John McGrath

John McGrath: Believe it or not, there was a strikeout King before Felix

The great softball pitcher Eddie Feigner kept track of the strikeouts he amassed during a 54-year barnstorming career as namesake of The King and His Court. One number Feigner came up was 8,698.

No question that 8,698 strikeouts, as former Mariners broadcaster Ron Fairly might put it, is a lot of strikeouts — almost 3,000 more than Nolan Ryan’s major-league record of 5,714. But what made the total especially impressive was that Feigner (pronounced “FAY-ner”) achieved them while wearing a blindfold.

He struck out 132,812 other batters more conventionally, if “conventional” can be applied to pitches delivered behind the back, or between the legs, or from a kneeling position, or from second base.

So gifted an underhand thrower was Feigner that it’s difficult to separate the legend from the myth. He was said to have delivered one pitch clocked at 114 mph, which is nonsense. The notion that a typical Feigner pitch arrived at 100 mph is almost certainly untrue, as well.

But there’s no doubt about Feigner’s 1967 exhibition-game performance at Dodger Stadium, where he struck out Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew.

Consecutively.

There’s no doubt that in 1981, when Major League Baseball was shut down by a labor stalemate, the King and His Court challenged a nine-man team, largely comprised of big-leaguers, before a crowd of 16,000 in Pontiac, Michigan.

Feigner overpowered them. He was 56 years old.

And there’s no doubt about the time he appeared on “The Tonight Show” and threw a pitch — blindfolded, of course — that dislodged a cigar from host Johnny Carson’s mouth.

Feigner, who died seven years ago at 81, will be posthumously honored Sunday at Safeco Field as part of the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame class of 2014. Eddie Feigner Jr. is expected to represent his late father, whose fellow inductees will include Alvin “Mr. Mariner” Davis, 11-time Gold Cup hydroplane driver Chip Hanauer, and former University of Washington and Seattle SuperSonics/NBA standout Detlef Schrempf.

(Three other new Hall members — ex-Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson, 1983 Indy 500 champion Tom Sneva and broadcaster Keith Jackson — will be recognized before the WSU-Rutgers game at CenturyLink Field on Aug. 28).

“Eddie probably should have been voted in a long time ago,” Marc Blau, executive director of the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, said Tuesday. “I remember seeing him put on a show before 300 or 400 people at the Sprinker Rec Center. He was absolutely a blast — personable, friendly, positive and uplifting — and what an incredible arm. Eddie was a great ambassador for sports.”

Feigner’s ambassadorship took him and his three teammates (the cast varied over the 65 years they toured) to all 50 states and some 100 countries. It’s been estimated the King and his Court traveled four-million miles and were seen by 20 million people. Millions of others saw the act as a frequent feature on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Feigner was born in Walla Walla. Abandoned as an infant, he learned of his identity while preparing to join the Marines. He changed his last name to that of his birth mother, and his first name “Eddie” from a friend.

The idea of a quartet taking on nine-player teams was rooted in an Oregon bar encounter after Feigner’s Walla Walla team had beaten its opponent, 33-0, in a fastpitch tournament.

“Some remark was made about my ancestors,” Feigner recalled in 1996. “I told the guy who made the remark, ‘I’ll play your team with just me and a catcher, but you’d probably walk us both.’ ”

Two on and nobody to bat would have been an automatic out, so Feigner deduced four to be the magic number: Even if the bases are loaded, somebody is available to step to the plate.

Feigner was an entertainer but not a clown. His craft was the product of an unhappy childhood — he got kicked out of high school for disruptive behavior — and he perfected that craft with the drive of an artist.

“I was an orphan,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1992. “I know the hurt and rejection that comes when you don’t know who your folks were. I spent a lot of time by myself. I threw a ball against a wall to play pitch, and went down to the creek and skipped thousands of stones. All that gave me a strong arm.”

Strong? Sports Illustrated described Feigner as “the most underrated athlete of his time,” which is saying something, because Feigner’s career spanned from 1946 to 2000. A 2002 ESPN.com list named Feigner among the 10 top pitchers in history.

During his prime, which coincided with the popularity peak of fastpitch softball, Feigner earned $100,000 a month, or about 12 times more than what a 1960s era superstar earned in a year.

Long after fastpitch lost its luster, Feigner and his trio of teammates continued to perform in minor league ballparks, rodeo arenas, prison yards and county-fair stadiums, softball’s lower-key version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I’m a pipsqueak because I’m caught in a nothing game,” he once said. “It’s like being a world-champion nose blower.”

Wrong. It was like being a world-champion underhanded softball pitcher. Feigner won 9,743 times and threw 930 no-hitters, of which 238 were perfect games.

His most famous strikeout might have been in Yankee Stadium, where he put on a blindfold and threw a ball launched from the right-field corner — an incredible feat requiring no embellishment — but Feigner couldn’t resist. He insisted the pitch was a curve that changed direction over second base.

Again, the legend encroaches into the stuff of myth, and does it matter that there’s no absolute dividing line between what was real and what is a tall tale?

Eddie Feigner, the lonely, troubled kid who skipped thousands of stones over a creek, grew up to strike out the likes of Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Brooks Robinson, back-to-back-to-back.

He’s an overdue addition to the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame, and an intriguing candidate for another Hall of Fame — the one where bronze plaques of Mays, Clemente and Robinson adorn the walls.

  Comments