Saturday, 24 May 2014

No Crown For A King

Myrle Vernon King came into this world 26 March 1925 in Walla Walla, Washington and left St. Mary’s Catholic Hospital adopted the very next day. As a youngster, he was a loner. He was shunned, often called a “bastard” and beat up after school. Expelled from high school in his teens for bad behavior, Myrle joined the US Marines in 1942 at the height of World War II, but was discharged later with a nervous breakdown brought on by a concussion.

Eddie Feigner of "King and His Court" fame
(Photo taken by the writer in Regina, SK, 1975)
Back home, he went back to what he could do best--and that was pitching a softball. Since the age of nine, he had been playing on adult teams and quickly developed into a right-handed terror on the mound. However, he was banned from the local fastball league because he was too good, too loud, and too cocky. He could only stay on if he played another position, something King wanted absolutely nothing to do with.

So, Myrle King  drifted, ending up in Portland, Oregon and later Seattle, Washington picking up odd jobs here and there by begging for work. He lived in flophouses, slept in cars, and cashed in pop bottles for extra money. King later admitted to Sports Illustrated in 1972, “I was an uncouth, uneducated, arrogant, belligerent, no-good, miserable excuse for a human being.”  Then he returned to Walla Walla in 1945 and by a stroke of luck met his biological mother, who turned out to be quite well-to-do. The meeting changed his life forever.


She took King under her wing, bought him a brand new Buick and gave him money for clothes and other necessities. Then he caught on with a local fastball team in 1946. With King on the mound, they whipped a team from Pendleton, Oregon by the not-so-close score of 33-0.  After, he bragged that he could still beat the team with only a catcher. The opponents dared him to try, but allowed King to also have a first baseman and a shortstop. King whipped the Pendleton team again, this time by only 7-0, chucking a perfect game and striking out 19 of 21 batters. Following this, King and his three players took on all comers in the Pacific Northwest, travelling as far east as Idaho.

After he had met his biological mother, he took on her maiden name as his own, and his friend’s first name.  He combined Naomi Feigner and Eddie Colts. Thus began the formidable quartet known as “The King and His Court,” starring himself--Eddie Feigner, pronounced Fay-ner. The first time he was asked why he had a four-man team and not two or three players, he replied, “We need a man at bat with the bases loaded.” He also added, “If I got nine players together, the game would be a farce.” Over the next four years, Feigner’s squad played almost 250 games, very seldom losing.

By 1950, they decided to go national and sent out 3,000 letters all across the United States to anyone who might sponsor a game with them. The response was disappointing, except for a particular positive reply from a group of military officers at Al Lang Field, St Petersburg, Florida. So, Feigner and his young men headed south and played with 4,000 fans looking on at St Petersburg, enjoying the show. There, a promoter for the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto saw the act and convinced Feigner and his crew to come north. In eight days at the CNE, Feigner pitched before huge, enthusiastic crowds. It was exactly what Feigner and his Court needed--recognition. He finally made the headlines and was on a roll after that, thanks to Canada, to whom he was always grateful. After meeting his biological mother, it was his second life-changing event.

For the next fifty years, The King and His Court barnstormed--dressed in colorful red, white, and blue uniforms--and played for five-month periods each year in 200-250 games in all kinds of good and rotten weather on all kinds of playing fields, including weeded lots and cow pastures. Always on the road. They were the last of a dying breed, the Harlem Globetrotters of softball.  One of a kind. They covered all 50 states, all 10 Canadian provinces, 98 countries, before 200 million fans, and logged 4 million miles along the way. And they won 95 percent of their games. The main attraction, crew-cut Feigner had an assortment of pitches that dazzled the fans and the opposition. He was the Eighth Wonder of the World. If anyone could get a hit off him, he was a local celebrity. Feigner used 14 different deliveries, including a figure-eight windmill, 19 windups, five speeds and over 1,000 pitches. Several major league teams wanted him, but Feigner told them that he was having more fun barnstorming and seeing parts of the world that most major leaguers would never see.

He pitched a 34-inning game on one occasion, striking out 73 batters. His fastball was clocked at 104 miles per hour. No other softball pitcher has come close since. (Reportedly, the fastest pitch ever in the majors was thrown by Cincinnati Reds 23-year-old lefty Ardolis Chapman when he was clocked at 105 miles per hour in a 2011 game). When it came to slower pitches, Feigner’s curveball broke 18 inches.  Keeping detailed personal stats, Feigner figured that in the 10,000-plus total games he pitched in, he threw 1,916 shutouts,  8,270 wins,  930 no-hitters, of which 238 were perfect games. He also struck out 141,517 batters. He once fanned a batter from center field. No slouch at the plate either, he smashed 83 homers in one 250-game schedule. In the midst of his prime in the early 1960s, Feigner was making $100,000 a month. Tops for the time in the majors was Mickey Mantle, making that for a whole season!

In a nationally-televised exhibition event on 18 February 1967 held at Dodger Stadium, Feigner (42 at the time) struck out major leaguers Willie McCovey, Maury Wills, Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Roberto Clemente in order. In retrospect, Feigner admitted to having the advantage. Hardball hitters weren’t used to rising fastballs prevalent in his game. Besides, he was only 46 feet from home plate, the required distance in softball, much closer than the hardball 60 feet 6 inches. On one occasion, Feigner guested on the Johnny Carson Show where he pitched blindfolded to the nervous host, knocking a cigar from his mouth with one pitch. Feigner also appeared on ABC’s Wide World of Sport and What’s My line?

Eddie Feigner (left), in conference at the mound with son, Eddie Jr (center) and Al Jackson
(photo taken by the writer in Regina, Saskatchewan, 1975)

June 1975, I had the great pleasure of seeing The King and His Court in Regina, Saskatchewan. Feigner had just turned 50 that spring, his age well promoted ahead of time for the event. Feigner, crew-cut and all, could sure pitch, despite a sore ankle he had picked up earlier on the tour. He still took his turn at the plate, but had a pinch runner take over for him when he reached base. Several things that evening amazed me. First off, his well-muscled pitching arm was almost twice the size of his left arm. And he could pitch from second base with about the same velocity as from the mound. He could also pitch on his knees, behind his back and through his legs. The pitches had so much movement on them, dropping a good foot or more many times. And he could pitch blindfolded, striking out the side in one inning this way.

In all, according to his own stats, Feigner fanned 8,698 batters while blindfolded in his 50 years on the road. From what I can remember, The King and His Court won that day, beating a local Regina team by, I think, 4-1. Only one fair ball was hit out of the Court infield and the shortstop had to run to the fence to go chase it down. The score, I’m not really sure of. Everything else mentioned, I am. You don’t forget memories like that.

During the MLB strike in 1981, before 16,000 fans in Pontiac, Michigan’s Silverdome, Feigner and his Court beat a nine-man team that included several major leaguers. With bad knees and an aching back, he pitched right on up to 2000, finally slowed down by a serious stroke the day after throwing out the first pitch at the women’s softball competition at the Sidney Olympics. But he continued on as the Court’s emcee, even though the sport of fastball was already dying out, taken over by the slow pitch phenomenon, the sport Feigner detested. By then, he was on his fourth wife, Anne Marie, who was playing first base for the team.

Eddie Feigner died on 9 February 2007 in Huntsville, Alabama, at the age of 81, from complications due to dementia. He left behind Anne Marie, three daughters, one son (Eddie Feigner Jr who played 25 years with the team), nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  Feigner was inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year Sports Illustrated named The King and His Court the 8th greatest sports team of the 20th century. Years earlier, they also said he was the most underrated athlete of his time. In 2002, ESPN had picked Feigner as one of the 10 greatest pitchers in history, which put him on the same list as icons Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson and Bob Feller. In addition, the Washington Post called Feigner the “greatest softball pitcher who ever lived.”

What I could never understand was how he could pitch every day five months out of every year for decades upon decades and not have his arm fall off? Nowadays, major league starting pitchers can only go five or six innings every fifth day before the middle relief comes to rescue them. A friend of mine--whose father had pitched against Feigner in Windsor, Ontario in the 1960s--summed it up best just recently when he said, “Eddie Feigner was put on this earth for us to enjoy his God-given talents.”  I couldn’t have stated it any better myself.


Eddie Feigner was in a class by himself and we will never see another like him.

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