With the recent departures of Charles de Gaulle, J. Edgar Hoover and Don Vito Corleone, there are not many, as they say in the eulogy trade, "giants" left on this earth. Not many of that very special, one-of-a-kind, towering eminence sort of fellow standing head and heart above the rest in his chosen field, who has it, knows it, does it, loves it and flaunts it. Not many, to be more specific, who would dare to say of himself, in a pensive moment over a nip of brandy and with great humility aforethought, "It is a good feeling to know that I am the only one of my kind in the history of the world."
Eddie Feigner said that the other day. Eddie Feigner?
Uh-huh, Eddie Feigner, the former Myrle King of Walla Walla, Wash., long since and now, too, also known as The King. Eddie Feigner, the last true barnstormer. Eddie Feigner is The King, as in The King and His Court traveling four-man softball circus, magic tricks and laugh-track show—pack up the babies and grab the old ladies; everyone goes, everyone knows—and he said that. Make no mistake about it; make this one thing perfectly clear. Eddie Feigner was right. Kings are always right.
What Eddie Feigner has been doing for the past 27 years to achieve his particular gargantuan status is truly remarkable. While his game of fast-pitch softball has been dying a slow and painful death due to faulty organization and under-the-table skulduggery, while the sport was literally stripped of its birthright in small towns and hamlets across America and turned into a plaything of big industry and commercial interests, Eddie Feigner and his four-man team have been out there on the road, crossing the country in a station wagon four times a season. The King and His Court have been out there knowing, doing, loving and flaunting softball.
August 20, 1972
All these years they have been playing 200 games in 5½ months. Playing hot, cold, sunburned, windblown, hurt, sick, drunk, hung over and tired, always tired. Playing in cow pastures, hockey fields, cricket grounds, penitentiaries, youth camps, hospitals, cemeteries, parking lots, playgrounds, airplane runways, rifle ranges, stockyards, racetracks, gravel patches, gymnasiums, rodeo arenas, Astrodomes and even an occasional ball diamond. Playing through rain, fog, sleet, snow, heat waves and tornadoes. Playing every day, sometimes in towns 24 hours apart and in doubleheaders that start in one county and end in another four hours away. Playing tripleheaders, for Pete's sake. Hitting, throwing, pitching, catching, running, selling. They have been out there performing their tails off, snapping out comic dialogue and trick plays, entertaining 5,000 here, 75 there; driving all night to do it; barnstorming the living daylights out of the game of softball and maybe saving it, too.
The King and His Court have played to 11 million people. They have traveled 2‚Öì million miles. They have appeared in 49 states, in eight Canadian provinces, in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, in over 2,500 towns and cities both here and abroad and probably in your own backyard. Feigner himself has made 48 foreign tours, pitched in his 5,000th game last month, struck out 85,000 men, women and children, 15,000 of them while he was blindfolded. He has thrown 1,500 shutouts, 800 no-hitters, 200 perfect games, pitched in 9,000 exhibitions, beat the daylights out of anybody you can name and made all of them look foolish, from championship nine-man teams to guys just off their tractors; from Say Hey Willie Mays to woof, woof Lassie.
He has been, as any fool for history must consider, a phenomenon in his sport—equal parts Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Boots Poffenberger with some flavor of Ruth and Cobb in there, too. Because, of course, Eddie Feigner can hit the ball as well as throw it. Such names long since have been mounted on pedestals, but Feigner belongs, just the same. He is that good.
Softball being what it is, the simple fact about Eddie Feigner (pronounced Fayner) remains: at 47 years of age he is the most underrated athlete of his time. A consummate showman, he has been denied the center ring all his life. He is vaudeville in the age of television, a giant only in the bushes; a king without a throne.
Still, the mind boggles at the mass of his accomplishments, and Feigner is understandably proud.
"I am the world's finest softball pitcher by at least 100%," says The King. "I mean, I can say this because I have never met or seen anybody who was anywhere near half as good as me. 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. Anyone can throw the out-drop or out-raise, but everywhere I travel pitchers ask me how to throw the others. Who else pitches blindfolded? Who else pitches from second base? I used to throw strikes from center field. I struck out a batter from center once. We figured that would never happen again, so we took it out of the show. Who else pitches from behind his back or between his legs? For strikes? My fastball was clocked at 104 mph. Check Koufax. Check Feller. I'm the fastest. There have been only three or four arms like mine ever in history. I once struck out a man on one pitch; he swung and missed three times at the same changeup.
"My figure-eight windmill with quarter-speed outraise pitch?" says Feigner. "Forget it. Nobody hits it. I have a whirligig with a cross-fire in-drop at three-quarter speed. Forget it, too. School's out. I can't throw hard every day anymore, but it doesn't matter. If I ever bear down, the teams we play don't have a chance in hell. I still can throw faster than anybody going. If I could have pitched with three days' rest all my life, I wouldn't have lost 10 games yet.
"I have to play with a four-man team. If I got nine together, the game would be a farce. Four men, remember. Four men against nine. And we win nine times out of 10. Amazing. It really is. You can bet that if the bottom line of our contract read we don't get paid if we lose, we'd never lose. One of the newspaper boys said it best many years ago. Quite frankly, it is the only time the accurate story ever came out in public about The King and His Court. He said Feigner could play with the plumber, the maid and grease monkey and still win.
"It's hard for me to sit here and say this, but it's illogical and amazing how many guys join my ball club who think I'm great, then, after playing for a while with The King, say, 'I knew you were great, but I never dreamed you were this great.' Let me tell you one thing. Put this in there. My team is the greatest story in sports of the last quarter century. I'm supposed to donate my arm to science when I die. They asked me. Can you imagine that? My arm never ceases to amaze even me."
To appreciate how close Eddie Feigner approaches the truth in his lengthy, practically everyday soliloquies into the life and times of The King and His Court it would be necessary to spend a week with his hearty band—drinking, eating, riding the country roads, staying up all night, sitting in the dugouts and watching a number of their combination game-shows. Since such an expedition is nearly impossible for any human on the near side of good health and accepted sanity to endure, it is certainly enough to encounter The King just once, say during a game-show in Dade City, Fla.
April is the spring training month for the Court. It is when Feigner, arriving from his home in Fallbrook, Calif., gathers with his men in the South to work the kinks out during contests up and down Florida, as well as in Cullman, Ala.; Laurel, Miss.; Lamarque, Texas; and any other Southern part of heaven that a road has been built to.
On this particular day The King and His Court wake up at four a.m. after a game in Key West and drive their station wagon 300 miles through the picturesque Keys to the Winter Haven area.
The King keeps saying the Keys are picturesque, but the Court can't quite make them out in the dark. Two nights before, the team played Gainesville up there in the panhandle, then got in the station wagon and drove all the way down to Key West, arriving at seven a.m. After last night's games they got three hours' sleep before mounting up to go north again. This then is the second time within the past 24 hours the Court has missed the picturesque Keys. It is a safe bet the Court does not care.
Twenty-seven years on the road have taught him some things about scheduling, Eddie Feigner is saying. For instance: to play Florida early in the spring when the Easter tourists are still around. To finish in the mid-East by mid-May before the rain comes. To stay out of Texas at tornado time. To go to Canada in mid-June as summer breaks over the West. To play the big gates of St. Paul and Detroit and Long Island in July and August. To hit South Bend and Ann Arbor while the university summer sessions are on. To go inland from the East Coast by the third week of August in order to escape the stirring hurricanes. To come West in September but not buck high school football. To play midweek games in the fall and play them an hour earlier so that the kids get to bed on school nights and mom and dad don't miss the new TV shows. There are other factors in scheduling, of course. As The King says, "The single most important thing to remember on the road is bowel movement."
Riding up from Key West that morning, The King remembered to start at an ungodly hour in order to beat the bumper-to-bumper traffic of fishermen packing the bridges. Despite the time of day, he drives the wagon the way he almost always does. Feigner's right arm is propped on a pillow to ward off stiffness, fatigue, and—not incidentally—to protect the livelihood of every one of the automobile's occupants. Feigner's neck is swathed in toweling for warmth and as a covering against the air conditioning as well as any other breeze that might happen in. Feigner's silver-black hair bristles straight up in the front, introducing one of the very last—John Unitas and Gene Shue rest in peace—standup brush cuts in sports. Feigner's lips surround a horrible-looking rum-flavored tobacco item known as a Wolf Brothers Crook. The King says he does not smoke or chew or drink much, but he does gnaw on at least two packages of these awful "crooks" a day, enabling him, in reality, to get much of the effects of smoking, drinking and chewing at the same time. Jars of peanut butter and mayonnaise for sandwiches are not far from the driver's side and neither are fresh strawberries. The King loves his strawberries. The car radio is not on; the car radio is never on. The King hates pop music.
It is hardly beside the point that in the next two days The King and His Court will wait around all day in Tampa, only to get rained out of a little park in Ybor City where 25 people will show up; will drive from nine Saturday night until noon the next Sunday—15 hours straight, all night long—to play an afternoon date in Baton Rouge, then will collapse in their rooms when no saloon can be found open that evening.
If the paying customer—$2 per adult, $1 for kids—had to go through the same regimen the players endure to arrive at every game, The King and His Court show still would be worth it. After all these years there are local promoters and managers around who don't quite believe that Feigner is the genuine item. "You want me to get the other five now?" they say upon their arrival. Or, "What's the joke?"
But no. No joke. There are just the four and one or two other men on the bench in case of fire, famine or flood. Feigner starts a performance by warming up for a few minutes with any number of his 19 windups, 14 hand deliveries, five speeds and 1,300 different pitches. He uses only about 30 or 40 different pitches in a game, but they are, of course, enough.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," Feigner says over the mike this evening. "The King and His Court welcome you and this very fine team that is out here to beat us tonight. We want you to keep rooting for them, anyway.
"People always wonder why we have four men instead of three or two. That's so we'll have a hitter when we get the bases loaded. You may wonder what happens when we get 'em loaded and our fourth man strikes out...three times. Well, that happened twice, and he is no longer with us.
"Remember, this is all for fun, so don't ruin the evening by worrying about the score. That's been taken care of."
And The King and His Court are on. Unlike the Harlem Globetrotters, who have become conglomerated, big-moneyed parodies of themselves and hire their opponents to lose, Feigner faces teams every night that are out to beat him, make names for themselves in the local burg and earn clippings for their own scrapbooks. Town and country hotshots treasure their hits off The King; time and again, out on the road some old-timer will come upon Feigner and challenge his recall of a squib single the old-timer got off him in Butte back in 1955. "I should remember that one," The King will reply more often than not. "Weren't many hits that year."
Most of the time these days Feigner is playing against men who have lost to him before; sometimes he is facing a third generation. They know all the tricks, and sometimes they don't cooperate. "It's easy for the Globetrotters because the other team plays along," says Feigner. "But we get teams who don't care about the people in the stands, the show, the money or anything. They just want to beat us. They actually think the crowd came to see them."
Deep down, Feigner's true show is founded upon comic surprise and deception with most of the laughs, luckily, being visual. (Faulty microphones spoil a lot of the team's socko verbal numbers.) Besides pitching from behind his back and between his legs, throwing fast, slow, in between and every other which way, plus blindfolded and from second base, The King sometimes doesn't pitch the ball at all. One of the best routines in the act is when Feigner moves into some of his multiple, collapsible windups, tangles his arms and legs, untwists his belly and fires the ball behind his back and into his own glove. Simultaneously, the catcher stands up to obscure the umpire's vision and slams his mitt as though he has caught the ball.
Many umpires have called a strike rather than admit they didn't see the pitch. Once, in Edmonton, Alberta a violent argument ensued over such a call between the batter and umpire. Normally Feigner points out his mistake to the arbiter, but this time The King was laughing too hard; the batter was arguing because he thought the pitch was high.
The other members of the Court are hardly straight men. Al Jackson, the first baseman who has been with Feigner for 15 years, is a wizard with a bat and glove. A big boisterous Irishman from New England, Jackson's specialty is throwing two and three softballs simultaneously and accurately while playing catch with the rest of the team in the pre-game warmup. It is such a subtle talent that half the crowds miss it, but when they do catch on, Jackson receives some of the loudest cheers of the night.
The rest of the team consists of Doug Anderson, a 6'4", 250-pound catcher and nephew of Cincinnati Red Manager Sparky Anderson, who claims he hit 79 home runs last season; Floyd Berger, who played a little football at VPI and who is currently Anderson's left-handed catching substitute; Feigner's son Eddie Jr. (or "J.R." as he is called by those who respect his abhorrence of the name Junior), who plays shortstop; and Gary (Hawk) West, a 30-year-old Californian who fills in everywhere on the field—especially at short when Junior, uh, J.R., is in class at San Jacinto (Calif.) Junior College.
The genuine show in Dade City as everywhere else, however, is Eddie Feigner Sr. Step right up. Watch The King pick off a runner behind his back. Watch him hit a triple with a 22-inch bat. Listen to his monologue and watch him pitch blindfolded. At the same time all this is going on, don't miss the oldtime barnstorming sight of the other uniformed members of the team making their way through the aisles to peddle The King and His Court souvenir booklets (50¢) with 38 different pictures of The King himself, plus shots of every celebrity imaginable, from Jerry Lewis to Elder Fagal of the Faith for Today TV program.
Members of the Court claim that last year one irate gentleman, obviously disappointed in his copy, accosted The King from behind the first base dugout with, "Feigner, you idiot! You're the worst egotist I've ever seen in my life!"
The King denies this. "It's my booklet. We've sold 20,000 of them," he says. "But nobody ever said that to my face. If they did, they'd get decked right then and there. I've worked long and hard for what I've got, and the road has been tough. I won't begrudge myself a booklet. If they don't like it, they know what they can do with it."
Before he became the best pitcher in soft-ball. Eddie Feigner drove trucks and cabs and buses and trolleys. He operated cranes, worked docks, played saxophone, kept cost-accounting books, dug ditches, conducted streetcars, washed dishes and practiced stand-up comedy. He waited tables, hustled used cars, sold vacuum cleaners, installed furnaces, cut asparagus, handled the public-address system at Cypress Gardens, picked prunes, introduced strippers, pumped gas, sang tenor at funerals, fixed air conditioners, hawked vitamin pills door-to-door, sold burlesque tickets, peddled lumber, wrote sports, hammered nails and became an expert gourmet cook while working under a man Feigner refers to with suitable reverence as "the famous Boothby of the Skyview Grill at the Portland airport."
In addition to this, poverty, tragedy and just plain weird doings stalked Feigner in his early years to such an extent that the results easily could fill the time slots of several daytime television serials.
Facts are hazy, but as near as Feigner can piece it together, he was immediately separated from his unwed mother on that March day in 1925 when he was born in Walla Walla. About the same time Mary King, a 50-year-old woman who had already raised four sons, lost her own change-of-life baby shortly after delivery. She readily accepted the other infant, the adoption was accomplished without papers and the baby was christened Myrle Vernon King. It was five years later that little Myrle learned of his heritage.
A staunch Seventh Day Adventist who had crossed the country in a wagon train as a young girl, Mrs. King raised the new child alone after her husband deserted her at the height of the Depression. Through his first 16 years, Myrle King ate nothing but powdered eggs, milk and potatoes. He was raised according to the strict tenets of the church. He was denied movies and radio, newspapers and candy bars. He was not allowed to go to a birthday party or a dance. Until he was almost 15, he did not know that major league baseball or hamburgers existed.
When he was still a boy at his church-affiliated school the other kids taunted King ("You little bastard," "sweet orphan sucker") and either shunned him or beat him up. "They used to fishpond me every day," says Feigner. "It wasn't a fun afternoon unless they had thrown the little bastard King into the fishpond and whipped up on him. Then another orphan moved in, Eddie Colts, and he could fight. He was my best friend, and none of them touched me after that or they had to mess with Eddie Colts. He was a great fighter, fast, and he could have taken on Sugar Ray if he had lived."
Eddie Colts died at 16 in what Feigner remembers as "a tragic logging accident" (in reality he was knifed by a lumberjack in a fight over a girl), but he was to live on among The King and His Court; Myrle King later borrowed his own first name from Eddie Colts.
The kids at school still refused to let the orphan boy into their softball games (baseball was considered too worldly by Seventh Day Adventists; young King thought the game too slow and boring besides), so he went away on his own and learned to pitch.
When a part-Cherokee Indian lad named Meade Kinzer moved to town and brought along a softball, King and Kinzer became so good at pitch and catch that the others had to let them play. "I always knew I had a good arm, but I didn't really know for sure until I got into competition," says Feigner. "From the beginning, all strikeouts." As battery mates, King and Kinzer were not to lose a game from the fourth grade until their third season with The King and His Court—just about 13 years.
While still in junior high. King became the best pitcher for the local college team. By the time he was 16, pitching six nights a week in men's leagues, striking out the side almost every inning and impressing everybody with how obnoxious he could be, a move was on to halt such nonsense. Shortly the Walla Walla leagues banned him from the mound; Myrle King had to play outfield or not play at all.
By this time the youngster had also abandoned school as an impossibility and turned into a confirmed roustabout. He was permanently kicked out of Walla Walla Academy when he bombarded the school with rocks wrapped in putty. Drifting around Portland, Ore. and Seattle, scraping, living in flophouses, sleeping in parked cars, stealing bottles to cash in for refund pennies, walking lunch counter checks. King was a lost soul until he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. One summer later he was almost dead.
The trauma of his youth had been too much for Myrle King. In the Marines he suffered several nervous breakdowns, stumbled through two unhappy marriages, repeatedly tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists, crashing his jeep or maiming himself in some other desperate fashion. In a training flight accident he suffered massive concussions, a caved-in face, split-open scalp and the loss of almost all his teeth. Finally he was committed to the X ward and later released from the service.
"The X ward was the rubber room, a place for quackoes, and I belonged," says Feigner. "I was wacky and wanted to die. I was a pitiful, screwed-up person with no home, no father and no real mother I knew about. I was an uncouth, uneducated, arrogant, belligerent, no-good, miserable excuse for a human being. I was bent on destroying myself. A psychiatrist told me I'd never straighten up until I found my mother. When I did, it completely changed my life."
On the night of Dec. 16, 1945—after a series of nearly miraculous incidents—Myrle King finally found his real mother.
Earlier, in the Walla Walla hall of records, the pitcher had discovered a To Whom It May Concern letter left by a lady named Naomi Feigner stating the fact of her son's birth on March 26, 1925, Feigner's own birth date. Naomi herself had been searching for him all these years, and had even entered the Women's Air Force in hopes of finding her son. Long ago, when they had been living only a few blocks, but several worlds, apart in Walla Walla—he as the impoverished Myrle King, she the wife of a successful grocery-store owner—the son had mowed his mother's lawn and done other errands around her home; at the time neither of them knew about the other.
The aging Mary King and her relatives had been in communication with Naomi's family about the return of the son. An appointment was arranged for Myrle to meet his mother. On that winter night he put on his full dress Marine blues and his perfectly spit-shined shoes to introduce himself to his mother for the first time. He was 20 years old.
"There was snow on the ground and a holiday smell in the air when I went to her door," Feigner recalls. "I could see the Christmas tree up with all the lights on. Then this magnificent-looking silver-haired lady with a black floor-length dress on and a diamond brooch in her hair came to the door. She was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen. She opened the door and looked at me. She said, 'So you are my son.' I said, 'Yes, I guess I am.' We cried and bawled and squealed for hours. She didn't know what my favorite dinner was. She had set the table with turkey, chicken, steak, shrimp and every vegetable plus all kinds of desserts. I could have been a vegetarian, and not appreciated any of it, but she wouldn't have cared. It was the first time I knew what a mother's love could be. That morning she had bought a new Buick for me, she had signed over her bank account, she had stocked an entire closet with clothes that fit me. Naomi said if I had come to her when I was eight years old the closet would have been full then, too. She had purchased a full wardrobe of new clothes with different sizes every year I had been gone. I said I didn't need the money, but I could sure use the car.
"I became an individual person after that," says Feigner. "I changed my name that very week. I became Eddie Feigner—from Eddie Colts and Naomi Feigner. Being Myrle King was a disgraceful, sleazy existence to me, and I wanted it over. I loved Mrs. King, but I was so sick of life as her son. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't have moved in with my real mother. I would have gone back to see Mrs. King more. She started to die right then. I think I broke her heart."
Not long after the reunion between mother and son the wondrous four-man team started—on a dare. Back in 1946, pitching for Kilburg's Grocery in the Green Pea League of the Walla Walla valley, Feigner had defeated a team from Pendleton, Ore. 33-0. Later at a tavern the Pendleton manager dropped a snide remark Feigner's way. The King whirled and replied, "You're so pitiful, I could lick you with my catcher."
"Put up or shut up," said the manager.
"I'll need four guys on my side to bat," said Feigner, "and you'll be sorry."
Boing. Boing. The game was on. Feigner selected three players, all Seventh Day Adventists he had known since the fourth grade, including Kinzer, the catcher, and they repaired to the state prison for practice against a nine-man contingent of convicts. There, against a backdrop of high walls and barbed wire, The King and His Court was born.
Playing along easily against the inmates that first time, one of the Court said to Feigner, "Hey, King, they don't hit you very much." Against Pendleton they didn't hit him at all. The King pitched a perfect game, struck out every batter except two ("one pulled a sneak bunt," he says, "and another hit a dink grounder to the first baseman"), and the four men won 7-0. News of Feigner's feat spread across the Blue Mountains, and soon came challenges from every town and city in the state. Originally the team would play only a two-inning exhibition prior to regular games, but then more and more people showed up to see the gimmick. During the next four years the Court went on to play nearly 250 games, never farther east than Idaho. Then, in 1950, Feigner and the rest found themselves jobless; they decided to go on a cross-country tour.
They sent out over 3,000 letters to service organizations, charity groups, local governments and anybody they could think of who might sponsor a game. The results were disastrous—only a couple of replies from Florida. The team took off for the Deep South anyway, sleeping and eating in their station wagon. When they got as far as El Paso they discovered the Amateur Softball Association had barred all of its members from playing the Court. That meant all teams. Still, in places like Prescott, Ariz. and Biloxi, Miss. Feigner was able to pick up games after jumping out of the wagon and showing the promoters his pitching in the street.
"Four men? You nuts!" ridiculed the local doubters.
"Watch this," said The King, uncorking his whirligig.
"Damn! You on!" concluded everybody.
A team in Waverly, Fla. was the first to spurn the dictates of the ASA. Waverly played Feigner and his gang twice for $200 apiece. Back at home, however, the Court's families were in panic. No finances were forthcoming, the electricity and water were being turned off and the kids were going hungry. The team slept on the beach in St. Petersburg for two nights, then headed to Al Lang Field for what they thought might be their last game. On the way to the park the men encountered a sizable traffic jam involving hundreds of cars which they figured were lined up for a wrestling match or something. Instead, the cars were waiting to get into Al Lang Field to see The King and His Court.
There were 4,000 people there that night; one of them was a promoter for the Canadian National Exhibition who contracted The King to do his stuff in Toronto at the end of the summer. During the 1950 CNE Feigner played for eight days in front of huge crowds and went on to wage a much-publicized scoreless tie and then a 1-0 victory over the Tip Top Tailors, the then world champions of Softball. More than anything else those dates in Canada showered The King with legitimacy, granted him a constituency of softball buffs all over North America and, especially, assured his team's success during the many years to come.
Through the early days the team slept on orange crates and ate dinners of Spam while Feigner had to hock most of his house on returning from the tour each season. It was easy for the Court to grow restive and disenchanted. Nevertheless, The King himself saw light at the end of the tunnel. In 1955 he finally turned a profit of about $5,000. In 1964, after appearing on the CBS Sports Spectacular, Feigner doubled his gate and souvenir booklet prices and also was able to double his guarantee and/or percentage of the take. Today The King earns about $40,000 for his half year's work while the rest of the troupe clears a healthy nickel themselves.
Progress from the early trials can be seen most clearly in Feigner's controversial booklet, which began as a tiny afterthought dominated by dark, blurred and sometimes backward pictures taken with a Brownie, and by an interesting text that in one place read, "Every man on the team has a nickname they call each other. Each can tell when he is being called, yet they call everyone 'Buddy.' If you're anyplace and hear someone call, 'Hey, Buddy,' you will know who is there, probably."
The current booklet has color covers, pitching tips, profiles of the players, advertisements and reprints from favorable columns, in addition to all those pictures of Eddie with his celeb friends. You cannot tell the singers from the comedians without one.
The turnover among members of The King and His Court (22 players over the years) has been light, considering the perils of the road and the fact that it is practically a one-man show. Sadly, the departures have been acrimonious—especially when the original men quit the team. Feigner no longer sees those he went through so many years of school and travel with, and he is not on speaking terms with two of them. The essential problem was that they all owned the team, but Feigner got the glory. One original player-owner, unable to get along with him but nevertheless disinclined to quit, stayed with The King for 12 years. All the while, he never rode in the same car seat with Feigner, and even made deliberate outs and errors to make The King angry.
Feigner has never imposed fines on his men as they do in the big leagues—he just fires them all. Once a championship pitcher who had recently joined the Court broke one of The King's sturdiest rules—never call his motel room before noon—by dialing Feigner at eight in the morning.
"Is the motel burning down?" asked The King.
"No," answered the new player.
"You're fired," said Feigner. And then he hung up the phone.
The King often speaks of these leave-takings as historical points of order, and he seems to take pride in his iron hand. "Fines usually aren't stiff enough, but in our situation they'd be too stiff, so I fire a man instead," he says. "It may be just an overnight firing, but it's still a firing. You can bet on that."
The quick dismissal is a standing joke with the team. Feigner fired the same player six times over a period of years—once after the man borrowed several hundred dollars from the team, ostensibly to buy braces for his paraplegic child. Instead he deserted the Court and blew his wad in Reno. Presto, fired—until he came back out on the road a few weeks later and rejoined the team.
Probably The King and His Court act was at its funniest when a 265-pound catcher named Bill Kehrer played for the team a few years ago. Kehrer introduced dialogue between home plate and the mound. He imitated effeminate gestures. He ad-libbed well, became a humorous and true clown and was a fine drinking companion. Once, in a Schenectady, N.Y. watering hole, Kehrer and Al Jackson, engaging in a heavy liquid bout, witlessly played ticktacktoe on the head of a bald man seated at the bar. Under the circumstances they were all set for a major brawl. Instead the bare-domed gentleman turned around and inquired, "Who's winning?'
Alas, Bill Kehrer was fired, too. On that occasion Jackson asked, "How bad was he fired?" But the portly catcher was gone for good.
Feigner insists he has fired Jackson "at least three times"—once when the two men's wives got into a scratch-and-claw, knockdown, drag-out argument in the dugout at Muncie, Ind. Feigner says he threw Lorna Jackson out of the dugout and issued an ultimatum that the first baseman keep his wife out or get out himself. The Jacksons then flew off to their home in Toronto.
Jackson's version varies somewhat. He says when The King threw out Lorna, he himself ordered her back into the dugout.
"Get her out of there!" Feigner shouted.
"You like those gold teeth in your upper plate?" Jackson shouted back.
This wonderful little exhibition of teamwork took place in front of 2,000 people sitting in the stands who must have considered it an excellent addition to the show. Jackson and his wife ended up staying, says Jackson, and The King ended the argument by simply saying, "You're the next batter.
"It's good Al forgives and forgets," says Feigner. "He really rolls with the punches and lets things slide away, just like water off a duck's back. Al Jackson is the most loyal, dedicated gentleman I've ever had on this team."
Lorna Jackson, too, has been a welcome addition to the crew. On being shown inferior motel rooms during an engagement in Bermuda, Lorna, who is British, intoned to the bellman, "Dahling, The King will never accept those accommodations." The hotel management, unaware of a traveling four-man softball team, was so puzzled and upset over the impending arrival of a monarch that a three-room suite on the bay was readied for King Eddie Feigner.
Georgia Feigner, The King's present wife, helps with fan mail, phone calls and scheduling, and endures the road quite admirably for a woman who suffers from extreme claustrophobia. She undergoes terrible hardship in elevators, tunnels and rooms with no windows. But she is accustomed to coping. As a polio-stricken girl, Georgia had to coexist with a nasty brother who took a whip to his sister, locked her in underground potato cellars for days at a time and once draped a dead rattlesnake around her leg braces while she was in bed.
"And then the family wondered why I got so mean," says Georgia.
On any given evening Mrs. Feigner will entertain the Court in Holiday Inn bars by taking a cherry stem into her mouth and twisting it into an honest-to-goodness knot with her tongue—a skill that might very well enable the Feigners to earn gainful employment long after The King's arm has gone dead. "It's real easy," says Georgia. "Here, you try it."
"I have a feeling that no matter how bad that brother of hers treated her," says The King, "Georgia got the best of him."
As one might suspect, there are long days, lonely nights and interminable rides in the station wagon when Eddie Feigner resembles a worn, frazzled old man barely making the next town—Williston, N. Dak.; Claymont, Del.; Berkeley Springs, W. Va. He is scratching out a living, trying to hang on to this wonderful, impossible dream of softball as a big-time sport and of himself as its savior. He is dead-tired, slurs his words, becomes cranky and blames the rest of the team for bad directions or for blowing a play of the night before.
Then suddenly he is at the ball park, on the mound, in front of all those people—his people—and the change erupts. Feigner is a youth again. His eyes glow. His muscles work. He runs. He jumps. His pitches befuddle the batters and delight the crowd. Now The King is on stage. He is doing it, loving it, and maybe at that very moment Eddie Feigner deserves to become as big a celebrity as he wishes.
"Dad really did think the world was going to glorify him when he reached the age of 40," says Eddie Feigner Jr. "Then when it didn't, I think he really got down. He doesn't have to say it. I just know it hurts him not to be recognized more for what he's done. Sometimes I worry that people think he's some clown driving around the country in a wagon with a funny uniform on and throwing softballs behind his back. But he's not. He's the finest player in the history of this game, and nobody cares."
The King himself often speaks on this question of celebrity. "Let me tell you something," he says. "Bob Richards and I made appearances on the same night in Flint, Mich. a few years ago, and we kidded each other about who would draw more people. I got 4,000 and he got 800. Bob Richards, the Wheaties man. The pole vaulter, you know. We went to the Detroit airport together. Baggage handlers, porters, everybody came up to shake my hand. They ignored Bob Richards. He said he was really impressed, and he was. It's hard for me to sit here and say this, but I'm the Messiah in Detroit. I could get elected mayor.
"Oh, look," he says, "I know I'll never be a big-timer because I'm not in an organized, glamorous, moneymaking operation. Just softball. Who cares about softball? I want to start a pro softball league. I want to run a softball pitching school. But would it matter? Who cares? I'm a pip-squeak because I'm caught in a nothing game. It's like being champion nose-blower. If I was this good in a recognized sport I'd have cars, all kinds of homes, a day in my honor, a movie. A movie of my life should be made, you know. Bob Mitchum could play me—I know him just well enough to call him Bob. Now there's a real man's man. I met him in Canada. Hell of a guy.
"If I was this good in golf I could buy and sell Arnold Palmer. Arnold Palmer! He'd have to come to me. I'd like somebody to be able to ask Arnie, 'Did you ever shoot a round with Feigner?' That would be nice. But I'm not singing the blues. Hearing a woman and a child say, I love you' is worth more than any number of those fickle fans who drop you in a moment.
"I'm proud to be a friend of Joe Namath and Andy Williams and Glen Campbell and the rest of that new breed. A guy asked me the other day if I ever pitched against Sinatra. 'Frank?' I said. 'Sure, I pitched against Frank, and Deano, too, and Sammy Davis.' But that's enough. People in my own sport know who I am. It's enough to entertain those kids up in the stands and maybe do something they'll remember.
"I don't need monuments built to me. God willing, if I die, I bet I don't get a 10-second blurb on the national media. That doesn't bother me in the least. You know all I want? If you believe in the Bible, you earn a crown of stars when you get to heaven. The stars are for the people you made happy and the people you helped get to heaven. If I earn just one star I'll be a happy man."
Lack of recognition and dearth of national exposure aside, there are occasions that make the hard, rough life of Eddie Feigner worth enough. Occasions when he discards his moaning. Then, fortunately, he abandons his feeling that he has been running in place and ceases waiting for a Hall of Fame to grab him up or, at the least, for the Eyewitness News team to discover his act. Simply put, he recognizes what is important.
Such a moment occurred late one evening not long ago after a King and His Court game somewhere across America. Feigner had finished signing his autograph onto the last souvenir booklet, and it was time again to move on. But wait, there was one more to go. A tousle-haired blond boy about eight years old ran up to Softball's finest player and, breathless there in the gathering darkness, he said, "I don't want an autograph, Mr. Feigner. Gee. I just want to say thanks for showing us such a good time."
Eddie Feigner rubbed the boy's head and looked up at the sky for a long long time. Then he rubbed the mist away. The King had his one star.