did this break the dead-ball era record of previously mentioned Pete Schneider, but he did it in while allowing 208 walks and claiming 240 strikeouts.  He faced 1,248 batters that year.  That means that for better than one of every three batters faced, he had a walk or a strikeout, an enormous burden on a pitcher’s arm. 

To sum up Feller’s career thus far:  It is 1938. He has just completed his third season in the big leagues.  He is 19 years old.  He has pitched 488 innings.  No 19-year-old had thrown so many innings since 1893, when Willie McGill did it.  McGill’s last season was at the age of 22. 

Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward had thrown 921 innings as a teenager, but that was in 1878 and 1879, and even he was through as a pitcher by the age of 24. 

In the 20th century, the only comparable experience was Pete Schneider, who threw 420 innings as a teenager. 

Since 1920, there have been seven pitchers who threw 200 or more innings as a teenager (counting the age as of June 30).   

Only Feller threw more than 400 innings.  Only Larry Dierker joined Feller with over 300 innings, at 342.  The rest of the list is Mike McCormick, Gary Nolan, Wally Bunker, Dwight Gooden, and David Clyde.

                           Missed Years by Age                        Age At Career End

Feller                   age 23-25, most of 26, 35-37                  37

Dierker               much of 20, most of 26, 30                        30

McCormick        most of 23-26, 31-32                                  32

Nolan                  all of 26, most of 25, 29                            29

Bunker                most of 22, 23, 25, 26                              26

Gooden               most of 24, 29, much of 32-35                   35

Clyde                   21-22, most of 20, 24                             24

Teen-age pitchers don’t tend to have long or healthy careers.  All of these pitchers were extremely promising when they came up, and put together many great seasons.  Take a look at this, though:

                          Record after age 28 season

Feller                  108-79

Dierker                 15-20

McCormick            28-27

Nolan                     4-4

Bunker                  retired

Gooden                40-31

Clyde                     retired

Once his teen-age years were over, Feller did not start to pitch less.  He actually pitched more.  In the three seasons he played from ages 20 through 22, he won 76 games, tossing 960 innings, facing 4,013 batters. 

No one since 1920 has thrown as many innings at that age, and since 1900, only Christy Mathewson has topped that number.

When Feller came back from the service, his first full season was 1946.  Manager Lou Boudreau promptly gave Feller the heaviest workload anyone had thrown since Pete Alexander back in 1917. 

Feller hurled 371.1 innings, including 36 complete games in 42 starts, and six relief appearances.  Boudreau did it while the Indians were going 68-86, finishing sixth, 36 games behind Boston.  

On April 17, the team was 2-0, and in first place.  It would never be so far above .500, or in first place again during the season.  It would never see .500 again once May began, and never be above fifth place after April 27.  But Feller almost broke the single-season strikeout record.

Feller’s career rapidly slid downhill after 1946.  His strikeouts per 9 innings dropped from 8.4 to 5.9.  He was never again to strikeout 200 batters in a season. 

In 1948, his hits allowed per 9 innings jumped from 6.9 to 8.2.  He would never again have a season in which his hits allowed per 9 inning were as low as 7.5. the worst total he had recorded previously. After age 28, he would never again have an ERA below 3.00. 

He continued to pitch, but never with the same greatness.  The pitcher who threw 15 shutouts in 1946 and 1947 could only throw 12 in the next nine seasons.

I believe Bob Feller’s arm was damaged by the heavy workload it received as a young pitcher.  Since the end of the deadball era, pitchers who threw many innings as teen-agers have seen their careers plagued by injuries and cut short. 

If Feller had not missed time due to his military service, it is very likely that the loss of effectiveness he suffered following the 1946 season would have set in even earlier, and more severely, and Feller would have wound up his career with even fewer than the 266 wins he racked up.

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