Thursday, December 16, 2010

LeBron Quits NBA, Joins Navy

Can you imagine?

At the height of his star power, the best of his generation to play the game, leaving it behind to serve in the military.

Think of Derek Jeter leaving the Yankees behind after the 2001 World Series just months after the World Trade Center towers fell. Or LeBron signing enlistment papers at St. Vincent St. Mary High School instead of the Nike contract in 2003 just months after the U.S. went to war in Iraq.

That's what Bob Feller did after Pearl Harbor.

I mean no disrespect to Jeter or James. But what Bob Feller did, literally hours after Pearl Harbor, stands as a bigger measure of the man than his fastball and Hall of Fame credentials.

60 years separate two distinct and major events in U.S. history, almost to the day. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire sneak attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii left 2,403 dead. On September 11, 2001, the Al Qaeda terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a third passenger jet which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania left 2,996 dead, including 14 who succumbed to their wounds that day or lung cancer from working the Ground Zero site.

Enlistment after both attacks showed the resolve of Americans to fight the fight. It is often pointed to as an expression of the patriotism shown by this country in defense of this country.

But 1941 was different. With the exception of Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, later killed in action in Afghanistan and his legacy all the more tragic after higher-ups tried to cover up details of his death by friendly fire, 2001 was not 1941 with high-profile athletes leaving behind their careers to put themselves in harm's way.

Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams -- all among those giants of baseball who enlisted.

But Feller's service was different; DiMaggio enlisted in February 1943, served most of his time in-country and in Hawaii as a physical education instructor despite requests to the military that he be treated no differently than any other soldier. Most pro baseball players did the same, although a few did see combat.

Williams tried to delay his entry into the service as a sole provider for his mother, at least until he was able to establish a trust fund n her behalf. The draft board agreed on appeal, but the public outcry provided a different direction and he enlisted in May 1942. He flew as a Navy aviator with distinction in combat in both World War II and Korea, losing five years of his most production athletic years in service to the country.

Feller recalls hearing the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks and being "angry as hell" while driving from his home in Iowa to Chicago to discuss his next contract with the Cleveland Indians.

He signed a contract with the U.S. Navy instead on December 9, the day after President Roosevelt's "Day that will live in infamy" call for the U.S. to declare war on Japan. Feller served for three and a half years aboard the U.S.S. Alabama, and is the only Chief Petty Officer in Cooperstown.

Here's a man who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, honored as the "greatest pitcher ever" by The Sporting News, a player who stayed loyal to his team throughout even over the half-century after he retired from the game. Adored by millions, a household name. He played with and against some of the greatest at the height of baseball's popularity as "America's Pastime" but when he spoke of past glory, there's no doubt the highlight of his life was the time he spent playing for the Navy.

Bob Feller could be a crapshoot interview; think of your great-grandfather, the times their opinions were forged in, and the luxury of speaking their minds in their golden years. Radio broadcasters would frequently hold their breath when he came to the live microphone, especially when talking about the war years and the "angry as hell" feelings he still felt toward the Japanese Empire and it's subjects.

In many ways, time had passed Bob Feller by but time never passed his love of the Cleveland Indians and the responsibility he felt to his teammates, even those who's parents weren't even born when he hung up his spikes in 1956. He still wore the Wahoo with pride, making his team his passion through the worst times and the best times as the franchise rebuilt from it's glory years when Feller took the hill to throw a baseball.

It's no surprise the flowers and items are piling up in front of Bob Feller's status at Progressive Field. As with Jim Brown, Bob Feller was the Cleveland sports icon, burning brightly on the field and in the hearts of the fans. That still holds true even as the final out came at age 92.

God bless you, Bob. For not being afraid to be yourself, for following your heart and for playing the game.

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