Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Van Meter loses its Bob Feller Museum, but 'Rapid Robert' will long be remembered

A little, but proud, piece of baseball history is going away.

I came across a New YorkTimes story about the decision to close the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa. The legendary hurler used to help cover expenses by visiting the hometown and signing autographs, usually with some fellow Hall-of-Famers.

But since Feller passed in 2010, it’s been harder to raise enough money to keep the small museum opened. The building, with an amazing brick mural on an outside wall, will soon become the new Van Meter City Hall.

I had the pleasure of a quick visit to the museum during our epic trip to South Dakota in 2013. Even better, I twice had the opportunity to meet the man himself.

I once wrote that if you’re an autograph collector and you don’t have Feller’s signature, that’s on you and not Feller. He was among the nicest and most prolific signers in the game.

I first met the Indians pitcher when I was living in Connecticut and working in the Bridgeport Post’s Valley Bureau.

Feller had relatives in nearby Waterbury, and each summer he’d visit and would make a handful of appearances. I first met him at a baseball card store Seymour, Conn. in 1987. I brought a ball for him to sign, and there were only a handful of other people in the small store.

With little prompting, Feller starting telling me about his amazing Hall of Fame career. After asking my name, he wrote on an 8.5 by 11 sheet with his photo on the front, and flipped it over to show me where it listed all his career achievements.

I heard about the 266 wins and three no-hitters, and how he could have had more of each had he not enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, spending 44 months serving his country and earning eight battle stars.

He pointed out the line reading “The only pitcher in Major League history to win 20 games or more games before age 21,” then crossed out “only” and replaced it with “first,” since Dwight Gooden had matched the feat.

I met him again the next year at a New Britain Red Sox game, sitting at a table near the concession stands, signing photos and telling stories. He signed everything for everyone and then walked around the stands talking, signing and shaking hands.

He came off a little crusty in interviews in his later years, not having a lot of love for modern players who don’t approach the game the same way. I think Feller views himself not just as a standard bearer for old school hardball, but as an ambassador for the game. And to that end, few were better than the “Heater from Van Meter.”

So I was pretty excited when we were driving through Iowa on our way to South Dakota and saw the sign for Van Meter on I-80.

My mother-in-law spoils me wildly, and allowed me to pull over to take some quick photos – which led to a peek inside the museum, just before closing for the day.
There’s not much to Van Meter, so the museum was not difficult to find. The bar relief mural stands out.

We had just enough time to grab some things in the gift shop and admire some of the displays. The price of admission was nominal, and the two exhibit rooms were filled with Feller memorabilia. The folks in the museum were certainly proud of their native son.
The bat is the center display was used by the Bambino
One key artifact: The bat that Babe Ruth leaned on when he made is last public appearance at Yankee Stadium. You’ve no doubt seen the photo. Babe was using one of Feller’s bats, and it’s on display.

The thing with road trips is that you have to be open to stopping when glorious opportunities present themselves. This stop ended up being a once-in-a-lifetime visit.


Dave said...

Any word as to what will happen to the artifacts? We had something similar happen (in our case, a courthouse and county museum merged) and the way it's set up, the museum opens the day(s) the county council meets. Its one of those, "we will be open anyway," situations and thus far has kept the little museum sustainable.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Hi Dave,

Luckily, many of the exhibits will find a new home at Progressive Field in Cleveland. I think some will remain in Van Meter as the museum becomes City Hall.