Obituary: Joan Joyce

Softball great who struck out Ted Williams, dies at 81

Joan Joyce, one of America’s greatest female athletes, who set records in basketball and golf but was best known as a hard-throwing softball pitcher, hurling 150 no-hitters and 50 perfect games in addition to striking out retired ballplayers Ted Williams and Hank Aaron at exhibitions, died March 26th at 81.

Her death was announced by Florida Atlantic University, where she was the head softball coach and previously led the women’s golf team. The school did not say where or how she died, but she had been away from the softball team this spring after undergoing a medical procedure.

Ms. Joyce was one of the most intimidating players in softball history, amassing a career pitching record of 753 wins and 42 losses over more than two decades, with a lifetime earned-run average of 0.09. Standing about 5-foot-10, she was also a ferocious hitter, with a lifetime batting average of .324, according to FAU.

Instead of a traditional windmill pitching style, she used a slingshot delivery, with her right hand starting high behind her back and swinging forward past her hips. A study in the mid-1960s found that she threw nearly 120 miles per hour, although Ms. Joyce later told the Hartford Courant her pitches were never timed with a speed gun and “were probably in the 70s” — fast enough to confound most batters, especially since she typically played on a mound that was 40 feet from home plate, rather than the Major League Baseball distance of 60 feet 6 inches.

When she threw back-to-back shutouts to lead the Raybestos Brakettes to a women’s softball championship in 1973, Sports Illustrated declared that she “dominates her sport as no athlete, male or female, has ever dominated a sport.” John Bruno, the general manager of the San Jose Sunbirds, later joked that he and his club would “have to spike her Coke or something” if they faced Ms. Joyce and her pro team, the Connecticut Falcons, in a seven-game playoff series.

Ms. Joyce was inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame in 1983, the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and the International Softball Federation Hall of Fame in 1999. Yet softball was far from her only sport: She also competed on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour for nearly two decades, played and coached the Connecticut Clippers volleyball team and played basketball for the U.S. women’s national team, becoming a three-time Amateur Athletic Union all-American and scoring a record 67 points in a tournament game. According to Sports Illustrated, she also won the Connecticut state bowling title just three weeks after taking up the sport.

Sportswriters compared her to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, an all-American basketball player and track and field star who won gold medals at the 1932 Olympics, played pro golf and pitched at Major League Baseball exhibition games. Like Zaharias, Ms. Joyce reveled in pitching to current and former ballplayers — notably Williams, one of the finest hitters in baseball history. She was 20 when she first struck him out in August 1961, drawing cheers from an overflow crowd of some 17,000 people who filled the bleachers and spilled out onto the field at her hometown stadium in Waterbury, Conn.

Williams, the “Splendid Splinter,” was 42 and a year into retirement when he was enlisted to appear at the exhibition, a fundraiser for children with cancer. He agreed to participate only after taking a few pitches in advance from Ms. Joyce, who later said that she held back during their first meeting because of a sore arm. He got a hit but was impressed.

“How’d you throw that curveball?” he asked, prompting Ms. Joyce to demonstrate her technique.

“He looks at me and says, ‘Girls shouldn’t know that.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘This girl does know that,’” she told ESPN in 2011.

She said Williams fouled off three pitches during the exhibition and threw his bat down in frustration before striking out, misjudging her drop ball. “You know, I had really mixed emotions about it,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should have let him hit a couple — just for the show.’ However, I was too competitive. I’ve always said that if my mother put a bat in her hands and came up to hit, I’d have to strike her out, too.”

When Williams faced Ms. Joyce a second time, at a fundraiser in 1966, he struck out once again. “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron fared no better at an exhibition against her in 1978, when he was 44 and two years out of the big leagues.

“She was something else,” he said at the time. “That softball comes at you and rises up around your head by the time you swing at it.”

Joan Mary Joyce was born in Waterbury on Aug. 18, 1940. Her parents were factory workers, and her father played softball and encouraged his children to do the same. She practiced throwing at home by hurling balls into a makeshift backstop, created by stringing chicken wire between two trees.

When she was about 12, she successfully tried out for her brother’s Little League team as a catcher. “The first game that we played, I hit a triple and a single and did very well — and they decided that girls couldn’t play on the team after that,” she told ESPN.

Ms. Joyce launched her playing career in the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) in 1956, joining the Brakettes, a Stratford, Conn., club sponsored by a brake parts company. She remained with the team for almost all of her amateur career, aside from a few years playing with the rival Lionettes of Orange, Calif., while studying at Chapman College (now a university). She retired after the 1975 season, having won 12 national championships and eight MVP awards, and was named to the ASA all-American team 18 straight years.

In 1976, she partnered with a group including tennis star Billie Jean King, golfer Jane Blalock and sports entrepreneur Dennis Murphy to found the International Women’s Professional Softball Association. She was a player-manager and part owner of the Connecticut Falcons, but the league folded after the 1979 season, shortly after she stopped playing to focus on golf.

Encouraged by her friend Blalock, she developed a powerful golf drive, launching the ball some 275 yards. She set a record in 1982, when she needed only 17 putts to finish a round, and finished as high as sixth at LPGA tournaments, where she said she was often approached by pitchers and coaches asking for softball advice.

“Before you know it, I’ll be out there showing them,” she told the Associated Press in 1982. “They do the throwing, I do the teaching.”

Ms. Joyce settled into a long career as a coach, joining FAU in 1994 and building the school’s softball program from scratch. Her teams won 1,002 games and lost 674, winning 12 conference titles and making it to 11 NCAA tournaments. She was named conference coach of the year eight times and coached the golf team from 1996 to 2014.

Survivors include a sister and brother.

“I’ve done the things I wanted to do … and I didn’t let anyone stop me,” Ms. Joyce said, according to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, which inducted her in 2007. “One thing, though — when I grew up my biggest idol was Mickey Mantle. Now kids can also look to the women who play.”

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