On Saturday afternoon a guy wearing a Red Sox cap walked down Main Street in Cooperstown, N.Y., with three children in tow. He did a double take.
"You know who that is?" he said to his kids, as if pausing to point out a historic site -- which, come to think of it, he was. "That's the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame: Bob Feller!" [Feller is actually the second-oldest, behind Bobby Doerr.]
Ninety-year-old "Rapid Robert" Feller, one-time flamethrower of the Cleveland Indians -- he of the 266 wins, three no-hitters, and four prime years spent on a World War II battleship wearing a different kind of uniform -- was, indeed, seated behind a folding table on the sidewalk.
Some uninformed passers-by might have assumed Feller was a kindly gentleman selling tickets for the VFW's 50-50 raffle. Not quite. Cooperstown being home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and all things collectible, he was signing autographs in front of Legends Are Forever memorabilia shop. Nostalgia usually carries a price tag. In Feller's case, it was $30 to scribble his name upon a baseball, $40 for a jersey or piece of equipment.
But autograph business didn't bring Feller to town. He'd traveled from his home outside Cleveland to help promote the Hall of Fame's first old-timers' game. Actually, Feller offered to pitch in it, joining a cast of 17 other ex-players, among them fellow Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Phil Niekro and Ferguson Jenkins.
In January Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the long-standing tradition of holding a summer exhibition game between two Major League clubs had run its course. Scheduling was a hassle. In addition, although Selig couldn't publicly say so, most players had come to regard the Cooperstown pilgrimage as a grin-and-bear-it obligation, like driving several hours to grandma's house for Sunday dinner.
"The world didn't start the day these athletes were born," Feller groused upon learning of Selig's decision. "I think all Major League ballplayers should visit Cooperstown and walk the Hall of Fame."
Needless to say, Feller is old school. Interestingly, in the twilight of life -- peering at the modern world through owl-like glasses, his hearing on the wane, his hair turned to gray fuzz -- Feller has emerged as the conscience of the game.
To some extent he's assuming a mantle that once belonged to Ted Williams. Feller's living-history credentials are second to none. He met Walter Johnson. He was good buddies with Cy Young, a frequent visitor to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.
On June 13, 1948 they held Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks played the Indians and the Babe, riddled with cancer, borrowed Feller's bat to lean on while he made his famous farewell speech.
Coincidentally, on June 13, 1941, Feller was in Cooperstown. Pitching for the Indians in the Hall of Fame's exhibition game at Doubleday Field. Cleveland beat Cincinnati 2-1 in a game cut short after six innings by heavy rain.
Sixty-eight years later Feller was poised to take the mound again at Doubleday Field. Fittingly, the skies again were dark with rain. Rumors circulated that Feller has been practicing in earnest, that he could still throw a 70-plus mph fastball.
One thing certain, Feller nowadays talks like a knuckleballer. His conversations dip and dart, skittering from topic to topic. While signing an autograph, he'll ask a 10-year-old boy if he's yet read the Constitution ("the most important book"), note Satchel Paige, on his list of all-time-best pitchers, "was not a do-gooder" (in Fellerese that ranks as a high compliment), and observe that during this recession more parents are reportedly taking their children to zoos, "which is where they should've taken them in the first place instead of Disneyland."
If George Bernard Shaw had been born in America, he would have written that baseball, not youth, "is wasted on the young." This is the game of memory, the sport laced with history. The old-timers' formula is a prefect fit for the Hall of Fame. And for Cooperstown. The fans are as much a part of the show as the players.
Earl Wood made the trip from Maryland. On Saturday, he and his son played catch on Doubleday Field. Quite a touching moment. Earl is 69. His son, Greg, is 45. "I enjoyed it more than I would as a kid," said Greg, still grinning a half hour after he walked off the field.
Feller got by far the biggest ovation during the introduction ceremonies. He took the mound wearing a bight-white Cleveland Indians uniform. It appeared to be lit from within, perhaps from the heart. Feller floated a few fastballs, bounced a few others. Paul Molitor blooped a single to right center. Bobby Grich reached on a squib grounder. Recently-retired Steve Finley,who, at 44, was batting against someone more than twice his age, stroked a hard single to center.
Then Feller called it quits, much to the relief of 7,069 spectators who didn't want to see a nonagenarian pitcher get knocked cold by a line drive. Feller held court for the media a few minutes later in the tunnel under the grandstand. "I missed the plate a couple of times," he said, "but I need more outfielders. About 10."
A few moments later, Feller excused himself. He wanted to go sign some autographs. For free.