CLEVELAND -- There are many ways to honor a human being, and lord knows Bob Feller received his share in his lifetime -- a plaque in Cooperstown, a street and a museum in his hometown, a statue outside the home park of the Cleveland Indians club he once represented so well.
Feller squeezed a lot of living into his 92 years, and his natural gift of hurling a baseball at a high velocity brought the Iowa farm boy a life's worth of awe and acclaim.
But having gotten to know Feller fairly well toward the end of those 92 years, I would venture to guess it is a posthumous honor that would make him proudest.
On Wednesday night, Feller's two teams -- the Indians and the U.S. Navy -- were teaming up to present Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman Garth Sinclair with the first annual Bob Feller Act of Valor Award at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who could not make the trip to D.C., was honored separately last month.
The award was the brainchild of Peter Fertig, a New York payroll systems manager and author who met Feller at the Hall of Fame events one summer, came to understand the story of Feller's service and walked away inspired. In the wake of Feller's death in December 2010, Fertig pitched his idea to Feller's widow, Anne, and, eventually, the Indians, the Hall of Fame and the Navy were all involved. Ray Mabus, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, was among those scheduled to attend Wednesday's ceremony.
This award has been described as "unusual" by the Associated Press, and, sure, that's a good word for it. Because there was nothing at all usual about the way Feller lived his life and prioritized his pursuits, and this pairing of baseball stars with Navy stalwarts is a reminder of how, in Feller's time, those two disparate worlds came together like never before or since.
Feller was a relic -- and an endearingly crusty one, at that -- in his later years, because he represented the America many of us only know from the well-worn pages of thick textbooks. He was a reminder of a time when volunteerism extended to citizens of even the most solidified status.
"There's a lot of things in my life I would do differently," Feller once said, "but volunteering is not one of 'em."
Feller would be the first to tell you there is no heroism in capitalizing on your innate abilities, as each of us is encouraged to do. The heroism, if it exists at all, rests in the use of whatever platform you pursue to accomplish some greater good. That's what Verlander has done with the Victory for Veterans program, in which injured vets are invited to watch the Tigers from Verlander's luxury suite on the days he pitches at Comerica Park, and the Wins and Warriors initiative, which has committed $1 million to support mental health efforts for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Michigan and Verlander's native Virginia.
"They face challenges when they return that most people don't understand," Verlander said last summer. "The thing is, these men and women are taught to be brave and strong, and when they come home, they're not going to be the first ones to raise their hand and say, 'Hey, I need help.' We need to go out there and extend our arm to try to help these men and women."
Verlander and Feller could have been cut from the same cloth, for all we know. They were born with blazing fastballs, booming confidence and, obviously, a desire to serve. But it is simply a byproduct of Feller's time and of ours that this desire, in Rapid Robert's day, was taken to the extreme.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Feller was driving to his meeting with the Indians to discuss his 1942 contract when news came over the radio of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Between his ill father, his deferment from military service and his looming six-figure salary with the Tribe, Feller had every reason and opportunity to leave his life untouched by the turbulent military times. At that moment, he was a 107-game winner, an All-Star, a man who had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. He was in the prime of his career and of his life. But he enlisted the very next day, with no second thoughts and no eventual regrets.
Feller was actually the first enlistee of what turned out to be more than 500 professional ballplayers serving in the World War II effort, including stalwarts such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg.
"There were some draft dodgers," Feller would say. "Well, I don't call them draft dodgers; I call them traitors. If you're physically and mentally capable of helping your country in a situation like that, where the freedom and sovereignty of this nation was at stake, it's about time to get busy -- either fish or cut bait."
Feller refused a stateside assignment and opted instead to serve as a gun captain in the Third Fleet on the USS Alabama. In his 34 months aboard the battleship, he faced combat in Operation Galvanic, Operation Flintlock and, most important of all, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot," in which the U.S. essentially crippled the Japanese Navy's ability to conduct large-scale carrier combat. Two enemy bombs hit the Alabama during that battle, and the Alabama would also face a typhoon with 80-knot winds off the Philippine coast. But Feller, who would earn eight battle stars, was also proud to point out that the Alabama never lost a man to enemy action.
"The survivors returned," Feller would say. "Heroes didn't come back."
It's impossible to imagine an athlete of Feller's stature sacrificing his career and risking his life for such an effort in today's times, but it's always encouraging to see stars like Verlander keep that sort of spirit alive in their own small way. And now there's an award to celebrate that spirit and that service.
The award is admittedly unusual. But then again, so was Rapid Robert.