News your connection to The Boston Globe

Eddie Feigner; with power and pizazz, 'King' ruled softball field

Eddie Feigner could strike out batters with any number of deliveries and from several spots on the field. Eddie Feigner could strike out batters with any number of deliveries and from several spots on the field. (globe file/1964)

WASHINGTON -- Eddie Feigner, a crowd-pleasing softball pitcher and showman who toured the world for 55 years as The King and His Court, died Friday from complications of dementia at Cogburn Health and Rehabilitation facility in Huntsville, Ala. He was 81.

Mr. Feigner was, beyond dispute, the greatest softball pitcher who ever lived. In a barnstorming career that began in 1946, he and his four-man team were all but unbeatable.

At his peak, Mr. Feigner threw a softball harder than any major league pitcher has ever thrown a baseball. His underhand fastball was once timed at 104 miles per hour -- or, according to some accounts, 114 miles per hour. The fastest documented pitch thrown by a major league pitcher is 103 miles per hour.

Pitching in hundreds of games each year against local all-star teams, Mr. Feigner won 95 percent of the time. He and his "court," which included only a catcher, first baseman, and shortstop, played everywhere from Yankee Stadium to the Great Wall of China, with countless military bases, rodeo arenas, and cow pastures in between. He appeared in all 50 states and in 98 foreign countries.

In a 1967 exhibition at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Mr. Feigner faced a lineup of six Major League Baseball players. He struck out all six -- Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills, and Harmon Killebrew -- in succession. All but Wills were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Mr. Feigner kept meticulous records of his victories (9,743), strikeouts (141,517), no-hitters (930), and perfect games (238). An excellent hitter as well, he once slugged 83 home runs in a 250-game exhibition season.

Beyond the staggering numbers, Mr. Feigner created his most lasting impressions with a series of remarkable pitching stunts. He could strike out players while blindfolded (8,698 times) or while pitching behind his back or between his legs. He had a curveball that would dip 18 inches. Since the standard softball mound is only 46 feet from home plate, Mr. Feigner would often give his opponents a chance by pitching from second base or, on occasion, from center field.

He often appeared on television and once knocked a cigar out of Johnny Carson's mouth with a pitch -- while wearing a blindfold. Yet Mr. Feigner had the misfortune to be supremely talented at a sport, men's fast-pitch fastball, that has all but disappeared. Sports Illustrated once called him "the most underrated athlete of his time."

"I'm a pipsqueak because I'm caught in a nothing game," Mr. Feigner said in 1972. "It's like being a world-champion noseblower."

Nevertheless, he persevered, driving from one small town to the next, leaving a trail of pleased fans and baffled hitters behind. During the 1981 Major League Baseball strike, before 16,000 fans at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., Mr. Feigner and his Court beat a nine-man team that included several major league players. He was 56 at the time.

Former major leaguer Jim Northrup said "no man alive" could hit him. "He just blew it by everybody."

Mr. Feigner was born in Walla Walla, Wash., on March 26, 1925, and was adopted at birth. His name as a child was Myrle Vernon King and, when he began his career, he adopted his mother's maiden name and a friend's first name.

He was thrown out of school in his teens and joined the Marine Corps during World War II but was discharged after a nervous breakdown. The one thing he could do well was throw.

He was pitching on adult softball teams by the time he was 9. In 1946, after beating an Oregon team 33-0, he responded to a taunt by saying, "I would play you with only my catcher."

His opponents took up the challenge, allowing Mr. Feigner to add a shortstop and first baseman. After practicing against inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary, Mr. Feigner and his four-man team had their rematch. He pitched a perfect game, striking out 19 of 21 batters.

In 1950, he dubbed his traveling team The King and His Court, and they became the Harlem Globetrotters of softball, complete with gaudy red-white-and-blue uniforms. Mr. Feigner, who always wore a flattop haircut, often arrived at the pitcher's mound in a red Cadillac convertible. His son, Eddie Jr., played alongside him for 25 years.

At his peak in the 1960s, Mr. Feigner made $100,000 a month.

"I've made more money at this than any other ballplayer at any other sport," he told the Washington Post in 1976.

In 2000, Mr. Feigner threw out the first pitch before the women's softball competition at the Olympic Games in Sydney. A day later, he had a stroke and never pitched again.

Besides his son, he leaves his fourth wife, Anne Marie Feigner, who played first base for The King and His Court; three daughters; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren