May 14, 2013 — I’ve never forgotten a television interview with the late Cleveland Indian’s Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller I saw years ago.
Never heard of Bob Feller? Well, he was so good, he made it to the big leagues in 1936 when he was still a 17-year-old high school student. Ted Williams called Feller “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career,” and Stan Musial said he was “probably the greatest pitcher of our era.” Feller threw the second fastest recorded pitch in baseball history at an amazing 107.6 miles-per-hour (a Nolan Ryan fastball was clocked years later at 108.1 mph).
Although I’m the proud owner of a baseball Feller signed, I don’t want to write about his athletic prowess — I want to write about what he had to say about heroes.
You see Feller was famously the first professional athlete to enlist in the U.S. military after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Feller volunteered for the U.S. Navy just two days after the attack. He didn’t want to be a military baseball player who just signed autographs and used his fame to help raise morale, so he requested a combat assignment instead. The Navy obliged and sent him to join about 2,900 other sailors aboard the battleship USS Alabama.
Yep, Feller got his wish and partcipated in Operation Galvanic in November 1943 and in Operation Flintlock in 1944. He also participated in the Battle of Philippine Sea, earned six campaign ribbons, eight battle stars and was named an honorary member of the Green Berets.
“We were involved in so many other important engagements, including some in the North Atlantic over in Europe,” Feller said during an interview with the New York Times. “Our ship won nine battle stars, eight of them while I was on it. It was an incredible time for all of us.”
Despite the fact he was in the middle of negotiating a $100,000 per year contract with the Indians and qualified for an exemption due to his father’s poor health at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Feller walked away from all that to serve his country.
“It didn’t matter to me,” Feller told the Times. “I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese. We were losing that war, and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting.”
In the interview I saw on television, the reporter tried to portray Feller as a war hero, but he absolutely bristled at that suggestion.
I’m not a hero, he said. The heroes are the ones who didn’t come home. His humility and the way the suggestion he was a hero honestly angered him has always stuck with me.
A friend of mine called last week and said a group of her friends had decided I was a hero because I’m shaving my head as part of this Saturday’s St. Baldrick’s fundraiser to help fight cancer.
Thank you so much, but like Bob Feller, I must protest I am not a hero. I know the St. Baldrick’s Foundation calls us heroes, but I’m just a guy who’s willing to get his head shaved to raise a little money for cancer research. I’ve spoken to many people in town who say they would never shave their head for any number of reasons regardless of the cause. Obviously, I’ve crossed that bridge already, but I don’t believe my decision makes me a hero.
Now don’t get me wrong. I want to say thank you to everyone for the generous contributions to and support of this fundraising effort. I sincerely appreciate your help from the bottom of my heart. I’m so humbled by your kind words and your belief in me. Honestly, it brings tears to my eyes if I think about it too much because this disease has taken people I love.
But I’m just the vehicle here, and it’s my hope, wish and prayer that some person stricken with this terrible disease might actually benefit from what we do today.
It’s simple. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m only drawing attention to myself to raise a little money, and if there were some way to do that without a little hoopla, I’d happily remain completely and totally anonymous. Sadly, a fundraiser like this one just doesn’t work that way.
Again, I want to thank each and every one of you so much, but this really isn’t about me at all. It’s about finding a cure for a killer disease. I believe together we can make a difference.
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