When Bob Feller died two years ago, a piece of me went with him and the nation lost much more than a baseball hero.
He was a role model, a philosophical mentor and his value system guided me as I grappled with the sometimes complex task of parenting my own children. Beyond that, though, he was a living connection to a time and place that I never saw, but always admired for its values, vigor and Horatio Alger optimism.
Many of my generation venerated the image and persona of John Wayne as representing the prototypical American hero. He was an actor. Bob Feller, though, was the real deal and one of the exemplars of the now nearly-gone greatest American generation. He was in the front row of that large group picture that included my own parents; the last altruistic generation fired in the crucible of the Great Depression and the global conflagration that was World War II.
In 1936, the big, lanky Iowa farm kid took major league baseball by storm as a seventeen year-old flamethrower, instantly dominating American league hitters without so much as a single appearance in the minor leagues; an unheard of feat in the talent-laden days of pre-expansion baseball. After incinerating major league hitters that summer, he went back home before the end of the season to finish high school.
He returned the following season and dominated the best hitters in baseball for the next 20 years. His career records would have been even more impressive had he not enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor while in the midst of his prime.
Part of the allure he communicated to this Appalachian rookie, and to so many others growing up on farms and in coal towns and crowded cities across the country, was the if-he-did-it-so-can-I hopefulness that he engendered in all of us. In their efforts to protect us from disappointment, parents discouraged us from having big dreams or setting our sights too high. As products of the Depression, they had already seen too many hopes and dreams, including their own, dashed on the rocks of hard times, economic necessity and war. Most teachers, too, attempted to moderate our aspirations to the generational destinies of coal mining, farming, or laboring in a mill, as most of our adult relatives had done before us. Through this backdrop, Bob Feller's life and example gave me and others permission to dream.
Despite my best efforts, I was never able to emulate his high leg kick or seemingly supersonic fastball, but he did convince me that I didn't have to stay on the farm for the rest of my life.
Much of the detail of his life and times, both on and off the field are in his 1990 memoir, Now Pitching, Bob Feller, and I commend it to you. The book chronicles many details of his life that extend well beyond the sports pages and includes information and observations on many of the premier players of Feller's era.
His frank and unabashed opinions on baseball players in the modern era often made him a lightning rod for criticism, but he remained characteristically obdurate through it all.
The same was true for his willingness to speak out with candor on a variety of non-baseball matters. Interviews with him were not always characterized by the "happy talk" so often expected of sports icons.
Intelligent, articulate, entrepreneurial and always a Cleveland loyalist, his moral compass represented an entire generation's deeply held views on many important issues both inside and outside baseball.
Like his overwhelming fastball, his opinions did not always find the strike zone, but he was never afraid to bring the heat again and again.
Much of what passes for role model behavior today was never accepted or tolerated by him or those in his generation. As I watch the creeping spread of moral relativism in the education and acculturation of our youngsters, I don't see many Bob Fellers among us. Infusing the coming generations with the values that made our nation great will be increasingly difficult as he and his contemporaries fade farther from memory.
Editor's note: Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at West Liberty University's Institute for Innovation in Education and a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.