On a warm August night in 1961, Ted Williams, the “Splendid Splinter” who had finished his Hall of Fame baseball career the year before as the last hitter to bat .400 in a single season, strode to the plate before an overflow crowd at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury, Conn., to face a young softball pitching phenom by the name of Joan Joyce.
The occasion was a charity fund-raising exhibition. Williams was in his Boston Red Sox uniform, No. 9. Joyce stood on the mound 40 feet away (regulation in women’s softball, as opposed to 60 feet 6 inches in major-league baseball), clad in the red-and-white jersey and shorts she wore as the premier pitcher for the Raybestos Brakettes, one of the most powerful teams in the women’s game, with its home field 30 miles to the south in suburban Stratford, Conn.
It was one of several such exhibitions in which Williams and Joyce faced off in the early 1960s, but the one in Waterbury — Joyce’s hometown, where the fans were chanting “Joanie, Joanie Joanie!” — proved to be the most memorable. It would become an oft-told tale in the lore that enveloped Joyce over her long career as, many would say, the most dominant player in the history of women’s fast-pitch softball and — given her prowess in basketball, volleyball and golf as well — as one of the greatest female athletes of her generation.
With her windmill-like underhanded delivery, Joyce, a couple of weeks shy of her 21st birthday, took her full arsenal of blazing pitches to the mound that night: curveballs, sliders, fastballs and her trademark “drop ball,” which sunk over the plate. And while she warmed up, Williams, who was approaching 43 but coming off a sterling, age-defying final season in Boston (hitting .316 and swatting 29 home runs), studied the movement of her ball.
To no avail, as it turned out.
For 10 to 15 minutes, Williams, a left-handed hitter, swung at and missed almost everything Joyce, a right-hander, threw at him (save for a couple of foul tips).
“Finally,” Joyce later recalled, “he threw the bat down and said, ‘I can’t hit her’” and walked away.
The mighty Williams had struck out.
Years later, Joyce would tell her biographer, Tony Renzoni, how she once met a man who had fished with Williams off the Florida Keys. The man told her that he had asked Williams to name the toughest pitcher he had ever faced. “And he said,” she recalled, “’You won’t believe this, but it was a teenage girl.’”
Her many fans would not have been so surprised. Joyce, who died on Saturday in Boca Raton, Fla., at 81, was, at the time, in the midst of a Hall of Fame career of her own. And when that career ended, after almost two decades of softball at a national and international level, she had amassed a staggering set of accomplishments.
Over 19 seasons she compiled a herculean 753-42 win-loss record, tossing 150 no-hitters and 50 perfect games and striking out more than 10,000 batters for a stunningly low lifetime earned-run average of .090.
In one season she won 42 games. She recorded strings of consecutive scoreless innings, including 123 in 1971 and 229 in 1975-76, and won eight Most Valuable Player awards in championship tournament play, mostly with the Brakettes, an almost perennial championship team that took its name from its company sponsor, a Stratford manufacturer of brake lining for automobiles.
She also struck out Hank Aaron in another exhibition, in 1978 in West Hartford, Conn. Aaron was 44, two years removed from his playing days, and Joyce was 37, but the face-off was billed as something of a heavyweight fight.
“She was something else,” Aaron was quoted as saying afterward. “That softball comes at you and rises up around your head by the time you swing at it.”
And, for good measure, Joyce, like Aaron, could hit: She had a career batting average of .327.
She went on to coach the women’s softball team at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, and was in her 28th season there at her death, which the university announced without giving a cause. At FAU, where she was the program’s founding coach, she built a towering record of 1,002-674-1 as she coached the team to 11 conference championships and 11 NCAA postseason tournaments. She was voted the conference coach of the year eight times.
But softball was not the only arena in which Joyce excelled. As a rangy 5-foot-9 forward (some sources say 5 foot 10), she took multiple all-American honors in basketball playing for Connecticut teams in the Women’s Basketball Association and the Amateur Athletic Union. She set a national AAU tournament record scoring 67 points in one game and three times was voted an AAU All-Star. She had a career scoring average of 30 points per game (and this was before the three-point shot was introduced).
She was also a standout volleyball player. After starting her own team, the Connecticut Clippers, she competed in the United States Volleyball Association’s national tournament from 1969 to 1974 and was once selected for an All-East Regional team. Less than a month after taking up bowling, she won the Connecticut state title in the sport and, by her account, later turned down an offer to go professional.
And at 35, an age when many athletes are retiring, she tried her hand at golf. Within two years, she qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Tour — while still pursuing her softball career. At age 42 she set an LPGA record for the fewest putts in a single round: 17. (It’s a number that has been matched in men’s professional golf only by Bob Brue, on the PGA Champions Tour.) Joyce, known for her powerful drives if not her accuracy, remained a pro golfer for 19 years, until she was 55 (without winning a tournament). At Florida Atlantic, she was also the women’s head golf coach.
Inducted into as many as 19 Halls of Fame, Joyce was frequently compared to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who, with triumphs in track and field, swimming, baseball, basketball and golf in the 1940s and ’50s, has often been cited as the greatest female athlete in American history. But to Jane Blalock, the LPGA star who persuaded Joyce to embrace golf, “Joan was even better.”
“Joan was the greatest female athlete in sports history,” Renzoni quoted Blalock as saying. “Actually, she’s one of the greatest athletes of all time — male or female.”
Joan Joyce was born in Waterbury on Aug. 18, 1940, and grew up there, the eldest child of Joseph and Jean Joyce. Her parents worked at rival brass factories (her father as a foreman) and purposely worked different shifts so that one parent would always be at home with their three children.
Her father, an accomplished amateur basketball and softball player, taught Joan both sports when she was a child, and her athleticism quickly became apparent. She was the star of her girl’s basketball team at Crosby High School in Waterbury and, after playing in local organized softball games as a girl, she tried out for the Brakettes at 13 and won a spot on the roster.
Her feats with the team soon became legend. In 1961, in tournament play for the national championship, she pitched in three straight games in a 24-hour period, striking out 67 batters over 32 innings before losing to a team from Whittier, Calif., in the final game, a marathon decided at 3:30 in the morning in the bottom of the 19th inning. (Even with the loss, she was named the tournament’s MVP)
In 1974, the Brakettes became the first United States team to win the Women’s Softball World Championship, first held in 1965 in Melbourne, Australia. Playing at Raybestos Memorial Field in Stratford, with the factory’s familiar oily smell wafting across the floodlit field, Joyce threw a one-hitter (a bunted blooper) against a powerful Japanese team to take the title. She had made five appearances in the tournament, three of them no-hitters.
Joyce left the team in 1963 to attend Chapman College in Orange, Calif., graduating in 1966. While there, she played for one of the Brakettes’ chief rivals, the Orange Lionettes, leading them to a national championship in 1965. After rejoining the Brakettes in 1967, she went on to pitch four consecutive no-hitters for them in 1968.
In 1976, she teamed up with the tennis star Billie Jean King and a sports entrepreneur, Dennis Murphy, to found the International Women’s Professional Softball League. Joyce became the player-coach of the Connecticut Falcons, a team she owned with King and Blalock. The Falcons took the WPSL crown in four straight years before the league went out of business. In its last year, Joyce took the team on a six-game exhibition tour in China in 1979, winning all six and dazzling Chinese fans.
She also appeared on the television game show “To Tell the Truth” in the 1960s and competed with other elite athletes in a decathlon-like format on ABC’s “Superstars Competition” in the 1970s.
She is survived by a sister, Janis Joyce; and a brother, Joseph.
Spending most of her softball career as an amateur, Joyce was compelled to take various jobs to pay the bills — teaching, refereeing, serving part-time as a community college athletic director and running a travel agency. But she did not complain about the lack of remuneration.
“A lot of people feel I should be bitter about not being able to get the big-time money that a man with talents comparable to mine would receive,” she told The New York Times in 1975. “I don’t care about the money, I enjoy the game, and that’s the most important thing. I’d play this game even if it meant being broke the rest of my life.”
Never one for self-promotion, Joyce nevertheless put modesty aside in a self-evaluation of her talents.
“I would have hated to bat against me,” she said.