Joan Joyce is 32 years old. She owns a travel agency in Trumbull, Conn. She has short reddish-brown hair, blue eyes, squarish shoulders and heavily muscled legs. She moves in that twitchy, loose way good athletes do, as if she were perpetually limbering up for some distant and, as yet, unspecified contest. Any contest. She has been an athlete all her life. She is one of the most talented and powerful woman athletes in this country and without a doubt the greatest woman softball pitcher in the world. After 19 years in softball, Joyce dominates her sport as no athlete, male or female, has ever dominated a sport.
Last Friday night before 11,573 spectators at Raybestos Memorial Field in Stratford, Conn., Joyce pitched back-to-back shutouts (16 innings, 34 strikeouts) against the Santa Clara (Calif.) Laurels to lead her Raybestos Brakettes to the Women's National Softball Championship and the right to represent the United States in the Women's World Tournament next August at Raybestos Field.
Joyce's final shutout was her fifth in three days and eighth of the week-long double-elimination event in which 18 teams played 35 games in front of 80,000 spectators before the Brakettes, as expected, captured their third straight title and 10th overall, more than any team in history. Joyce pitched all of the Brakettes' nine games. She lost once. 1-0 to Sun City, Ariz., when her rightfielder misplayed a fly ball into a triple. She pitched two no-hitters (one of 11 innings and 22 strikeouts), three one-hitters, four two-hitters, and had stretches of 22‚Öì and 23‚Öì hitless innings. She walked one batter and struck out 134 in 69‚Öî innings, all three tournament records. She had games of 22, 20, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12 (twice) and 10 strikeouts, while only one other pitcher struck out as many as 10 batters in a game. Joyce also helped win four games with timely hits, compiled a .414 batting average (third best in the tourney) and came within one hit of tying the record of 13 total hits.
Not surprisingly, she was named the tournament's MVP, her fourth such award. Since she has dominated women's softball for years, her continued dominance surprised few of the fans and players. They assume such brilliance from the Waterbury, Conn. native who once struck out Ted Williams in an exhibition and who was called, by a tourney umpire, "one of the three best softball pitchers in the country, and two of them are men." She has won 367 games and lost 25 for a lifetime winning percentage of 94. Her career, and each game in it, so nearly approaches perfection that, in a way, she is boring to watch.
"My games are boring," she says in a blunt voice devoid of false modesty. "To everyone but me. I set up private challenges for myself, a pitch in a certain spot, a no-hitter [she has had more than 70], a perfect game [she has had 19]. Once I get a run, the game's in my hands. I can lose, but only by luck. I lost to Sun City on bad luck but I didn't expect that to happen twice, even if I did have to pitch five games in three days. And it didn't. But those games must have been boring. All those strikeouts. Without me every game would have been exciting. Anyone could have won it."
Among the teams that could have won a Joyce-less tournament were the Laurels, led by 26-year-old fastballer Charlotte Graham, who admitted before the finals that "beating Joan Joyce would make my life complete"; the Sun City Saints, a youthful, exuberant team that, at times, seemed composed entirely of platinum blondes running on and off the field in spotless white spikes; and the veteran Orange (Calif.) Lionettes. The Lionettes own nine national titles and were the last team to beat the Brakettes for the championship in 1970. They did it on the strength of Carol Spanks' bat; the fielding of Maxine (Mickey) Davis, a dazzling blonde leftfielder who chases flyballs with delicate quick-little-steps and such infectious enthusiasm that her every move brings a chorus of "Hey, Mick-a-a-a-y!" from the fans; and, most important, the pitching of Nancy Welborn. A tall, slender brunette of swanlike grace, Welborn delivers a baffling assortment of off-speed pitches from an underhand motion as eternally changeless as a windmill.
What Welborn achieves by grace and deception Joyce achieves by pure and overwhelming power. She delivers the ball in an underhand slingshot motion. Her right arm snaps back toward second base and then snaps toward the plate with such force that the ball, brushing her right thigh, causes the leg to shake. Her momentum carries her far forward and to her left. She can retain her balance only by a series of short forward hops on her left foot. None of her pitches goes in a straight line. She can make them rise, sink, curve, or behave like a screwball, and she has even developed a change of pace that is equal to Welborn's.
Despite her awesome talent and near-total success in softball, Joan Joyce considers herself, at 5'9", a superior basketball player (she was an All-American AAU selection in 1961 and 1965), and she prefers, above all sports, golf.
"I started playing Softball at eight because my father played it and because it was the only sport open to me at the time," she says. "But I don't like it as much as I do golf. There's too great an element of luck in women's team sports. My success in softball, no matter to how slight a degree, still depends on my teammates. I play sports seriously, and not many women do. They aren't conditioned to take sports seriously or to react instinctively the way men do from their earliest years. I've always been an athlete, and as long as I play women's team sports my success won't be totally my own. I'd like to try golf to see what I can do on my own.
"I'm not as good a golfer as I am softball pitcher or basketball player, but that wouldn't bother me. I'm not a goal-oriented athlete like men are. I can play only for internal satisfaction, just to do the best I can. And I certainly don't play for money. Softball costs me money every year, although I have had opportunities to go professional. A group of Florida businessmen offered to put up the money for me to tour as a female version of Eddie Feigner's The King and His Court. I told them I wasn't interested. I have to do it straight."