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Friday, August 5, 2011
Updated: August 7, 3:53 AM ET
Joan Joyce: the best Ted Williams ever faced

By Dave Scheiber

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Joan Joyce still remembers the night in vivid detail. The twilight sky above Municipal Stadium in Waterbury, Conn., was clear, the summer air thick with humidity and growing excitement on that August evening in 1961.

Some 17,000 spectators from in and around the working-class, metal-manufacturing city packed the old minor league ballpark. The 1930s-era park seated only half that number, so the crowd spilled onto the field, 10 rows deep, for a glimpse of history in the making.

It was a showdown, pitting the man long known as baseball's best hitter, Ted Williams, against a woman regarded as the best pitcher in softball, a fiery 20-year-old sporting the uniform of the national champion Raybestos Brakettes.

Joan Joyce
Joan Joyce, now 70, won 753 games as a pitcher and has 714 victories as softball coach at Florida Atlantic University.

Fifty years to the month later, Joyce sat behind the desk of her office at Florida Atlantic University, her eyes still the same piercing blue that Williams saw from the batter's box.

She recounted an event that to this day transcends the jaw-dropping statistics she amassed in a career as perhaps the greatest female softball player ever: a 753-42 win-loss record, 150 no-hitters and 50 perfect games, a record 42 wins in a season (including 38 shutouts), a lifetime earned run average of 0.09, and a batting average of .324.

The night she struck out the Splendid Splinter with her signature slingshot delivery was one of the many ways she propelled the national profile of women's softball for generations to come.

"I remember the crowd going crazy -- but after all, it was in my hometown," she said with a smile. "In my opinion, that's what made me famous more than anything."

The moment forever shaped her legendary athletic résumé, a résumé that includes 19 years on the LPGA tour, a sensational run in basketball as a member of the U.S. national team (including setting a single-game scoring record in 1964 with 67 points), a volleyball stint as a player and coach for the Connecticut Clippers and enshrinement in both the Amateur Softball Association of America National Softball Hall of Fame and the International Softball Federation Hall of Fame.

"Joan Joyce is the greatest player who ever played the game," said Johnny Stratton, her longtime coach with the Brakettes. Stratton's wife, Micki, caught for Joyce the night she stymied Williams. "She dominated the sport for 24 years. And her name is the biggest name in softball ever. But she was tops at everything -- volleyball, basketball, bowling, shooting pool, pingpong, cards -- it didn't make any difference. She'd always beat you."

"I remember Joan coaching us in the national volleyball tournament, and she'd also have her softball glove with her," said Debbie Chin, one of Joyce's former volleyball stars and now athletic director at the University of New Haven. "And somebody would have to catch for her to get her ready for softball season. She was an absolutely phenomenal athlete -- a Babe Didrikson Zaharias."

There is also Joyce's legacy as a championship softball coach at FAU. Joyce built the program from scratch in 1995, and has never had a losing season in 18 years. "Knock on wood," she said, rapping her knuckles on a desk covered with scouting reports and files for softball and the successful golf program she's coached since 1996.

Almost every inch of the office walls is covered with plaques and trophies reflecting the Owls' accomplishments under her guidance, highlighted by 10 conference championships, six Coach of the Year awards and 714 victories -- a nice bookend to all those pitching wins.

These days, you're lucky to catch Joyce in the modern, sand-colored structure housing FAU's sports offices and overlooking a state-of-the-art softball stadium ringed by palm trees. At 70, she shows no signs of slowing down, frequently traveling the state to recruit potential players now involved in summer leagues. But there's one constant with high school girls she speaks to about FAU. They have no idea of her claim to fame from that night a half century ago.

The tale of how Williams agreed to take part in that charity exhibition contest is etched in Waterbury sporting lore.

But to appreciate the details of what happened next, you need to know the story of a little girl and the competitive flame that burned inside her.

An athlete from the first

Her parents, Joe and Jean, worked at factories in town and had overlapping shifts -- with her dad often at home with the kids during the day. A talented softball and basketball player, Joe liked to take Joan and younger brother Joe Jr. outside to play ball.

"He'd always take us to the fields, from when we were in push carriages," she said. "And as we got older, we were playing softball and basketball all the time."

Their dad also brought them to many of his own games. They were always the first to run on the court after a basketball contest to scoop up the ball and shoot it around, or the first to run onto the softball diamond to play catch after the final out.

Joyce quickly displayed natural athletic ability. She excelled in local recreation leagues from age 10-12, dabbling with pitching, even though she had no grasp of the technique and didn't throw fast.

But as luck had it, one of the pitchers from her father's team was a mailman named Tony Marinara. During the summer, Joyce would race up the hill to meet him and help deliver the mail on his route, just so he'd have 10-15 minutes to throw the ball around with her when he reached her house.

"I'd pitch, but mostly we just threw the ball," she recalled. "And I remember him one time saying to me, 'When you get a little older, you should probably try out for the Brakettes.'"

That was the women's softball team, 35-40 miles away in Stratford. Joyce didn't think much about the suggestion at the time, because her thoughts had shifted to baseball and her brother's Little League team. She began by tagging along to his practices, but decided to try out -- and made the squad as a catcher.

"The first game that we played, I hit a triple and a single and did very well -- and they decided that girls couldn't play on the team after that," she said.

The ruling stung, but did nothing to douse the fire inside. If anything, it made her more determined. A year later, Joyce, 13, was a high school freshman and soon excelled on an intramural girls' basketball team. One of the older standouts on the squad, a girl named Bev, asked if she played softball, too. After a game of catch, Bev saw that Joyce had talent and said, "You need to come down and try out for the Brakettes."

That made two people who'd mentioned the Brakettes. This time, Joyce listened, because Bev was a member of the team herself.

Raybestos was a big brake liner company that sponsored men's and women's softball teams. Both were the best in Connecticut and perennially among the top teams in the country. Joyce tried out as a second baseman and outfielder -- and made it. That was the easy part. The challenge was convincing her mother to let her play, and she succeeded only when Bev's family agreed to drive her to and from practices and games.

She started playing at age 14 and never looked back. Though she didn't pitch that first season, Joyce gradually got her chances.

"I wasn't very good," she said. "I used the traditional windmill delivery, and I could throw it fast, but I was wild. And I didn't like it."

But she stuck with it, throwing batting practice and getting sent in for mop-up duty in blowout wins. By the time she was 16, she was a starter for the powerhouse team, going 11-1. But the turning point came a year later in 1958, when she was on the Raybestos field one day, preparing for the new season.

"They were getting ready for a Little League opener that afternoon on the field, and dressing it up with bunting all around the park," she said. "And there was this fellow up on a pole, doing his work hanging the buntings. And I was pitching down below. He hollered down to me, 'Have you ever tried to throw slingshot?' I didn't even know what that was. He came down off the ladder and showed me how to do it."

The man was Cannonball Baker, a standout softball pitcher and future member of the Connecticut Hall of Fame, and he knew a few things about pitching motions. Unlike the over-the-top windmill style, the slingshot delivery started with Joyce's right hand outstretched high behind her, then whipping the ball with a hard flick as it crossed her hip. Baker gave her a 15-minute lesson, and told her he thought she'd get better velocity with the slingshot.

"I wouldn't say I was an accomplished pitcher with the windmill motion," she said. "So I thought, 'What the heck? I might as well try this.' And I did. I stayed with that motion -- and it was the whole difference in my career."

Later in that '58 season, Joyce pitched in her first national tournament with the Brakettes, and threw a no-hitter. Her prowess with the slingshot soon made her the dominant pitcher on the scene. And ultimately, that's what led her to cross paths with a baseball icon in the summer of '61.

When Ted Williams came to town

Every year the Waterbury police department set out to raise money for "The Jimmy Fund," a charity to help kids suffering from cancer.

They held out buckets on Main Street and staged fund-raising games that featured baseball galore, highlighted by Raybestos' various teams playing on different nights at Municipal Stadium.

One of the police officers had an idea for a way to increase attendance: Invite the great Ted Williams to make an appearance at an exhibition game. Williams had retired the year before, famously bowing out at the end of the 1960 season with a home run in his last at-bat, No. 521 in his career. But he ran a baseball camp in Massachusetts and perhaps would be open to the idea of participating for a good cause.Williams agreed to a meeting with the committee.

"So they called me and asked if I'd go with them, and I said yes," Joyce said. "They had me bring my uniform, glove and spikes, and Ted set up a time in the morning for me to pitch to a bunch of the counselors, and also him. At the time, I was having a little problem with my arm -- we were getting close to going to the national tournament and it was a concern. I'd get this shooting pain."

But Joyce went with the group anyway, and she pitched, while trying to not overdo it because of her arm injury.

"Some of them hit the ball, some didn't -- and then Ted came up, and he hit the ball, too," she said. "I don't know if I was just being too careful or what. But afterward, we were walking up a hill to have lunch with him and discuss having him come to Waterbury. He's walking in front of me and halfway up there, he stops and turns around to me and goes, 'How'd you throw that curveball?'"

Joyce took the ball from her glove and demonstrated how she gripped and spun it.

"He looks at me and says, 'Girls shouldn't know that.' I looked at him and I said, 'This girl does know that.'"

Maybe Williams liked the way she had stood her ground. Minutes later over lunch, he agreed to take part in the fund-raiser, and to bat against Joyce as part of it.

The August date was set, and Williams arrived for a big luncheon to kick off the festivities. Joyce's coach sat next to the star and made small talk. Among the things Williams told him was that he didn't like high, tight inside pitches.

"So my coach comes to me and tells me this," Joyce said. "I looked at him and said, 'Ted is just trying to set me up, because he knows you'll come back and tell me.' So I said, 'He's not gonna get a high, inside pitch. He's got the best eyes in baseball. If he's going to hit me, he's going to have to hit my drop ball, which is down and away.'"

That night, a parade preceded the much-publicized exhibition. Dom DiMaggio, Joe's younger brother and a seven-time All-Star for the Red Sox, and a former American League pitcher named Spec Shea showed up to take part. Williams took Joyce aside and asked her to take it easy on DiMaggio, because he couldn't see out of his left eye.

"He said 'Just warm up and let him hit, and then you can throw hard to me,' so I accommodated him and Dom hit the ball pretty well," she said.

Then it was time for Teddy Ballgame to step to the plate: one intense competitor squaring off against another. But this time, Joyce wasn't holding back the way she had due to her sore arm. And she wasn't taking it easy as she had against DiMaggio.

The balls came whipping in at a speed Williams wasn't prepared for. Joyce says her pitches, from some 40 feet away, were in the 70-mph range -- and a test later conducted at the University of Southern California calculated her pitch speed at the baseball equivalent of 119 mph. Essentially, Williams would have to start his swing at the moment she released the ball to have a prayer of hitting it.

"I had him up there for 10 to 15 minutes, and he fouled off three pitches," she said. "And finally, he threw the bat down and said, 'I can't hit this.' I gave him some rise balls, but they were out of the zone and I knew he wouldn't swing at those 'cause his eyes were so good. Then, I went to my drop ball."

He swung -- and missed -- repeatedly.

"You know, I had really mixed emotions about it," she said. "I thought, 'Maybe I should have let him hit a couple -- just for the show.' But I was too competitive. I've always said that if my mother put a bat in her hands and came up to hit, I'd have to strike her out, too."

Joyce and Williams would meet on the diamond one more time, on the night of Aug. 5, 1966, several weeks after he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It was another event for "The Jimmy Fund" in Waterbury, and it almost didn't happen due to a knee injury Joyce had suffered.

Williams said he'd only show up if she did, so organizers pleaded with her, and she relented. Unfortunately for Williams, he fared no better the second time around -- taking one pitch for a ball, then swinging at air on three risers. But to show there were no hard feelings, he gave Joyce a hug at the mound, waved to the large crowd and left -- still hitless.

Years later, Joyce met a man who fished with Williams in the Florida Keys. The man said he had once asked Williams to name the toughest pitcher he ever faced. "And he said, you won't believe this, but it was a girl."

Joyce laughs at the story. She takes it as high praise from a man whose lasting respect she had earned with her burning desire to be the best.

Williams had his collection of amazing numbers, including being the last man in baseball to surpass .400 in a season. Joyce had her own: an eight-time MVP of the national tournament, most innings pitched in a game (29), 15-time All-America selection and the 1971 national batting champion at .467.

Williams went on to earn new acclaim in another pursuit, fishing; Joyce did the same with golf. She picked up the game at age 35 in 1975, earned her tour card in 1977 and played on the LPGA tour until 1995, when she came to FAU. Among her achievements: a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for lowest number of putts in a single round for either women or men  17, and her ability to drive the ball like few other women at the time could do, launching shots in excess of 275 yards.

Joyce feels a sense of pride in helping usher in the power era of women's golf, causing tournament officials to start marking golf courses differently. Former LPGA star Jane Blaylock concurs, but takes it a step further.

"Her power game was amazing and caught attention -- though JoAnne Carner had been a long ball hitter and there had been a couple of others, going back to the Babe (Didrikson Zaharias)," Blaylock says. "But the most impressive things is that she took up the game so late in life and had not grown up as a golfer, so to speak. She had a great combination of power and finesse.

"And what's astonishing is the fact that she holds the record on the LPGA and PGA for fewest putts in a round. She was the athlete of the century I think in many people's opinion -- a lot of athletes try to take up the game of golf and do okay but certainly were not as successful as Joan was. Look at Michael Jordan. Look at Tony Romo. The success she had on the fairway was pretty remarkable."

None of that generated as much attention as striking out Williams. Yet her greatest contribution to women's softball came through her prowess with the Brakettes. She led them with her unblemished 42-win season of 1974 to the first world championship by an American team by throwing a no-hitter and 1-hitter against an offensive powerhouse from Australia, then facing Japan in the championship game.

Japan's players tried to distract her by wearing helmets at the plate in an era when they weren't worn in the women's game. The tactic backfired.

"You want to distract me? I don't think so," she said. Joyce allowed one bunt single, and led her team to victory.

It was a precursor to the dominance that the U.S. women's softball program has exhibited on the world stage for decades. A year before the first gold-medal effort in the 1996 Olympics, Joyce took her young first-year team from FAU to watch the U.S. squad practice in Orlando. Her excited players asked if they could get autographs afterward, and Joyce assured them they could.

But when practice ended, members of the U.S. squad saw Joyce, and immediately surrounded her, asking for her autograph and an impromptu demonstration of the slingshot delivery that, for some reason, never caught on after Joyce retired.

The slingshot that felled a Goliath 50 years ago.