Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Jennie Finch, Eddie Feigner, and Softball vs. Baseball

By Brad Oremland

It's often said that the best hitters in baseball still make an out 60% of the time. But batters have an even tougher job in baseball's cousin, softball. Pitchers dominate softball, to the extent that the best of them are nearly unhittable.

Sports Illustrated recently ran an excerpt from David Epstein's new book The Sports Gene. The piece is fascinating, and if you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to do so. As a striking example of a larger point, Epstein writes about the success of softball pitcher Jennie Finch against major league hitters like Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds.

At the University of Arizona, Finch won an NCAA-record 60 straight games, including a 32-0 record and 0.54 ERA as a junior. Her stats from the U.S. National Team are even better, with 397 strikeouts against 36 walks (11:1 K-to-BB) and a 0.42 ERA. Throughout her career, Finch was close to unhittable, whether facing the best softball players in the world or the best major league hitters. No one could touch her.

But Finch is not the best softball pitcher ever. Eddie Feigner is.

Feigner was a showman, so it's tough to evaluate him objectively. Can you overlook the glitz and gimmicks to judge him as a legitimate sportsman? On the other hand, can you avoid being swayed by remarkable (and seemingly ridiculous) feats to keep his accomplishments in context? The Harlem Globetrotters do amazing things, but the show doesn't make them better than the guys in the NBA who play it straight. Feigner's performances had more than a little bit of Globetrotting to them.

Born in 1925, Feigner was a successful softball pitcher by age 16. He came into his own in 1946, when Feigner took the field as "The King and His Court" — Feigner (The King) backed by only a catcher, a shortstop, and a first baseman. Epstein wrote that when Jennie Finch took the mound against Mike Piazza, Aaron Boone took off his glove and lay down, while Hank Blalock left the field for a drink of water. That was The King and His Court, and Feigner played that way for over 50 years, retiring only after a stroke at age 75.

In addition to the sparse defense, Feigner would often pitch from unusual positions: behind his back, between his legs, on his knees. Sometimes he simply abandoned the pitching mound, backing up to second base or even center field. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" and pitched blindfolded to Johnny Carson. Perhaps it's hard to take such a man seriously, but ESPN's Gare Joyce wrote that Feigner was more than a gimmick: "For all the entertainment, he amazed more than he amused." Sports Illustrated called Feigner the most underrated athlete of his time. The King retired with over 8,000 victories, 900 no-hitters, and 200 perfect games.

As you might expect from a man who dubbed himself The King, Feigner was far from modest: "I have perfect control. I throw the best changeup there ever was. I throw other pitches nobody can. My in-drop and in-raise are superpitches and unique ... Who else pitches blindfolded? Who else pitches from second base? I used to throw strikes from center field." He goes on like this at great length, but there's substance behind the boasting. Feigner's fastball was clocked at 104 mph. When the mound is only 46 feet from home plate, that is unhittable. A baseball mound is 60' 6" from home, and 95-mph fastballs are considered blazing. Take away 1/4 of the hitter's reaction time and give the pitch an extra 10% or so in velocity, and that's Feigner's fastball. Yet he bragged more about his off-speed and breaking pitches than the heater, and his control really was legendary — even with a blindfold, or pitching from the outfield.

In 1967, when Feigner was a month shy of his 42nd birthday, he appeared in a softball exhibition against a major-league all-star team. He struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente, and Brooks Robinson consecutively; the exact order of the batters varies depending on your source, but everyone agrees that he struck out all six in a row.

On an old episode of Sport Science, they estimated Jennie Finch's fastball at 70 mph. Jennie's pitching baffled top-tier major leaguers, and Feigner threw about 50% harder. If she baffled Bonds and Pujols, what did Feigner's pitches do to the likes of Mays and Clemente?

The "debate" over whether it is more difficult to hit a baseball or a softball is a canard. A softball mound is substantially closer than in baseball, and allowing for that difference, it is much harder to hit a softball. This is easily demonstrable: in fast-pitch softball, batting averages and ERAs are lower than in baseball. This isn't something you can disagree with; it's a fact: it is harder to hit a softball. But Feigner often pitched from farther than 43 feet. He routinely pitched from second base, and occasionally from the outfield. He almost always pitched on no rest, barnstorming on consecutive days and sometimes doing double-headers or even triple-headers. With typical modesty, Feigner proclaimed in 1972 that with three days rest, he wouldn't have lost 10 games. His accomplishments suggest that might be true.

I first read about Eddie Feigner when I was a kid, in The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories, and I was enthralled. A softball pitcher who threw 104? Who only needed three teammates? Feigner was a quiet superstar. Softball has never been a highly visible sport, and men's fast-pitch softball is virtually extinct. But among those who knew of The King and His Court, Feigner was a legend, Sidd Finch come to life, a man whose feats would be beyond belief if they weren't documented as fact.

Eddie Feigner died in 2007. He was the greatest softball pitcher who ever lived, and maybe the most dominant and unhittable pitcher ever.

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