Bob Feller survived heat of Pacific war, brought his 'heater' to Waterloo

Posted by Pat Kinney on Monday, July 19, 2021

One of Iowa's most famous veterans of the Pacific theatre of World War II -- the subject of an upcoming Grout Museum exhibit--came to Waterloo to pitch in an exhibition baseball game 52 years ago this month.

He not only survived the war, but made the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Bob Feller of Van Meter, IA., nicknamed "The Heater from Van Meter," who amassed 266 victories over 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, came to Waterloo July 17, 1969 to pitch a three-inning exhibition game. He was part of a team of "old timers" playing against a team of young players appropriately, in a league sponsored by local American Legion military veterans.


Pictured Left to Right: Bob Feller in 1936  |  Bob Feller in the U.S. Navy during World War II (U.S. Navy photo)


Pictured Above: Native Iowan, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and World War II veteran Bob Feller shows his pitching style to a group of young people in Waterloo before an exhibition game in 1969. (Waterloo Courier photo)

Feller was as famous for his military service as his pitching ability. He was one of the first big leaguers to enlist in the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago this year. He served as the chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew on the battleship USS Alabama, which received eight battle stars for its service in Pacific battles. Feller lost almost four full seasons of his baseball career to military service.

Feller had a connection to Waterloo through the manager of its minor league pro baseball club at that time -- Rollie Hemsley, who was the manager of the Midwest League Class A Tri-Cities Hawks, then an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

Hemsley was Feller's catcher with Cleveland when Feller pitched a no-hit game on Opening Day of the 1940 season. It is still the first and only Opening Day no-hitter in Major League Baseball history, and the first of three no-hitters Feller pitched in his career. in fact, Hemsley drove in the only run of that game with a fourth-inning triple for a 1-0 Cleveland victory over the Chicago White Sox at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Hemsley played 19 years in the majors, was a four-time All-Star and also served in the military during World War II.


Pictured Left to Right: Rollie Hemsley in 1936.  |  Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller of Van Meter, Iowa , at right was reunited with two Cleveland Indians teammates at an exhibition game in Waterloo in 1969. They were, at left, fellow World War II veteran and All-Star catcher Rollie Hemsley, manager of the minor-league Waterloo Tri-Cities Hawks, and first baseman Hal Trosky, who was born in Norway, Iowa and lived in Cedar Rapids.  (Waterloo Courier photo)

Also playing with Feller in the 1969 Waterloo game was another Indians teammate, first baseman Hal Trosky, who was born in Norway, Iowa and lived in Cedar Rapids. Trosky batted .302 with 229 home runs over 11 MLB seasons and led the big leagues with 162 runs batted in for 1936. He also hit 42 home runs that year, finishing second only to Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, who hit 49. 

True to form, in the 1969 Waterloo exhibition game, Trosky hit the game winning RBI single for the old timers team over the American Legion youngsters.

Also participating in the exhibition game was Tom Hurd of Waterloo, a Virginia native who pitched three seasons  with the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s.

Coaching the old timers was longtime former University of Northern Iowa baseball coach Lawrence "Mon" Whitford.  Less than two months later, Whitford's son, U.S. Air Force Col. L. W. Whitford would be shot down and reported missing in action over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during the Vietnam War. The U.S. government is still making arrangements with the Laotian government to search for and recover his crewman's remains. Col Whitford's daughter, Nancy Whitford Eger, donated one of her father's flight helmets and other items to the Grout's Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum.

The Grout Museum exhibit, "Over Land & Sea: Iowans in the Pacific in WWII," opens this November and will run through December 2022.

Feller pitched many other times in Waterloo and throughout Iowa and the country up into his 90s, promoting baseball and for charity benefits, including a game featuring other retired major-league stars at Field of Dreams in Dyersville in the early 1990s. He passed away in 2010 at age 92.

Once asked, "What was the most important game you ever won?" Feller replied. "World War II."

About The Author

Pat is the Director of Institutional Advancement for the Grout Museum District.