CLEVELAND — As Indians players past and present filed quietly into pews along with ordinary baseball fans to celebrate the extraordinary life of a one-of-a-kind legend and cherished civic treasure, the church's organ filled the space with a familiar tune.
"Take Me Out To The Ballgame" sounded sublime.
For Bob Feller, it was the perfect choice, the only choice.
Much more than a Hall of Fame pitcher to generations of Cleveland fans, Feller was honored Thursday during a touching 75-minute tribute at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where grounds were blanketed with fresh spring snow on the eve of the Indians' season opener.
The ceremony, which was open to the public, was at times humorous, deeply moving and so befitting Feller, who died on Dec. 15 at age 92.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Indians owner Larry Dolan were among the speakers who eulogized Feller, Cleveland's famed No. 19 who spent all 18 seasons of a career he dutifully interrupted to serve his country with the Indians and remains the club's leader in several pitching categories.
Described as "a man of the people," ''a real life hero" and "like nobody before him or since," Feller is and will forever be the greatest Indian of them all. The celebration opened with a reading from Ecclesiasticus with the opening line: "Let us now sing the praises of famous men ..."
There was no one more famous than "Rapid Robert" Feller, the fearless Iowa farmboy with the gifted right arm who broke into the major leagues as a 17-year-old fireballer and who throughout his life was never afraid to speak his mind on any subject.
Kasich recalled Feller giving him a baseball autographed by Ted Williams — "took the breath right out of me" — and making a trip to Iowa with Feller, who showed the governor the barn behind the family's farm where Feller first learned how to pitch. It was there, while playing catch with his father, that a young Feller developed the fastball once referred to as "the heater from Van Meter."
Feller then took Kasich to "Field of Dreams," the ballpark carved into Iowa's corn fields where the movie starring Kevin Costner was filmed.
"He said, 'You be the catcher,'" Kasich said. "To be at Field of Dreams with Bob Feller was a dream come true."
Addressing Feller's widow, Anne, who sat with other family members in the front row, Kasich referred to the permanent statue of Feller that sits outside Progressive Field, a bronze sculpture capturing him in mid-delivery, his left leg kicking toward the sky.
To Kasich and others, the artwork seizes Feller's essence.
"Bob never got old," Kasich said. "He may have aged, but he never got old. He's frozen in time, that young, handsome, athletic, strong man that's enshrined as long as Cleveland shall exist."
Indians manager Manny Acta was joined at the service by team president Mark Shapiro, general manager Chris Antonetti and current Cleveland players Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Chris Perez and Justin Masterson. Former Indians manager Mike Hargrove, All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and Andre Thornton sat among fans, some of them wearing Cleveland jerseys and jackets, who saluted the iconic Feller.
The altar was adorned with a photo of Feller and an American flag from the USS Alabama, the battleship Feller served on as a chief petty officer and decorated gun captain during World War II. Feller enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The national anthem was sung during the service and a solo trumpeter played taps from the balcony after Anne Feller was presented with the flag.
Feller remained physically active in his later years. Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson remembered calling Feller two years ago and inviting the then-90-year-old to take part in a game in Cooperstown. Feller accepted — with one request.
"Bob said, 'I'll be there, and I'd like to start,'" Idelson said. "He was a real life hero on so many levels to so many people, not just in baseball but in so many other walks of life as well. There will never be another like Bob Feller."Comment on this story
The Indians plan to celebrate Feller's life throughout the upcoming season.
Before Friday's home opener against the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland's players will each wear Feller's No. 19 jersey during introductions and Anne Feller will present a "silent" ceremonial first pitch. The team is also wearing uniform patches on their sleeves with Feller's retired number and a silhouette of his high-kick delivery.
"What a man," Acta said following the ceremony. "It's too bad that the majority of the young people in our country don't know what Bob Feller actually meant to America and to baseball. Bob Feller gave his life, his soul to the Cleveland Indians, major league baseball and to America.
"It's because of people like him that we're going to have opening day tomorrow."