Saturday, January 22, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Chasing Route 6 to Cleveland — a graduation gift


Graduation time is always complicated when it comes to picking out gifts for the graduating seniors. For many reasons. But not the least of which is a harsh reminder that you don’t really know what is relevant to the graduating generation. You have aged. Yup, just a little. But I have a thought…joes

The road runs hot with asphalt to the east. Coming out of Adel, right through Dallas County, and smack into the Des Moines metro area. A straight shot to the big leagues.

“Born November 3, 1918.  Van Meter, Iowa.”

The highway becomes Hickman Road, between Urbandale and Windsor Heights, goes up Douglas Avenue, abruptly changes into Euclid Avenue, and then weaves its way to Altoona. Old U.S. Route 6. The Grand Army of the Republic Highway to some. From 1936 to 1964, it was the longest highway in the United States. Then the big roads came and put an end to that two-lane pleasure.

“Signed by Cleveland at 16 years of age in 1935.”


You can still find Route 6 meandering across Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, all the way to Provincetown, Massachusetts.  But it is a crazy patch of road that is frequently gobbled up by interstates and turnpikes and who knows what else on its way to the East Coast. But the East Coast is where it goes. And the West Coast, too.

The Heater from Van Meter was pitching locally when he was spotted by the Cleveland Indians. By “locally,” I mean Van Meter and over in Adel. But no matter how tucked away he was, the scouts for the Indians found him. And by Aug. 23, 1936, he had his first start in the big leagues, his first win in the big leagues, and he struck out 15 big leaguers. He was magic. All at the age of 17. Just before he graduated from high school.

We found Route 6 on the other side of Newton, picked it up on and off in Illinois and Indiana, and rode it right into Ohio. Passing small farms and Amish buggies and towns too faded for much more than a bait shop. We then followed Route 6 into Cleveland.

“Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame 1962.”

Downtown Cleveland is deserted on this warm day in spring. The city has been primped and primed and spiffed up. But no one is there. The gorgeous monumental library sits empty. The veteran’s memorial only has a few people resting on the stone benches. The bars are all closed over on the west side. I can even hear birds singing in the middle of downtown.

Except down near the ballpark.

“Chosen greatest living right-handed pitcher during baseball’s centennial celebration 1969.”

The traffic jam starts blocks away. Cars barely move. The motorized trolley, in which we are sitting, creeps and crawls, waiting for the go-ahead from the lone cop in the middle of the intersection. But everyone is in a good mood. Laughing, shouting, happy. What’s going on? Of course. Cleveland Indians baseball.

“Winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indians history. Pitched three no-hit games. Pitched twelve one-hit games.”

The base of the sculpture in front of Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland sets out all the facts quoted above. A little harsh in their staccato effect. It doesn’t mention the long hours pitching to his dad outside of Van Meter on their homemade baseball diamond. It doesn’t mention that Nile Kinnick used to catch for him when they were both in high school and Kinnick was going to school in Adel. It doesn’t mention that his first no-hitter was on opening day in 1940 (a first and a last for an opening day). It doesn’t mention that he signed a gazillion baseballs for his many fans over the years. It doesn’t mention that at the age of 90, he was the starting pitcher at the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame Classic. And it doesn’t mention the fast ball — so fast that they had to figure out new ways to measure its speed.

“Served in W.W. II with U.S. 1941-1945.”

Oh, yeah, and there were the four missing years in the Navy. He enlisted just days after Pearl Harbor and fought in the Pacific as a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama. Then back to the Cleveland Indians he came. Bob Feller. A life well lived.

As for your graduating seniors, I have not forgotten. How about this… give them a little money with a condition. Tell them the money can only be used if they chase Route 6 to Cleveland as Bob Feller did. Don’t like that? OK, tell them to drive to New York City. Or head down to New Orleans. Or fly to Paris. Or float on the canals in Amsterdam. You want them to come home to Des Moines at the end of the day, of course. But, if not, that’s OK, too. Tell them to go see what’s out there. Follow Bob Feller for a couple of weeks or months or years.

Simple as a fast ball across the corner of the plate. Give them a couple of bucks and tell them to chase Route 6 to Cleveland. They could do worse. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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