Monday, September 18, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia.

Today Australians were to receive a true taste of American royalty. The King would be presiding over Olympic softball.

Eddie Feigner was scheduled to throw out the first pitch before a women’s softball game between Canada and New Zealand. The name may not mean much to Australians, but to Americans in small towns throughout the country Eddie Feigner was one of the greatest traveling road shows of his time.

“I saw Eddie Feigner when he would come through Cumberland [Md.], and he did some things that were amazing,” said Baltimore Orioles coach Sam Perlozzo. “I saw him pitch behind his back, between his knees … One of my biggest thrills as a kid was when he would come to town. It’s something that you’ll always remember.”

Mike Flanagan remembers. The Orioles’ broadcaster and former left-hander saw Feigner when Flanagan was a teen-ager in Manchester, N.H.

“I remember his right arm seemed like it was three sizes bigger than his left,” Flanagan said. “I saw him strike out guys on his knees from second base. The things he could do with a softball were unbelievable. He was one of my heroes. He was the best pitcher I ever saw.”

Feigner began his softball show in 1946, when, after pitching a perfect game in Pendleton, Ore., his skill was still being questioned by the losing manager. Feigner declared he could beat them again with just himself and three other players on the field.

Word of the dare spread around town, and nearly 500 people showed up a week later to watch the game. Feigner pitched another perfect game, striking out 19 batters in seven innings, with only two making contact on groundball outs.

Since then, Feigner estimates he has pitched in nearly 11,000 games and struck out more than 146,000 batters, sometimes drawing more than 10,000 for an exhibition while traveling not just in America but on more than 100 foreign tours, with stops, including India, Korea and Japan.

Feigner is still on the road, traveling with the “King and His Court” show, a four-person softball team that plays exhibitions against local teams. He is 75 years old, slowed down considerably from a 1991 heart attack and arthritis, and sits in a chair most of the time with a microphone entertaining the crowd as he did one August night at Prince William County Stadium.

The Marine crew cut is still there, and so is the fun, if not the awe. The Court now includes Feigner’s bubbly fourth wife, Anne Marie, a former women’s softball star who is about 30 years younger; Eddie Aucoin, 25, a former college baseball player; and Rich Hoppe, another softball legend who toured the country once with his own softball show, “Hoppe and the Hustlers.”

They sell memories and family entertainment now, and most of the people who show up do so with their kids to tell them what they saw this man do when he was younger: strike out batters blindfolded and on his knees from second base, when he and three other players could beat any softball team in the country.

“This is still a great show because it represents wholesome family entertainment, what we all grew up with and now want to give our kids,” Hoppe said. “It brings people back to another time, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The game Feigner plays has nearly vanished, at least among men. Thirty years ago, fields were filled with men playing fast-pitch softball. No longer; slow pitch is the big game now. The fast-pitch game is being kept alive by women, so it is entirely appropriate that one of the greatest fast-pitch performers ever be associated with women’s softball at the Olympics.

“It’s an honor to be part of Olympic softball,” he said. “I hope [the women] can bring it back. Men’s fast pitch is nearly nonexistent.”

He may get his wish. The controversy over boys playing on a girls’ Little League softball team this summer may revive fast-pitch interest among boys.

If so, they will hear from elders the stories about Eddie Feigner how he used to throw a softball 114 mph; how he struck out Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson and Maury Wills in a row in a softball exhibition in 1967; how he once knocked a cigar out of Johnny Carson’s mouth on the “Tonight Show” with a pitch; how he could strike out batters from nearly 300 feet away.

And about how many good memories they have of Eddie Feigner coming to town.

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