Thursday, December 16, 2010
Of Bob Feller and wartime baseballPosted by David Wade
“When he starts his windup, swing.”
Allan Peters was overmatched. What kid wouldn’t be when facing a major league pitcher with a 100 mph fastball? Especially a pitcher who had gone 76-33 with a 2.88 ERA and 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings for the Cleveland Indians during the three seasons Al played for his high school team.
The story lies in how this skinny teenager came to face Bob Feller in the first place.
Feller was born and raised in a small town in Iowa. He signed with the Indians in 1936 and debuted in July at age 17. By 1941, he had established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, finishing in the top three in MVP voting the three previous seasons. Only 22 years old, his best seasons lay ahead. However, like many men the world over, he spent several of those seasons fighting in World War II.
Feller volunteered for the Navy the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His first assignment was Norfolk Naval Base as a physical fitness instructor. He pitched about three-quarters of a season while his unit drilled recruits and played sports to boost morale. While he was there, baseball historian John Sickels says, Feller added a slider to his already nearly unhittable repertoire.
Feller would later say he always pitched to win during the war despite many recruits being limited in experience to high school or minor league baseball. Professionally, he had to pitch that way in case he made it back to Cleveland after the war. Personally, he couldn’t imagine playing the game any other way.
His celebrity likely meant he could have served the length of the war in that capacity. Nevertheless, he volunteered for combat duty late in 1942. His new assignment was to the crew of the U.S.S. Alabama. The Alabama was a heavily armored battleship. Production of its class of warship had increased due to the escalating conflict in Europe and further intensified in response to naval losses at Pearl Harbor. Its primary tasks were accompanying aircraft carriers and providing shore bombardment ahead of invasions.
Shortly after his reassignment, the Navy granted Feller a bittersweet 10-day leave. His father had passed away, so he traveled back to Iowa for the funeral. While on emergency leave, Feller married his girlfriend in Waukegan, Ill., on Jan. 16, 1943. After he spent just a few days with his new bride, Feller rejoined his shipmates. Shortly thereafter, they set out for the Pacific to engage the Japanese.
Just about 35 miles south of Feller’s wedding spot, down the shore of Lake Michigan, Al Peters was getting ready for his third year of baseball at Senn High in Chicago. Born in the city in 1925, Peters was a valuable player for his high school team, batting left-handed and playing a good second base. However, that ’43 season would be his last, because shortly after his 18th birthday he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Peters went through basic training and joined the 2nd Marine division in Hawaii in early 1944, right around the time the Alabama stopped by Pearl Harbor.
The USMC formally activated the 2nd Marine Division early in 1941 in response to the looming threat of war. This group would participate in hand-to-hand combat during many invasions in the Pacific Theater. By 1944, Peters’ unit was one of several that drew the assignment of the Saipan invasion and set out for the island of Majuro to prepare. There the men trained daily, but also had a little time to play baseball in the evenings. Bob Feller was on the island as well, and the stage was set for these two Midwesterners’ unlikely meeting 60 feet six inches from each other.
Crews from the battleships docked at Majuro, also preparing for Saipan, had set up the ballgames with players from other ships. Other enlisted men also participated in these pick-up games. So it came to pass one afternoon Allan Peters went to the plate against the team from the Alabama. He knew who their pitcher was. Everyone did. That’s why Peters' coach’s seemingly absurd advice to swing when the hurler’s windup started didn’t seem odd. Al was the only lefty his team had to face the right-handed Feller, but he knew his odds of getting on base were slim.
Al walked to the plate a nervous wreck. Taking all the way on the first pitch (a strike), Peters would always say it was so fast he couldn’t see it. He knew falling behind 0-2 to a professional pitcher would be disastrous, so he decided he would swing at the second pitch no matter what. Peters said that since he couldn’t track the pitch anyway, he figured he might as well close his eyes. Al was a notorious joker, so no one was ever sure if that part was true. Either way, he swung earlier than he’d ever swung at a pitch in his life and the result was a clean single up the middle. Peters said the pitch may have bounced in front of the plate for all he knew.
Nonetheless, Peters was at first base and Bob Feller- future Hall of Fame inductee, outspoken critic of today's players, and one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball- tipped his cap to him.
The moment couldn’t last, as the realities of war once again set in on Peters, Feller, and the thousands of enlisted men at Majuro. After a few weeks of training all day, some baseball in the evenings, and refitting for ships, they headed out for Saipan. As nervous as Peters must have felt facing Feller, it was no match for the fear that would grip him as he and his fellow troops made their amphibious landing on June 15, 1944.
Feller’s assigned ship Alabama was actually one of the naval vessels that provided shore bombardment ahead of Peters and the 2nd Marine Division’s invasion of the island. Peters, and nearly a hundred thousand other American troops, would fight for a month in a bloody battle to gain control of the island.
With the ground assault in full force, Feller and his crew turned their attention to the Japanese aerial response to the invasion. During that conflict, the Navy recorded one of its most impressive victories. Today many call it “The Marianas Turkey Shoot” due to the lopsided result for the Americans. According to a history of the U.S.S. Alabama, that ship was the first to spot the incoming Japanese and their early detection led to the rout.
Peters and Feller would move farther away from each other as the war progressed. Peters participated in assaults on Tinian and Okinawa before a sniper bullet in March of ‘45 eventually sent him home to Chicago. His military career ended with an honorable discharge early in 1946, after which the military awarded him the Purple Heart.
Aboard the Alabama, Feller and his crew continued throughout the Pacific, aiding in the island-hopping campaign. Kamikaze Japanese pilots and a typhoon that sank three American destroyers were just a few of the dangers he and his crewmates faced during the rest of 1945. The Alabama’s tour was over in January of 1946, about the same time Peters was discharged. Feller returned to his position of physical fitness instruction at the Naval Station Great Lakes, once again within an hour of Peters, who had taken on a job at the Chicago Tribune.
Peters went on to live a great life working in the city, coaching Little League, and cheering for the Cubs. Feller went back to the Cleveland Indians and pitched a decade of dominant baseball. He retired in 1956 and became a first-ballot Hall of Famer despite missing his prime years at war.
Men like Peters and Feller did a great service to our country during World War II. Like many of them, Al was often reluctant to speak afterwards of the horrors he witnessed during his service. It is often left to historians to relate accounts of the disturbing things the troops saw, such as mass suicides by Japanese women and children on Saipan after the invasion, along with the gruesome fatalities of tens of thousands of troops in close combat.
Those are thngs that Al simply could not talk about.
Instead, he preferred to tell the one good story that could only come from such an environment—a kid versus a professional pitcher in a dream matchup for any amateur ballplayer. It never could have happened back in the States. Bob Feller threw nearly 50 innings without allowing a run while he played baseball games on Majuro. But on one afternoon, a random kid fighting in the same war laced a single off him.
Notes: This article is in memory of Allan Peters, who passed away Aug. 31, 2009 at the age of 84 and Bob Feller, who died Wednesday night at 92. Much of the information about Feller's wartime baseball came from John Sickels' Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation. This article first appeared, in its original form, at Baseball Daily Digest.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.