Originally created 05/20/00

'King' prepares for farewell



EVANS -- "You should have seen him in his day," says Rich Hoppe, a 10-year member of The King and His Court. "He was just unhittable. I saw him when I was a kid and he took my breath away. The King was the thing."

Eddie Feigner is The King, and the stories that accompany him during a 55-year barnstorming tour come about as swiftly as the softball he once threw.

He's 75 now, and the granddad of the original four-man softball group has seen his best days as a pitcher go by. Severe arthritis in knees, a heart attack, triple bypass surgery and a stroke have slowed his body and made this his farewell tour.

So there won't be any repeats of the 114 mph underhanded toss he once was clocked at. No matter. The man with the Johnny Unitas flat-top and soft blue eyes still knows how to kibitz with an audience with a wisecrack from the pitcher's mound or from the lawn chair he occupies.

"I can't pitch anymore," Feigner said before lighting up Patriots Park on Friday night with his brand of vaudeville humor and remarkable trickery.

"If you could somehow make these knees of mine full of arthritis not ache, I could still pitch. My arm's fine. But I've got no cartilage in my knees. It's bone rubbing against bone.

"Every once in a while I'll get a little crusty and fire some in there. But if I do that, then I can't walk for a couple of innings."

The King came to Evans for a charity promotion to aid the Dixie Diamonds Fastpitch Association. Since he began the concept of this softball traveling circus, his intentions have been to help people. He's joined up with fogdog.com to help promote youth softball.

"I've been asked to go everywhere, and usually we oblige," said Feigner, orphaned in Walla Walla, Wash., and now living near San Diego. "Anyway we can help out, we try."

Feigner and his troupe have crossed the world more than Jules Verne.

"We've done more military shows than Bob Hope," says Anne Marie Feigner, the King's wife and the Court's first baseman. "We've been everywhere because everybody loves seeing The King."

What they wanted to see is whether they could hit him, which usually they couldn't. The slingshot fastball would come from all directions. He'd pitch blindfolded, behind his back, between his legs; he'd even faint a pitch by slapping his glove, have his catcher stand up to block the umpire's view and the catcher would toss back a second ball.

In his day, the King would offer $10 to anyone who could hit a foul ball, $40 if you'd get it in play.

Feigner's hoping to turn his vaudeville softball life into a book, a sitcom, a movie and even a comic strip (he'll be Kingman, fighting villains with underhand tosses). And there's much fodder for story lines, 55 years' worth, from this Harlem Globetrotter of the softball diamonds.

"We've played every maximum security prison around," said Hoppe, who now does most of the pitching The King's stead. "We've been in South America with coups going on around us. We've played Amish teams, Amazon teams, Asian teams.

"We're kind of like Charles Kuralt with a ball."

The King's never at a loss for a few memories. This one's about playing softball near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

There were the games on an oil tanker near Norway and an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic.

"Hit it in the water and it was a home run," Feigner said.

Or the game in Barrow, Alaska, on top of the world inside the Arctic Circle. Or along the Great Wall of China. Or in the Himalayas. Or in the Andes. Or the time in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when Tommy Dorsey asked whether he could promote his concert by playing his clarinet at second base.

Or about when Feigner joined the other King, Elvis Presley, on a Las Vegas stage at the start of his comeback tour.

Or maybe this one's about the game near Guantanamo Bay in pre-Castro Cuba.

"We were playing there, I think it was 1952," Feigner said. "Afterward, the guy came up to me and said that was a great game. Then he asked `What did you think of the left fielder?"'

"I really didn't pay any attention to him," Feigner responded.

"Well, he's Fidel Castro. He's got some supporters starting up camps in the hills to try and overthrow the government, but you don't need to worry about him."

True story, Anne Marie said.

"Do you have time for another story?" the King asks. Who doesn't?

Maybe this one will be about time The King barnstormed through Pakistan and India in 1956, when Feigner was invited to go on a Bengal tiger hunt and insulted his hosts by refusing to shoot the unsuspecting animal.

"That animal was so beautiful, there was no way I was going to go through with that," he said. "They called the ambassador and said I was never allowed back."

Or maybe this story's about playing in Vietnam days after the war ended even as bombs around Ho Chi Minh city kept exploding. Or maybe it'll be about the dinner table he once shared with Chinese emperor Mao Tse-Tung.

"I never got up the protocol to walk up to Mao and say `Hey Mao, how's it going?"' Feigner said.

No, this one's one of Feigner's faves, when in 1967, he was asked to help a group of celebrity all-stars in a charity game against Major League players at Dodger Stadium.

Brought in as a relief pitcher, Feigner entered with bases loaded, no outs, and Maury Wills up, Brooks Robinson on deck and Harmon Killebrew in the hole. All three struck out.

Next inning, Feigner faced Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Roberto Clemente. All went down swinging, Mays missing a Feigner pitch from behind his back, McCovey whiffing at a pitch from between his legs. Feigner added Pete Rose to his scalp list next inning.

"I could still fire then," Feigner said. "It was a mismatch."

Back in the day, the King was king.

"Even if he can't pitch like he once did, he still is the show," Hoppe said.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.