By now just about every sports fan has heard of Randy Jones, the celebrated San Diego Padre sinkerball pitcher who had won 16 games by the All-Star break. His alma mater, Chapman College in Orange, Calif., is justly proud of him and his pitches that drop at home plate as if controlled by laser beams. But there is another pro pitcher out of Chapman who not only had 21 wins two weeks before an All-Star break but can make the ball drop, rise, turn left, turn right and quite possibly do the hustle on its journey to the plate. Her name is Joan Joyce and she is the premier pitcher, hitter, manager and owner of the Connecticut Falcons in the International Women's Professional Softball Association, a league she helped found along with Billie Jean King and Dennis Murphy, a founder of the American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. Joyce is more than The Franchise, she is The League.
In its first season, the 10-team WPS, as the association calls itself, is struggling along in near-anonymity. With half of the 120-game season completed Joyce's Falcons, who play home games in Meriden, are 15½ games ahead in the Eastern Division, followed by the Buffalo Breskis, Pennsylvania Liberties (Reading), Chicago Ravens and Michigan Travelers (East Detroit). In the Western Division the San Jose Sunbirds hold an 11-game lead. The competition consists of the Santa Ana (Calif.) Lionettes, San Diego Sandpipers, Phoenix Phoenixbird and Southern California Gems (San Bernardino).
Despite the fact that attendance has been averaging less than 1,400, which is about the number of autographs Randy Jones signs every time he pitches, WPS owners do have a few things going for them. Expenses have been held down by negotiating contracts for small, established ball parks. There is a ceiling on salaries (except for Joyce's). And, of course, there is Joyce herself. Last week she went West with her team to play San Jose for the first time and the games—back-to-back doubleheaders—drew more than 6,500 fans. The interest was understandable because the games probably previewed the WPS Championship Series to be held in September.
Although the league is new, there is a familiar look to it for devotees of women's Softball. Connecticut's stars, including Joyce, come mostly from the Raybestos Brakettes of Stratford, Conn., a team that won 12 Amateur Association championships in 18 seasons and eight of the last 10. San Jose's best pros were drawn mostly from the Santa Clara Laurels. The San Jose and Connecticut teams have placed 13 players on the squads for the WPS All-Star Game, scheduled for July 28 in San Jose.
July 25, 1976
The Sunbirds' home is Municipal Stadium, which they share with the Class A San Jose Bees. The Sunbirds and the city spent $60,000 to install an artificial-grass infield that can be shifted back and forth to accommodate both baseball and women's softball.
WPS has a rule that a pitcher cannot appear in consecutive games—otherwise Connecticut might never lose. Joyce has thrown 110 no-hitters and 35 perfect games in her 18-year career. Thanks to the rule, the Sunbirds and Falcons split the doubleheaders, Joyce winning both games she pitched, San Jose taking the other two.
The victories improved Joyce's record to 21-1 (the loss came on an unearned run) and ran her win streak to 12. She departed San Jose with more season strikeouts (279) than the entire Sunbird staff and has 17 shutouts.
Joyce, now 35, can perform Wonder Woman feats at bat, too. She has a .325 average, fifth best in the league. The story is told that, during a game against the Michigan Travelers in Meriden, she was being interviewed in the press box when she looked at the scoreboard and said, "Gee, is it the seventh already? We need a run." She went down to the field, put herself in to pinch-hit and smacked the first pitch for a homer.
The Sunbirds had a couple of classy pitchers of their own to show off during the series—fastballer Charlotte Graham (14-5, 0.93 ERA) and junk specialist Bonnie Johnson (13-4, 0.57 ERA). Graham, 29, throws with a violent motion. Her right knee bangs into the dirt with such impact that she is forced to wear a pad on it, and her left heel comes to a jarring stop in a deep hole she always carves in the mound. In women's softball the rubber is only 40 feet from the plate, and Graham takes such a long stride that it must seem to the batter that she is about to deliver an uppercut rather than the grapefruit-colored WPS softball.
Graham opened the series against the Falcons' Kathy Neal and allowed only two infield hits and a walk in a 2-0 victory. Even so, Graham said, "Connecticut looks like a team of giants. They're so big and powerful that you have to pitch a different game. I went to an awful lot of off-speeds to try to keep them off balance. There are nights you can't do that; a lot depends on the umpire. Some won't call a rise ball a strike no matter what. Tonight he was all right, probably because of Joan Joyce; the rise is her best strikeout pitch."
Johnson, 30, office manager at a T shirt company, has a sinkerball, or drop, that is very likely the second best in the WPS (Joyce's, of course, rates No. 1). Early in the season she had won a wild game against Southern California and the fabled Rosie Black, a stunning blonde pitcher who became fabled (on softball diamonds, anyway) while touring the country with a team called The Queen and Her Maids. Rosie gave up three hits in the marathon 20-inning contest and lost 1-0. Johnson scattered 17 hits but got the victory. Rosie has since quit WPS because Murphy, the Gems owner and league commissioner, fired the team manager, who happened to be Rosie's father. She has gone back to playing exhibitions.
Johnson had been much sharper the week before the Connecticut-San Jose confrontation. Playing in San Diego on a surface more suitable for a rock fight than a softball game, she forced the hapless competition to ground out once, fly out five times, strike out five times and pop up 10 times—a perfect game. As a reward, a San Jose car dealer gave her the use of a new Pontiac Sunbird for the rest of the year.
Johnson was pitted against Joyce in the second seven-inning game of the opening doubleheader and played her role as a junk dealer. "I can't blow it by the batters," she said. "My job is to get them to hit grounders or pop-ups. The team has to work hard when I pitch."
She did a creditable job, but Joyce was overpowering, even though her fastball, which was clocked at 118 mph in 1966, has slowed down to a mere 90 mph. Joyce struck out 14, gave up one run on four hits, collected a single herself and recorded victory No. 20.
It wasn't all that different the next night when Joyce faced Graham, except that the public-address system went blooey and a teen-age girl selling balloons took it upon herself to shout out the pre-game introductions for the Sunbirds.
With Joyce being routinely spectacular (she won 1-0, pitching a two-hitter and striking out nine), it was easy to overlook the other fine athletes on the field. Sunbird Centerfielder Diane Kalliam, leading the league in hits and stolen bases, went to bat 14 times in the four games, got on base eight times (seven walks, one hit) and stole two bases. Shortstop Mary Flint had seven hits in 11 at bats, got on base three more times via walks or errors and stole three bases.
But Joyce commands attention just the way Babe Ruth used to. "She is what bothers me about a world series against this team," said Sunbird General Manager John Bruno. "Seven games. That means Joyce pitches four times. We'll have to spike her Coke or something."
"She's a fantastic lady," said rival Graham. "She's my idol. I've watched her closely for 10 years. She's truly the best player women's softball has ever had. I hope to see this professional softball go over well enough for her to get the recognition she deserves."