By Bob Feller. This story first appeared in "My First Tractor" which is available at bookstores and online booksellers and from www.voyageurpress.com.
To baseball fans—and Caterpillar collectors—Bob Feller needs no introduction. Born and raised on a farm in Van Meter, Iowa, Feller stepped up to the pitching mound for the Cleveland Indians when he was a mere seventeen years old to throw what would quickly become a legendary fastball. After eighteen years with the Indians, Feller retired from baseball in 1956. Just six years later, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Feller has traveled the United States throwing baseballs, served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, and seen the bright lights of the big city. But you can’t take the Iowa farm boy out of the man, and after his retirement from playing ball, Feller began to look back with a sense of nostalgia to the tractor he drove as a youth on his family’s Iowa farm. That sentimentality inspired him to buy his first vintage Caterpillar, which led to purchasing a second one and eventually a whole fleet of old crawler iron.
When my father bought the first Caterpillar tractor in Iowa in the early 1930s to use on our family farm, everybody said he was crazy. “It won’t work,” folks told him. People in our part of the country drove Fordsons or Farmalls, Johnny Poppers or Olivers—tractors with wheels on them. Nobody used a Caterpillar with those crazy crawler treads on them. It simply wasn’t right.
Well, naturally they were all wrong. That Cat Twenty proved itself on our farm and made a convert of me and many another farmer.
Our family’s farm was located in the countryside near Van Meter in the south-central part of the state. Working our land, I put in many hours at the controls of that Cat Twenty, as well as the twelve-foot Caterpillar combine that my dad purchased to run with it. They were solid machines that served us well for many years. My fascination with Caterpillars grew from those roots and continues to grow today.
I left the family farm to earn my living throwing baseballs. When I was seventeen years old in 1936, I made my major league debut pitching for the Cleveland Indians against the St. Louis Cardinals. Over the years, I dueled from the pitching mound with some of the all-time greats, batters such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio—just me against them. Some of the veterans of those days said I threw the fastest pitches they had ever seen.
We all took time out from baseball during the World War II years; I served with the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Alabama from December 1941 to August 1945. I returned to the mound in 1945 and remained true to the Cleveland Indians until my retirement from baseball in 1956. At the end of eighteen years of throwing fastballs for the Indians, I had a record of 266 wins against 162 losses, a lifetime ERA of 3.25, and 2,581 strikeouts. In 1962, I was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But despite my achievements on the baseball fields, part of my heart still belonged to the farm fields of my youth. Nostalgia for hallmarks of our roots seems to hit us harder as we grow older. For me, as for many farmers, one of the ties to my youth was the Caterpillar Twenty that I operated as a kid in the 1930s. I decided I wanted to track down another Twenty, which I soon did. Little did I know, but my life as a Cat collector had begun.
Since finding the Twenty, my small Caterpillar collection continues to grow. It’s kind of my own personal Caterpillar “hall of fame” that includes my favorite Cat models: the Twenty, two Tens, a Forty, Twenty Two, Twenty Five, Twenty Eight, and a D4. Someday soon I hope to add to the collection.
You can look at the latest Caterpillar today and see the history in the machine. The lineage of the Holt and Best machines, the steam age, perfection of the crawler system, the early gas tractors, and Cat’s industry-leading development of diesel power are all in a modern Cat. And that’s part of what makes the Caterpillar story so great.
Another aspect of Caterpillar’s greatest is that the machines are so versatile, a fact that is shown in the roster of Cat collectors. We come from all walks of life. Some come from a farming background. Other people’s fascination with Cats started from working with them on construction sites, logging crews, road-grading jobs—anything and everything a Caterpillar can do.