The thing about Keith Olbermann’s brain is, when it comes to baseball, it’s a perfectly maintained, state of the art, encyclopedic museum of knowledge where the curator lives to share the wonders of his collection and drinks to much coffee.
When Bob Feller passed away yesterday, Keith was the first person I talked to about it, because I knew that Keith has an intimate relationship with baseball and infinitely more knowledge on the history of it. I also knew he’d understand what I was feeling; something I’ll admit to you right now, I didn’t really understand myself.
I don’t know the lineage of baseball. I didn’t watch it all that much when I was a kid and I didn’t memorize baseball cards or read autobiographies. I played. I ran around the yard, I threw rocks at stuff, I pretended to be a soldier who turned tree limbs into advanced weaponry, or a wizard’s staff depending on the mood. I rarely ever pretended to be a baseball player, save one, and that was Bob Feller.
I never read about him. I didn’t have to. My grandfather did, and he told me everything I needed to know, weaving tales as grandfathers do. My grandfather was a huge Rapid Robert fan—a side effect of him being a huge baseball fan— who told me that Bob was the best he’d ever seen, maybe there ever was. I don’t mean to say Bob was better than some other iconic pitcher of your past, but I do mean to say he was better than any iconic pitcher of MY past.
I think we all have those players. The ones that have played large roles in our lives via a connection with other family members or friends. The ones we talk about passionately because they were passionately talked to us about. The ones we envisioned the game as always having at a key position. The ones not only worthy of a famous quote, but a quote worth memorizing. Those really are the best players, regardless of how they matched up numerically.
I loved my grandfather, and because my grandfather loved Bob Feller, I loved him too. I got to meet Bob for a few brief seconds at a book signing with my grandfather. He signed, like classy, legendary players do, and then we left. That was it. But, when my grandfather died, I was glad Bob was still around. Now that Bob is gone too I feel like some part of my past really is gone forever, and all I have is that book.
My grandfather never got to see me pitch in the pros. He died of cancer when I was still in high school. However, I learned a lot about what it means to be a pro from the time he was with me. I learned a lot about what it means to be a pro from Bob as well. It means sacrifice, class, and shouldering burdens beyond your own—traits I believe will always define a player regardless of the role they play in the game’s history. Bob was like a piece of baseball nobility, if there is such a thing, and losing him feels like the end of an era to me.
Bob once said, “I’m no hero. Heroes don’t come back. Survivors return home. Heroes never come home. If anyone thinks I’m a hero, I’m not.” He said that referencing the time he served in WWII. But I beg to differ. You were a Hero, Bob. Maybe not in the way you expected to be, but in living the life you did when you came back you set a heroic standard, which, of all your records, is the one I loved the most.