It Looks Like Spring Training…But It’s Not
Bob Feller Plays Baseball After Returning From The War
George Metkovich sent one of Rapid Robert’s curves over the right field fence, but Feller saw to it after the first time at bat that George received nothing good at the plate. Here Metkovich is shown running to first after sending a roller down to the first baseman. Feller is just receiving the throw to cover the base on the play.
While this looks like a typical spring training news photograph it is not.
Besides the slug on the back of the photo which identifies the action, there’s nothing about when, where or which news organization took the photo. Looking at the seats in the background it is obviously not a game played at a major league stadium.
So when and where is this from?
December 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the twenty-two-year-old Bob Feller became one of the first ballplayers to volunteer for military service, enlisting in the Navy. Feller was eligible for a deferment because his father was terminally ill. But even with his father’s illness Feller said, “fighting for my country is more important than playing baseball.”
To narrow the date of the photo down, Metkovich played with the Red Sox from 1943 until 1946.
Since Feller was serving in the military until 1945, that meant this game occurred in 1946.
I first had to find when the Indians played the Red Sox in spring training in 1946.
Thinking it would be easy to figure out the date, I started searching… and quickly became stumped.
None of the historical newspapers I searched listed the Red Sox or Indians spring training schedule. I was finally able to track down the Red Sox 1946 spring training schedule on eBay.
The teams met four times, March 10, 11 ,16 and 22.
Searching newspapers on those dates for details about those games nothing was mentioned about Feller or Metkovich. So the photo not from 1946. How can that be?
Then I looked closer at the photo.
Feller’s uniform says “Great” not Cleveland or Indians. This has to be an all-star or some other team Feller was part of. Maybe Feller was back in the states in 1945 before the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945.
By expanding the newspaper search to include 1945 and adding the word “great” to my query I made a discovery. After serving 29 months at sea and winning eight battle stars, Feller was still in the Navy but now playing baseball in Great Lakes, Illinois for the Bluejackets at the Naval Training Center.
Then, searching for George Metkovich along with Feller I was able to find this game which occurred on June 26, 1945. In front of 10,000 officers and men, Feller pitched a complete game 3-2 victory, striking out nine Red Sox.
One strange stat concerning Metkovich. In 1945 Metkovich had 598 plate appearances and had a .260 batting average. Yet in night games, Metkovich was the top AL hitter batting .421.
After pitching regularly for the Navy team during the summer, Feller was released from active service on August 19. The Navy was like an extended spring training for Feller. On August 24, 1945 making his first MLB start since 1941, Feller pitched a complete game 4-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers striking out 12.
Bob Feller would win 266 games in his career. From 1939 to 1941 Feller led the American League winning 24, 27 and 25 games respectively. Feller’s hiatus to fight in World War II certainly prevented him from reaching the 300 win plateau.
Years later Feller reiterated the importance of his military service. Feller said “I needed to join the Navy. If you ask the people in Europe who won World War II, they don’t say the Allies, they say the United States won the war and saved the world. Now, I’m no hero — heroes don’t come home from war, survivors return from wars. I’m very lucky, you know that.”