Bill’s and Bob’s Field of Dreams
Iowa is well known in some circles as the home of “Field of Dreams” because the hit movie of that name was filmed on a picturesque farm near Dyersville. The 1989 film starred Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who saw ghost players come out of a cornfield to play on a baseball diamond he carved out of a pasture.
But in reality, there are two fields of dream in our great state. The first one was developed in the mid 1930s near Van Meter, on a farm owned by Bill Feller.
Through the years, I’ve been to both fields of dreams several times. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the star player of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox team that the Costner film focused on, and I created a Shoeless Joe Jackson poster in 1992 that has sold very well at the gift shop at the Dyersville movie site.
On May 26, I once again visited the “original” field of dreams, the one near Van Meter. I drove there with Scott Havick, the energetic and passionate director of the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.
Located just two miles south of Interstate 80 and about eight miles west of Des Moines, Van Meter is a town of some 2,000 citizens. To get to the old Feller farm site from the Interstate, you drive one mile down Veterans Memorial Avenue toward town, then turn east at 340th TRL, just ahead of the North Raccoon River.
Travel about two miles due east and you will see a beautiful brick home on the south side of the road. It is the house that Bob built for his parents after he became a big pitching star with the Cleveland Indians in 1940.
Today, the farmstead and house is owned by Dr. Jose and Jeanie Angel. They have lived there for 16 years and are raising their seven children on the peaceful, scenic site.
Not far from the house is a barn painted bright red. The young Bob Feller developed his tremendous fastball in the little patch of grass on the west side of the barn, throwing harder and harder and harder with each passing year – to the point where he might have been, in his prime, the fastest pitcher in major league history!
Feller’s grandfather came to Iowa from Germany and purchased land north of Van Meter in 1847. His son, Bill, was born in 1886 and took over the farm when he was an adult. Eventually, the farm grew to 350 acres and Bill Feller raised corn, wheat, hogs and cattle. He also dreamed about sports, and baseball in particular.
In his leisure time, Bill played semi-pro baseball, and he passed on his love of the game to his only son, Bob, who was born on November 3, 1918. As a youth, Bob worked plenty hard on the farm, but still found time to throw the baseball, mostly to his dad. After school and the farm work was done, Bill would put on his catcher’s mitt and let his son fire away, hour after hour.
By the time he was twelve, Bob Feller was playing American Legion baseball for a team located in Adel, about fifteen miles north of Van Meter. Another youngster on that team was Nile Kinnick.
Who could have guessed back then that in 1939 Bob Feller would become the youngest player in major league baseball history to win 20 games in one season (he actually won 24 that year) and Kinnick would claim the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player!
In 1932, when Bob was fourteen, he and his father built a ballpark on a slight hill about one-fourth mile east of the farmhouse. They graded the infield, erected a small set of bleachers and even constructed a small concession stand. Bill Feller called it Oak View Park and rounded up local players for his Oakview team.
There were plenty of other town teams around the area and Bill invited them to come play his Oakview team on the Feller farm.
“That was really the first field of dreams,” Bob Feller told me when I first met him in 1999. He has said the same thing to thousands of others through the years.
“He means it too,” said Havick. “Bob is very proud of his growing up years on the farm, and what his father did to assist him in his career. It was a very close knit family.”
Bob’s mother, Lena, was raised on a farm just down the road from the Feller homestead. She taught in a small country school for a time, and then became a nurse. After marrying Bill and having two children (Bob has a sister, Marguerite, ten years younger), she became a wife and mother full time. And, one suspects, a devoted baseball scorekeeper and cheerleader.
When you read the terrific story in this issue written by Buck Turnbull, you will begin to understand what a great athlete Bob Feller was. To have played in the major leagues prior to graduating from high school is hard to imagine in this day and age, but Bob Feller did just that, and did it with style and class.
In 1940, he wanted to thank his parents for all they had done for him as a youth. He hired John Normyle, an architect with Better Homes and Garden magazine, to design a new house. Bob reportedly told his parents, “Build the best house you can and I will pay the bills.” The house has copper piping and walnut woodwork throughout and has stood the test of time in tremendous style.
“Bob likes to say that his dad never gave him the keys to the car – he gave him something far more important – he gave Bob his time,” said Havick
Standing on the gently sloping hill on May 26, on a beautiful sunny day, I stared out over the land where Bill and Bob Feller carved a ballpark out of the Iowa countryside. I could imagine the little set of bleachers and concession stands, and cars pulling up to watch a game between the Oakview team and a group from some other Iowa community.
I could almost hear the chatter of the players, the smack of a wooden bat on a ball, and the applause of grateful fans echoing over the farmland, now vacant and still. And I thought of a statement that Bob has made many times:
“What kid wouldn’t enjoy the way I grew up? I loved farming and I loved baseball – I had the best of both worlds.”
There truly is a field of dreams just north of Van Meter, Iowa. It’s a place where Bill Feller nurtured a dream of seeing his son play in the major leagues, and offered the most precious thing he had to give – his time – to help make that dream come true for Bob Feller.
Today, Bob Feller lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the oldest living member of one of sport’s most elite fraternities – the Baseball Hall of Fame located in Cooperstown, New York. But he hasn’t forgotten his field of dreams tucked away in a small corner of a farm in central Iowa.
“He comes back four times a year for events at the museum,” said Havick, rather wistfully. “And he always drives up to the farm, past the old ball field he built with his dad some 70 years ago. There are very good memories there for Bob.”
To insure its spot in history, the Robert William Andrew Feller Farmstead is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
I strongly recommend that any Iowans – whether sports fans or not – take a trip with their family some beautiful summer day and drive past the “real” field of dreams out by Van Meter. It will be an experience that warms your heart, just as it did mine.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)