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Iowa baseball museum struggles when namesake dies

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 26, 2014 at 12:51 pm •  Published: April 25, 2014
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VAN METER, Iowa (AP) — Nothing brings former Cleveland Indians star Bob Feller's hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, together quite like Randi Van Rees and her succulent pork tenderloin sandwiches.

As the owner of "Fat Randi's" Bar and Grill — the "Fat" being her ex-husband, she jokes — the infectiously convivial Van Rees turned a dive bar into a destination spot for a town just south of I-80 but miles from anything else.

Fat Randi's doesn't much need a business plan. With a couple pickles, some mustard and maybe even an onion slice, those award-winning tenderloins sell themselves.

But when it comes to ideas on how the city's 1,100 residents can help save the financially troubled Bob Feller Museum, even Van Rees is stumped.

The museum shuttered its doors this winter because an outdated business model led to major financial issues. Foot traffic had dwindled to just a couple of people a day.

"I don't know what the town folk can do to get it back around. It's sad to see it go — and you don't want it to. But what else can you do?" said Van Rees while greeting customers during a packed lunchtime rush. "We thought about fundraisers. There's a bunch of different things we thought about doing. How do you keep it going?"

It's a dilemma that has troubled the town, the museum's board of directors and the Cleveland Indians for months.

Just three years after the death of the "Heater from Van Meter," the museum built in 1995 to honor the former Indians star finds itself gasping for life.

Although officials are working toward a solution they believe will best appease the city, the board and the Indians, the museum will likely never be the same.

The museum re-opened earlier this month with a scaled-down Friday to Sunday schedule. But the president of the museum's board of directors, Brandon Sawalich, isn't certain it can make it through the end of September without a more permanent solution.

"We want a sustainable future where we're not running around figuring out how to keep the doors open every six months," Sawalich said.

The irony is that Feller predicted the museum would expire three years after he did unless major changes were made.

The real issue is that Feller, who won 266 games for Cleveland from 1936-56 and was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, isn't around to help keep the lights on.

The museum stayed solvent for well over a decade by having Feller convince fellow Hall of Famers like Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra to visit Van Meter for fundraising autograph sessions. But the signings have dried up since Feller died in December of 2010. So have the memberships, dropping from a high of nearly 450 to less than 100. The $5 adult, $3 children and senior citizen admission fees don't generate much cash with so little foot traffic.

"The friendships are gone, the connections," Sawalich said. "The business model is out of date for where the museum needs to be after Feller's passing," Sawalich said.

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