Brissie recalls Feller as 'perfect teammate'

His name is Feller! Feller! Bob Feller! And when I say that there is only one Feller on the team that pitches, that's it ... and the feller that pitches is Feller. There's other fellers on the team, but there's only one Feller.


-- Bud Abbott, The Abbott and Costello Show, April 17, 1947

Lou Brissie understood the score with his old teammate Bob Feller, but that didn't make the final any easier to take.

Feller -- arguably the hardest throwing pitcher who ever lived -- was diagnosed with acute leukemia last summer. He had to cancel a November appearance with Brissie at a veterans function in Washington because his health had taken a turn. A week ago he was transferred to hospice care at the Cleveland Clinic.

Wednesday night, Hall of Famer Bullet Bob -- the Heater from Van Meter, Iowa -- died. He was 92.

In North Augusta, the last living member from the Cleveland Indians pitching stable of the early 1950s was devastated by the news.

"Knew he had been in hospice and I've been keeping up with him," Brissie said. "But Bob was kind of an invincible fellow, so it was a blow and a shock and I think baseball will miss him."

Brissie has no shortage of praise to pass out when it comes to Feller, whom he called the "perfect teammate." It was Feller who inspired the 10-year-old Brissie to be a pitcher the way the Iowa farmboy took the major leagues by storm with his unhittable fastball.

And it was Feller who was the first player in the clubhouse to welcome Brissie to the Indians' pitching staff in 1951. In spite of his status as a pitching legend, Feller was always the first guy to congratulate you on a good day and pick you up after a bad one.

Baseball was robbed of learning just how great Feller might have been. He'd already led the major leagues in victories three consecutive years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Navy the next day and spent the next four years serving in World War II during what would have been the prime of his career. He earned six battle citations as a chief petty officer in charge of an anti-aircraft group on the USS Alabama.

He and Brissie -- who nearly lost his leg fighting the Germans in Europe -- rarely talked about their military service or the toll it took on their careers.

In Feller's first full season back in 1946, he struck out 348. He led the league in wins three more times before retiring in 1956 with 266 career wins and 2,581 strikeouts.

"He lost his peak years, came back and picked up where he left off," Brissie said. "He never complained about it."

That's not to say that Feller wouldn't tell you what he thought. The only thing faster than his arm was his willingness to speak his mind.

"Bob never ducked a question," said Brissie, whose locker was adjacent to Feller for three seasons. "He didn't give you the P.R. answer. He told you exactly what he thought. If you weren't ready for that, don't ask him."

Brissie remembers a postgame in Washington when reporters crowded around Feller's locker to ask if his fastball had lost some of its sting.

"We noticed when you hit Bob Porterfield on the hand he didn't even rub it," the press said. "What do you think about that?"

Bob looked at them and shot back, "I think if that happened about four years ago, there would have been fingers all over home plate."

On occasion, Feller deferred to Brissie.

"I relieved him in a game a couple of times, which you didn't do often," Brissie said. "The press came to ask him about his win and he pointed to me and said, 'Talk to him, he sewed it up.' He was always willing to give credit to others, even the opposition."

With baseball abuzz at the moment about the Phillies' stacked four-man rotation, Brissie remembers joining an Indians staff with its Big Four who would take a backseat to no staff with Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia all winning more than 20 games in 1951 or '52.

"When you compare eras, the era (Feller) did it they had a lot of guys who were smart hitters rather than power hitters," Brissie said. "He would have had a ball pitching against the free swingers of today. Ted Williams had a tremendous respect for Bob. He made the comment to me one time that he did pretty good for the first year or so against Feller and then Bob changed his entire way of pitching to him and he had difficulty with him from there on."

Brissie said Feller was the "best conditioned athlete I ever saw," recognizing the value of fitness and healthy eating.

But it was off the field that Brissie speaks most passionately about his longtime friend. He considers Bob Feller's Little Blue Book of Baseball Wisdom mandatory reading for parents and children. Among his nine tenets of success, Feller wrote "parents should give kids the greatest gift in the world -- their time!"

"If I had had that book to read when I was 13 years old, I would have done things a lot differently," Brissie said.

With Feller's death, baseball lost more than one of its pitching pillars whose fastball was once clocked at 107 mph and who threw three career no-hitters, including the only one ever on opening day.

The game lost a legend who understood the connection with the fans and never met a baseball or card he wouldn't autograph. And the guy who devoted his time to fellow military veterans, as well as the man who advocated the creation of the pension plan for retired players.

"Knowing him the years that I have, he's never disappointed me," Brissie said. "He was just a tremendous human being and he deserves any honor he ever got and probably a lot that he didn't. A great fellow, a great teammate and a great friend. Baseball has lost one of its greatest ambassadors."

As the last remaining link to Feller's great Indians pitching staff, Brissie hopes to attend memorial services.

"It was a great group and he was the greatest of them all," Brissie said.


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