Jack Feller

Jack Feller

This article was written by Jerry Nechal

Jack FellerArchibald “Moonlight” Graham played in only one major league game in his life, and never got a chance to bat. In the movie Field of Dreams, the fictional Moonlight Graham gets a second chance on the mythical Field of Dreams, pinch-hitting and knocking in a run with a sacrifice fly. But for Jack Feller and a short list of other real-life Moonlight Grahams, there was no second chance. Feller’s major-league experience was limited to one half-inning as a catcher for the Detroit Tigers in 1958.

Jack Feller played five seasons of minor league baseball, ending his career with a respectable batting average of .272. He was a key contributor to several championship teams. However, like the real Moonlight Graham, who was a doctor in a small community, Feller’s career after baseball overshadowed his brief stint as a professional ballplayer. Jack was a junior high school teacher and an athletic coach in Quincy, Michigan, for 26 years.

The son of a house painter and letter carrier, Jack Leland Feller was born December 10, 1936, in Adrian, Michigan, to Leland and Bertine Feller. A sister, Jody, followed five years later. Jack attended school in the village of Onsted, located in the Irish Hills section of south-central Michigan. Besides being a catcher, Feller also played high school basketball and football. He won all-conference honors in both basketball and baseball. In baseball he was selected for high-level regional sandlot and state All-Star teams.

On completing high school in 1954, Feller married his high school sweetheart, Darlene. Both the University of Michigan and Michigan State offered Jack baseball scholarships. Instead he chose professional baseball. In early 1955 Jack was signed as an amateur free agent by Detroit Tiger scout Jack Tighe, receiving a $500 bonus. “I ran right out and bought a new Chevrolet,” he said.1 After spring training, the Tigers assigned Feller to the Class D Panama City Tigers. It was a successful season for both Jack and his team. Feller appeared in 115 games and batted .329. His team finished in first place in the Alabama-Florida League and then won the postseason playoffs.

However, the 1956 season was a difficult one for Feller. Promoted two levels to Class B and the Terre Haute Tigers in the Three-I League, his batting average slipped to .246 in the first half of the season. Then, after only 66 games with a winning record of 40-26, he and his teammates faced a major crisis. Due to poor attendance, the Terre Haute team was abruptly disbanded. “None of us were very happy about that….We were scrambling for places to play. All of the rosters were full in the Tiger organization.” Feller ended up playing the remainder of the season for Hazelhurst-Baxley in the Class-D Georgia State League. There he appeared in 42 games while batting .235. “I was kind of glad that year ended.”

In 1957 Feller found himself back in Class B, this time with the Durham Bulls. He started the season at a torrid pace. In mid-May he was hitting .444, which at the time was the top batting average for all Detroit Tiger minor-league players from the state of Michigan.2 However, on May 22 Feller experienced another setback. In the sixth inning of a game he was hit by a pitch that broke his nose. After a brief stint in the local hospital, Feller returned to the team and played in a total of 95 games for the season. He was selected for the league All-Star game, which was played in Durham before the hometown fans. His hot hitting fell off, but he still finished with a decent .264 batting average. The Bulls’ 1957 roster included nine future major leaguers. They captured both the Carolina League regular and postseason championships.

In 1958 Feller continued his ascendancy toward the major leagues. He was promoted to Class-A ball with the Augusta Tigers in the South Atlantic League. Again, he was part of a talented roster with 13 players eventually reaching the big leagues. Augusta vied with the Jacksonville Braves for the pennant throughout the season. The flag was not decided until the last day when the two teams faced off against each other in Augusta. “They opened the gates and the seats went instantly. They kept letting people in and let them stand along the foul lines.” Jacksonville led, 3-2, going into the last of the ninth. Future major league All-Star Dick McAuliffe tripled in the tying run. Feller then lined to left field to drive in the winning run on a sacrifice fly. The Tigers were the champions of the South Atlantic League.

But Feller’s 1958 baseball season was not over. Much to his surprise, he was a September call-up to the major leagues. Bill Norman, who had been named Tigers manager that June, remembered Feller from their work together in spring training. According to Feller, “I had a great spring and he told me he’d ‘take care of me.’ I never thought that I was going to be recalled when the rosters expanded, but he did.”

The Tigers now had their own player named Feller and assigned him number 19, the same number as Cleveland Indians star pitcher Bob Feller. The team was in the middle of a race for the “first division,” meaning fourth place or higher in the eight-team American League. At the end of the season first division teams received monetary shares from the players’ pool, which was funded by gate receipts from the World Series. The Tigers were in a three-way race with Boston and Cleveland for third and fourth place. Among other things this meant that the September call-ups received little if any playing time.

Jack Feller’s opportunity emerged on September 13. The Tigers were leading Baltimore, 13-2, going into the top of the ninth. Future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning was cruising with a five-hitter through the first eight innings. Manager Norman inserted Feller to catch the last inning. Bunning faced four batters and gave up a single. The second batter struck out looking, giving Feller a putout. Not realizing at the time that this would turn out to be his only game, Feller years later did not recall much about the inning. His only recollection was on the experience with Jim Bunning. “You could catch him in rocking chair,” he said. The fourth spot was not decided until the final game of the season in a contest between the Tigers and Cleveland. Cleveland won, 6-2, taking fourth place, and the Tigers finished out of the money. Feller at the time was unconcerned that he had only played in one inning, “I was very young….I knew I would be going to spring training with the Tigers.”

The future looked promising for Feller going into the 1959 season. That spring his former Augusta manager, Wayne Blackburn, promoted Jack within the Detroit organization as a future star. “Feller was a workhorse….He has a good arm and is a good team man with a desire to play every day.”3 At the start of spring training he was one of three catchers on the Tigers major-league roster. Unfortunately, things quickly went downhill for Feller. Early on in camp he was injured by a foul ball off his instep.4 Near the end of the preseason he broke his hand. After healing from the injury, he landed again in A ball, this time with Knoxville. There he was a backup catcher behind future major leaguer Buck Rodgers. His connection to the top of the organization, Bill Norman, had been fired as Detroit’s manager only 17 games into the season. After appearing in only 26 games at Knoxville and batting .147, Feller asked manager Johnny Pesky to send him to a team where he could play every day. He told the manager, “At my age I cannot be a backup catcher.” The Tigers sent him on loan to Fox Cities, Wisconsin, in the Three-I League, a franchise of the Washington Senators. There he played for manager Jack McKeon. He was the regular catcher, appearing in 54 games and finishing with a .267 batting average.

After the 1959 season Feller made the decision to leave baseball and enroll in college. “I had long been toying with going to nearby Adrian College.” He had considered playing baseball and football there before turning pro. Feller would later receive offers to play in the Pacific Coast League for Jack McKeon, and from the New York Mets in their early organizational days. He could not pursue either offer due to the Detroit Tigers’ refusal to grant him his outright release.

Initially, life after baseball was not easy. By that time Jack and Darlene had two sons, Rick and David. Both he and his wife worked full time while he attended Adrian College. He even found time to coach baseball at Adrian. He eventually graduated with a BA majoring in history/political science and physical education. After graduation he went on to teach and coach in Michigan for over 30 years. The first four years were in Litchfield, and the next 26 in Quincy.

At Quincy, Feller had the opportunity over several years to coach high school baseball, basketball, football, and golf. His main coaching assignment was basketball. However, he guided teams to championship seasons in all four sports. “I had a lot of good kids down through the years,” he said. He was also able to coach both of his sons. After Feller’s retirement he was inducted into the Quincy Sports Hall of Fame alongside 10 athletes that he had coached and mentored. In addition to two sons, the Fellers have six grandchildren and, as of 2020, 16 great grandchildren.

In Field of Dreams Moonlight Graham when asked about the tragedy of coming so close to a major league career, responded, “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”5 The same holds true of Jack Feller, who made a career as a teacher and coach serving the youth of Quincy, Michigan.

Last revised: June 16, 2020

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Author interview with Jack Feller, August 8, 2019. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations attributed to Feller come from this interview.

2 “Weekly Progress Report on Players from the State,” Detroit Free Press, May 19, 1957: 2-B.

3 Wayne Blackburn, “Burke Slated for Action with Orioles,” St. Cloud Daily Times (St. Cloud, Minnesota), March 27, 1959: 11.

4 “It Hurts,” Troy Record (Troy, New York), March 3, 1959: 16.

5 http://www.moviequotedb.com/movies/field-of-dreams/character_863.html

Full Name

Jack Leland Feller

Born

December 10, 1936 at Adrian, MI (USA)

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