#Shortstops: Courtship by wire
Bob Feller’s heroism in World War II has been well documented. But thanks to a donation to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a treasure trove of telegrams are now available to tell the story of the budding romance of Feller and his future wife during the same era.
Following the passing of Feller’s second wife, Anne, a donation of the Feller Family Papers included almost 70 telegrams, the majority of which are between Feller – the renowned righty of the Cleveland Indians – and his future wife, Virginia “Dolly” Winther, dating from 1941 and ’42.
Feller burst onto the baseball scene in 1936 before he had even finished high school. After several relief appearances, Feller made his first start on Aug. 23 and fanned 15 St. Louis Browns in a 4-1 victory.
On April 23, 1941, after Feller, the Van Meter, Iowa native, defeated the St. Louis Browns earlier in the day, he sent Winther, who was living in Waukegan, Ill., the following telegram:
“HI DOPEY ARRIVING 7 AM SURE WANT TO SEE YOU WILL BUZZ YOU UPON ARRIVAL. PLEASE PLAN TO COME EARLY AND WILL HAVE A JOB SESSION & BIG PARTY
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In Feller’s 1947 autobiography, Strikeout Story, he wrote of his initial meeting with Virginia Winther in 1940.
“At the All-Star Game in New York, I had met a girl named Mary Grove, who was a student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. She invited me to stop and see the famous school on my way to training camp, and this year I accepted the invitation. Max England, a friend from Van Meter, was with me.”
The following January, Feller met Grove’s roommate, a 22-year-old senior who had never seen a baseball game.
“I found myself looking down into a pair of blue, warm and bright eyes and upon a head of brown hair,” Feller wrote.
“I didn’t mind that she knew nothing about baseball. In fact, it was a relief. She made no effort to flatter me. She was completely herself and I felt relaxed at once.”
Before he left Rollins, Feller planned a group visit to New Orleans during Mardi Gras in February.
“I thought about Virginia often before we met again in New Orleans,” he wrote. “If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was certainly deep interest on my part.
“We were together often that summer when the Indians were in Chicago, but nobody ever wrote a line about us in the gossip columns. We enjoyed being left alone to our golf games, our movies and our dinners. We never went out to nightclubs, which probably accounted in a good part of our freedom from unwanted publicity.”
Being as the Feller telegrams are personal in nature, what was being discussed in them is often lost to time. But with the nicknames being used and the obvious affection on display, there’s little doubt absence was making the heart grow fonder.
“HI PAL,” reads a telegram from Feller to Winther on May 26, 1941. “ARRIVING DETROIT TUESDAY EVENING 930 SURE WANT YOU AND MARGE TO MEET US TOMORROW NITE FORT SHELBY HOTEL. WE COULD REALLY HAVE FUN. WIRE US AT HOTEL TUDOR ARMS TODAY IF THIS IS OKAY. KEEPING OUR FINGERS CROSSED”
The 1941 season would be another stellar one for Feller, as he would finish with 25 wins and an American League-best 260 strikeouts. Still only 22 years old, he was in his sixth big league season. Through the ’41 campaign, he had compiled a 107-54 record, a 3.18 ERA, and 1,233 strikeouts in 1,448.1 innings.
The telegrams between the pair continued after the 1941 season ended.
“HI DOLLY. JUST RETURNED FROM PHEASNT HUNT LOADS OF BIRDS BUT NO DUCKS AND GEESE LEAVING THAT UP TO OUR LATER PLANNED TRIP. SURELY APPRECIATED ONE SWELL LETTER WHICH I AM STILL READING. FLYING CLEVELAND SUNDAY NITE ARRIVING CHICAGO 830 PM WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO ENTERTAIN YOU IN THE WINDY CITY AT SAID TIME MUST BE CLEVELAND NOON MONDAY WIRE WESTERN UNION DES MOINES”
But the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy and would miss most of the next four seasons. Feller would return to the game fulltime in 1946, winning 26 games, and would remain a Cleveland fixture for the next 10 years.
“HI DOLL,” Feller’s telegram on Feb. 6, 1942 from Norfolk Training Station in Virginia began. “ENCOURAGING LETTER REAL PICK UP FOR THIS LANDLUBBER…ATTEMPTED TO CALL TONITE ALL LINES RESERVED FOR DEFENSE.”
Feller reported for basic training at the Norfolk Training Station, then as a chief petty officer he became a physical drill instructor. Later in 1942, he attended gunnery school and was assigned to the battleship Alabama, stationed in Norfolk.
“DEAR DOLL,” Feller’s telegram on March 26, 1942, from Norfolk began. “QUITE AN INTERESTING LITTLE TELEPHONE CONVERSATION – REALLY SWELL TO HEAR YOUR VOICE AGAIN – ONLY ITS TOO FAR AWAY. DON AND I ARE PLANNING SUPER EXCITING WEEKEND – GOING TO ANNAPOLIS WASHINGTON AND JAMESTOWN & OTHER POINTS OF HISTORICAL INTEREST.”
By Aug. 3, 1942, Feller’s telegram from Norfolk to Winther in Waukegan continued the familiar themes of a long distance relationship.
“DEAREST DOLL MY MORALE SLUMPED 99% UPON RECEIVING YOUR WIRE CONCERNING OUR LITTLE ESCAPADE LETTER FOLLOWING CONTAINING CONFIDENTIAL DOPE WHICH POSSIBLY MAY BOOST MORALE A FEW POINTS MISSING YOU MORE EVERY MINUTE ISNT THERE A LIMIT OR LAW AGAINST SUCH THINGS ANYWAY IM NO LAWYER RIGHT”
On Nov. 30, 1942, Winther’s mother announced the engagement of her daughter to Feller, a report that was in the next day’s newspapers across the country.
Less than a week after Feller’s father passed away – the Iowa farmer trained his son in baseball – he married Winther on Jan. 16, 1943. Feller, who was granted leave to attend his dad’s funeral, went ahead with the wedding plans before returning to his ship in Norfolk.
“I had only one regret,” Feller wrote in Strikeout Story. “My father never met the girl I married. The war and other circumstances had intervened. He died five days before our marriage.”
The elaborate wedding ceremony in front of several hundred guests was held at the First Methodist Church in Waukegan, Ill. Feller’s onetime Indians roommate, Lieut. Clarence “Soup” Campbell of the Army, served as the best man, while other guests included former teammates Rollie Hemsley, Lou Boudreau and Ken Keltner.
“Ours was a very modern courtship,” Mrs. Feller said to the press after the ceremony. “We had such a short time to be together that we kept our dates by plane. Now it looks as if we will have to do the same thing again whenever Bob gets leave.
“I was shaking a little until I saw Bob at the altar and then everything was all right. Now I just feel like Mrs. Feller and an ardent baseball fan. I never was really interested in baseball until now.”
Feller and his wife, each 24 years old, flew to New York City for a brief honeymoon before he reported back for duty aboard ship.
Feller’s mound accomplishments are legendary – including fanning 17 batters in one game at the age of 17, tossing three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters and leading the league in strikeouts seven times. After ending his 18-year big league career in 1956 with 266 victories and 2,581 strikeouts, Feller was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum