The King Of Diamonds

After 60 years on tour, Eddie `The King' Feigner is still holding court on the softball field.

July 25, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

They started arriving two hours early -- grownups and geriatrics, toddlers and teens -- settling on blankets and in beach chairs, in whatever shade they could find on a steamy afternoon.

By 5:30, nearly 400 people covered the hillsides surrounding the ball field. As game time neared, even the hotshot local squad, the Violetville All-Stars, seemed a bit nervous, gingerly tossing softballs back and forth on the field to warm up.

It seemed like most of Violetville, a small corner of Southwest Baltimore, was there for the big game. They were waiting to see a living legend.

A few were old enough to have seen Eddie "The King" Feigner in his prime. Feigner (pronounced Fay-ner) once used his 104-mph underhand fastball to strike out baseball legends Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew in a single inning. In the 1970s, magazines like Sports Illustrated featured his unhittable behind-the-back and between-the-legs pitches. He guest-starred on The CBS Sports Spectacular (bashing a triple with a tiny, 22-inch bat), I've Got A Secret (fanning host Garry Moore on three pitches) and The Tonight Show (knocking a cigar out of Johnny Carson's mouth).

As chief attraction and ringmaster of "The King and His Court," a four-player barnstorming team he founded in 1946, Feigner has pitched in an estimated 11,000 charity exhibition games, fanned more than 141,000 hitters (nearly 9,000 while blindfolded), visited 50 states and 110 countries, and entertained about 20 million fans.

So few could begrudge the King his late appearance in Baltimore on a recent Sunday, especially since this year's tour is probably his last. At 6 p.m., heads turned as a white Lincoln Town Car, festooned with billowing American flags, rolled up along the right field line and came to a stop. The current players for the King and His Court, decked out in star-spangled red, white and blue, emerged to help Feigner, now 80 and using a wheelchair, from the car.

They rolled him into the shade near the backstop. As they took the field for their warm-ups, he grabbed a microphone, ready to assume the job he has held for the past several years -- emcee and straight man for the act often called softball's Harlem Globetrotters.

He can no longer pitch, but Eddie Feigner still rules his own strain of Americana, one that could soon go the way of tail fins, drive-ins and three-fingered baseball gloves.

If a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, call Eddie Feigner a late 20th-century American legend. Born an orphan in Walla Walla, Wash., he grew up to join the Marines as a teen, only to realize he could whip a softball like an underhanded Bob Feller. For 60 years, the career he fashioned from that skill has brought fame, a chance to travel the world and the acquaintance of celebrities from Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas and Pete Rose to Tommy Dorsey, Gerald Ford and the San Diego Chicken.

"The King has friends everywhere," says Anne Marie Feigner, his wife, business manager and first baseman. (Yes, even Feigner's wife uses his title; he, in turn, has dubbed her "The Queen.") "When they hear he's still around and doing what he's doing, they can't believe it, and they come out to say hello. I can't think of many people he hasn't met and gotten to know over the years."

The King met Anne Marie, 46, a former softball star, when he hired her to sell his autobiography, From an Orphan to a King ("It's not available in stores," she says.)

She also became the first female player for the Court, not to mention his spouse, his tireless historian and chief advocate. She rattles off his mythical feats from memory as if she'd seen them herself.

The way he pitched to Elvis Presley in Mississippi when he was just a boy in the local choir, only to remain a lifelong friend of "the other King." The way he'd face any big-league hitter but his friend Ted Williams, for fear he'd make Williams, "the greatest hitter of all time," look bad. The way he fanned a young Sen. John F. Kennedy in the late 1950s, and noticed, over the years to come, that no politician who batted against him -- including five presidents -- ever lost his next election.

"They always want him in an election year," says Anne Marie, who shares the King canon, as she's doing on much of this trip, when he gets too tired.

More important, as the King traveled more than 4 million miles, playing 200-plus exhibitions a year, he met regular folks and shared a story of hope.

"The King never forgot he was born an orphan," says Anne Marie, who wears the Court's uniform No. 77. "All of us in the Court were born poor, and we don't forget. That's why we do benefits for homeless shelters and other charities.

"Look at these people," she says, nodding toward the crowded hillsides. "Violetville, Arbutus -- this is the real America, hard-working people who raise their kids and make good things happen. We want to make their lives a little better. They deserve it."

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