In April of 2007, I was covering the Cleveland Indians’ home opener when my boss asked me if I could write a column about the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.
So I looked around, noticed Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller sitting a few rows away in the press box (as he often did during Indians home games) and figured the story would be a lot better if it was written from Feller’s perspective than mine.
Before I approached him, I went up to one of the Indians beat writers, a friend of mine named Andy Call, and asked him if Feller was open to interviews. After all, Feller had never met me and our paper usually only covered one game per year.
“I think so,” Call said. “You shouldn’t have a problem.”
“Is there any protocol?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Just go up and ask him.”
So I did. That was my first mistake.
“Mr. Feller?” I said, approaching him. “Can I have a min ...”
“Don’t think you’re just going to come over here and get an interview,” he growled. (Feller was a great growler.) “Sit over there and maybe, if I feel up to it in a few innings, I might talk to you.”
I nodded, then quietly took my seat. About three innings later, the man sitting next to Feller motioned me over and said, “He’s ready to talk to you.”
I went over, sat down and promptly committed my second mistake. I asked him about Robinson.
See, Feller and Robinson didn’t get along very well. And the reason they didn’t get along is that Feller has always been an outspoken, opinionated, irascible sourpuss. (And as a man who served valiantly in the Navy and had a statue of himself outside the stadium, he had every right to be an outspoken, opinionated, irascible sourpuss. Heck, it was part of his charm.)
“They overhyped Jackie Robinson,” Feller told me. “He was a good baserunner. He was a fair hitter. He was an average second baseman.
“He was not as good a ballplayer as [Indians Hall of Fame] Larry Doby. There were a lot of better black ballplayers than Jackie Robinson.”
“Um, OK,” I said. “Do you think Doby was underrated a little bit because he came after Robinson?”
“Underrated?” Feller shouted. “He’s in the Hall of Fame, isn’t he?”
Over the next 15 minutes, Feller dominated our interview, offering opinions on everything from the current state of baseball to the current state of our country to the current state of my questions. (He had criticisms of all three.)
Some of it was printable, some of it wasn’t. And some of it would have landed me on ESPN the next day, with me trying to explain a legend’s blunt comments.
But when I tried to tell him that, he scoffed.
“We have free speech don’t we?” he said. “That’s why we fight wars.”
The 92-year-old Feller, who was moved to hospice last week as he battles declining health, approached interviews the same way he approached batters or enemy soldiers or leukemia or ... well, life. Straight forward, with a lot of heat.
I count myself blessed to have felt a little of his chin music.