CHICAGO (April 16, 1940) – Frankie Frisch knew what he was doing on the early spring afternoon that Bob Feller made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians.
It was only an exhibition game, nothing on the line, so Frisch – after watching the 17-year-old fireballing Feller nearly tear the catcher’s glove off Rollie Hemsley’s hand in warmups – turned to his backup, Stu Martin, and said: “Stu, you’re playing second today. I don’t feel well.”
Asked later why he didn’t play, Frisch said: “Face that kid? Are you crazy? The old Flash may be dumb, but he ain’t that dumb.”
It was 1936, Frisch’s St. Louis Cardinals – the famous Gashouse Gang that was two years removed from a World Series victory – were still considered one of the finest teams in baseball, but Feller simply overpowered them, striking out eight batters in three innings of work. Frisch watched from the bench, comfortable in the thought that being in the National League prevented him from having to face Feller unless the Indians and Cardinals were to advance to a World Series opposite each other.
Five months later, in his regular-season debut, Feller fanned 15 St. Louis Browns, and three weeks after that, he mowed down 17 Philadelphia Athletics to tie the major-league single-game strikeout record held by Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals three years earlier.
The precedent was set, and for 18 years, the man they called Rapid Robert embarrassed hitters on a regular basis with his overpowering fastball.
Oddly, on Opening Day of the 1940 season when Feller became the first and only pitcher to throw a no-hitter on this most sacred of baseball days, defeating the White Sox 1-0, he didn’t feel at all like the dominating pitcher he had become.
It was a raw 47-degree day at Comiskey Park and Feller had trouble getting loose. In the first two innings, five of the six outs came on strikeouts, but he also walked three and Hemsley had to make a few trips out to the mound to make sure Feller was all right.
Perhaps Feller was unnerved by the fact that his mother was in the stands. The only other time she had seen him pitch in the big leagues to this point, the year before on Mothers’ Day, she had been struck in the face by a foul ball and had to be taken to the hospital where she spent two days. Mrs. Feller was safe on this day, because over the final seven innings, the White Sox barely put up a fight against her son.
In the fourth, the Indians manufactured the only run Feller would need when Hemsley, who had driven in just 36 runs in 1939, slashed a line drive down the line in right for an RBI double that chased Jeff Heath all the way home from first.
“He would pick today to pitch a no-hit game,” Hemsley said of Feller after the game. “I was all set to be the hero of the game on account of driving in the only run. Now nobody will even know I was in the contest.”
Once he had the lead, Feller settled into a breezy rhythm as he continually set the White Sox down without incident, and as he strode to the mound in the ninth, Feller was completely aware that he had a no-hitter intact.
“The team knew it and was going out of its way to avoid any mention of the subject, in keeping with one of baseball’s many superstitions,” Feller recalled. “I never felt that way, though. My teammates didn’t have to bother avoiding the subject. I knew full well I had a no-hitter going, and so does every other pitcher in that situation. If he tells the reporters after the game that he wasn’t aware of it, don’t you believe him.”
Feller began the ninth by inducing Mike Kreevich to ground out to second, and then Moose Solters popped up to shortstop, the 20th consecutive out recorded by Feller. This brought the ever-pesky Luke Appling to the plate as Chicago’s last hope, and Feller knew this would be the toughest out of the day.
“He was a master, the best I’ve ever seen, at flicking his bat to foul off a pitch while he waited for the one he wanted,” said Feller. “It didn’t make any difference if he had two strikes on him either. He was so good at it and so confident in doing it that he just stood up there and took a poke at every pitch with no concern that he might miss it and strike out.
“He came up determined to break up my no-hitter. Then he went into his act. The same guy who once fouled off 18 straight pitches just to use up a lot of baseballs because he was mad at management about his contract started doing the same thing to me. He knew what inning it was, that I had to be running out of gas pretty soon. I was a hard thrower and by the ninth inning hard throwers sometimes are tiring.”
Appling worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off four pitches in a row.
“We might still be there if a counter strategy hadn’t occurred to me,” said Feller. “I wasn’t going to keep throwing and play right into his hands, so I threw the next two pitches outside the strike zone. That got rid of Appling with a walk. I had already issued four walks, so another wasn’t going to make any difference anyhow. It was an intentional walk, but nobody else knew it.”
Now Taffy Wright represented Chicago’s last chance, and he almost made Feller pay for that “intentional” walk. The lefty-swinging Wright ripped a ground ball into the hole between first and second, but Ray Mack slid over quickly, knocked the ball down and his throw to Hal Trosky at first beat Wright by a step to end the game.
“He was one of the good hitters in the league and one I had trouble with from time to time because he was such a good contact hitter,” said Feller. “I don’t know how (Mack) ever knocked down Wright’s smash in the ninth, to say nothing of retrieving the ball and throwing the guy out.”
This would be the first of three no-hitters Feller would twirl in his marvelous career, and what may be even more impressive is that Feller threw 12 one-hitters.
During his 18 years, Feller went 266-162 with an earned-run average of 3.25, and had he not spent nearly four years in the Navy during the prime of his career – he was the first major-league ballplayer to volunteer for service – he undoubtedly would have reached the magical 300-victory plateau. He led the AL in victories six times and strikeouts seven times for a Cleveland team that won only two pennants during his time there.