Eddie Feigner, who for 60 years barnstormed the globe with his four-man softball team, hurling 100-mile-an-hour pitches that struck out Willie Mays and 141,516 other batters, died on Friday in Huntsville, Ala. He was 81.Why had I never heard of this guy before?
Last summer, Feigner (pronounced FAY-ner) sometimes rose from his wheelchair to throw a pitch or two, despite dementia and a succession of strokes and heart attacks. He died of respiratory complications, said Del Reddy, a friend.
Feigner and his team, known as the King and His Court, traveled around the world with a flamboyance that recalled the barnstorming teams assembled by Babe Ruth and that perhaps most resembled basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. He was the clown prince of softball.
He pitched behind his back, from second base, between his legs, when kneeling and, of course, while blindfolded. A story is told of the time he stood in right field at Yankee Stadium and fired an underhand fastball over home plate. Feigner swore the tale was true, except that it was a curveball that crossed second base on its way to the plate.
He and a changing supporting cast that included only a catcher, first baseman and shortstop eventually logged more than 4 million miles, covering 50 states and more than 100 countries to play in front of 200 million people.
They played racetracks, stockyards, rodeo grounds, cemeteries, pastures, an oil rig off Norway’s coast and the Houston Astrodome. On “The Tonight Show,” a blindfolded Feigner knocked a cigar from Johnny Carson’s mouth.
In 1972, Sports Illustrated called Feigner, who pitched 238 perfect games, the most underrated athlete of his time. He said: “I’m a pipsqueak because I’m caught in a nothing game. It’s like being a world-champion nose-blower.”
In 2000, the same magazine ranked the King and His Court as the United States’ eighth-greatest team of the 20th century. In 2002, ESPN.com listed Feigner as one of the 10 greatest pitchers in a list that included Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.
In the 1940s, when countless small towns had softball leagues, the King and His Court was one among many barnstormers. By the 1960s, Feigner was top dog and made $100,000 a month at a time when baseball stars headed for the Hall of Fame made $100,000 a year.
And maybe he deserved it. In 1967, he faced, in order, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew and Roberto Clemente. He struck out all six.
“It was a mismatch,” Feigner said in an interview with a publication of the Loma Linda University Adventist Health Science Center. “A baseball batter has no concept how to hit a fastball that rises like mine, or sliders and curves that break 18 inches.”
A former marine with a crew cut and a right arm noticeably more muscular than his left, Feigner threw hard. His fastest pitch was clocked at 104 miles an hour.
Feigner was born in Walla Walla, Wash., on March 26, 1925. He was abandoned as an infant and was named Myrle King by his adoptive parents. He was expelled from high school for troublemaking.
When joining the Marines during World War II, he had to find details of his birth. He discovered that his birth mother lived nearby and that as a teenager he had mowed her lawn. He took her last name and the name Eddie from a friend.
His gimmick of fielding four players against nine began with his response to losers’ taunts. He first said he could beat teams with only himself and a catcher, then realized that would leave the two vulnerable to being walked and stranded on base.
After decades of popularity, fast-pitch men’s softball lost ground to slow pitch (“a sissy game,” Feigner said) and to women’s fast pitch. Barnstorming softball faded into the Americana of wooden roller coasters and hula hoops.
Anne Marie, Feigner’s fourth wife, became the first woman on the team. She survives him, as do his son Eddie Jr.; his daughters Shirley, Carol and Debbie; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Feigner, who at the end made a tiny fraction of the fabulous salaries of baseball players, never slowed down. “Too dumb to quit,” he growled.
His team, clad in red, white and blue uniforms modeled after those of the Globetrotters, played in ever-smaller parks. He still signed free autograph after free autograph, as his players hustled programs.
“I hope they think of me as an honest, sincere performer who always put on a good show,” he said.
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