Connecticut produced arguably “the greatest female athlete in sports history,” but you might not even know her name.
Author Tony Renzoni thinks it’s high time people know and appreciate Joan Joyce, who excelled not only in softball but also in golf, basketball, volleyball, tennis and even bowling. And so Renzoni, who like Joyce grew up in Waterbury and remembers as a kid in the 1950s being awestruck as he watched her pitch at neighborhood baseball fields, has written Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce (History Press). “Joan is the most amazing person I have ever met,” Renzoni tells me in an email. “She is a true pioneer and a champion of women in sports. At a time when the sports world was dominated by male athletes, Joan stood out as an equal.”
After doing research in more than 1,000 archives, Renzoni says, “I believe Joan is the greatest female athlete in sports history — hands down. There will always be great athletes in a particular sport. But there will never be another athlete like Joan Joyce.”
Here’s how Renzoni backs this up: Joyce threw 150 no-hitters, 50 perfect games and recorded more than 10,000 strikeouts. In basketball she scored a record 67 points in one game. She has been inducted into 20 halls of fame. And she easily struck out the great Ted Williams on two occasions. (Hank Aaron, too.)
Joyce likes to tell the story about Williams telling a friend, who asked him to name the toughest pitcher he ever faced: “You won’t believe this, but it was a teenage girl.”
Why, then, is Joyce not better known? Renzoni cites two reasons: she played sports before there was saturated sports coverage such as ESPN; and “Joan never believed in promoting herself like some of her contemporaries and today’s athletes.”
Indeed, when I call Joyce at her home in Florida, where at 79 she is head softball coach for Florida Atlantic University, she is remarkably modest. She says she was lucky to have grown up in Connecticut, with four seasons that gave her the chance to play a variety of sports. She says she also lucked out by growing up in the city where the Libra Athletic Association basketball team played (she joined them at age 15) and living near Stratford, where the Raybestos Brakettes softball team was based. She was 13 when she made that team. The Brakettes were so good that they played all over the country. She also pitched for the Connecticut Falcons, uncorking pitches using her distinctive windmill delivery. (The velocity of her pitches, thrown from 40 feet away, is the baseball equivalent of a 119-mph fastball. The fastest pitch on record in Major League Baseball is 105.1.)
When I ask her about scoring those 67 points in one basketball game during a national tournament in 1964, she admits, “That’s a lot of points.” But she adds, “The ball just happened to jump into my hands all the time. It seemed I was in the right place.”
Ironically, during our conversation, Joyce seems proudest about something she accomplished while playing golf — a sport she didn’t begin playing until she was 35. On May 16, 1982, at a tournament in Atlanta, Joyce began her final round. Soon she began to realize almost every putt was going straight into the hole.
“It was one of those days when you say: ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” she remembers. “After 14 holes I told the lady in charge of the tour I was going to break the putting record. She said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I did it.”
By the time she was finished, Joyce had set an LPGA and PGA record for the lowest number of putts in a single round of golf: 17. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “You’re making shots that you just shake your head and say, ‘That could never go in!’ I could never do that again if I stayed on a golf course for the rest of my life. It’s like throwing a perfect game; everything has to be perfect for you.”
Joyce could have also spoken at length (but did not) about what it feels like to strike out Ted Williams. She pulled this off in August 1961 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury in front of more than 17,000 fans who had turned out to see the confrontation between the recently retired Red Sox slugger and the hometown phenom.
Williams quickly realized after the first pitch that he was up against an amazing fireballer with a virtually unhittable “drop ball.” Williams gamely took his trademark mighty swings but he kept fouling balls off or missing them entirely. Then he tipped his cap to the young girl and walked away from home plate as the crowd erupted in applause. They had a rematch on Aug. 5, 1966, again at Municipal Stadium. Renzoni writes: “Once again, Williams was unable to hit any of Joyce’s pitches, except for a couple of foul tips.”
When I ask Joyce if Williams felt embarrassed by those encounters, she says, “He was absolutely not that way at all. He shied away from crowds and he hated newspapermen. But being around him, I didn’t get that feeling at all.”
Joyce seems incapable of being bitter about anything she encountered in her lifetime in sports, including being told at age 11: “Girls can’t play Little League.” Joyce recalls that she was allowed to play in one game alongside her younger brother. “I hit two balls off the wall. After the game they decided girls shouldn’t play. I couldn’t understand it.” She later realized she had played so well the coaches were afraid she would “show up” the boys. But there is not a trace of anger in her voice as she recounts that day.
Asked if she has any regrets, she says, “Not really. I had fun playing everything that I could. Looking back on it, if I was playing now I probably would have made a lot more money. But I’ve been in athletics all my life, either playing or coaching.”
Of the “greatest of all time” accolade, she says, “I don’t think anything of it.” She again notes all the “fun” and “opportunities” she’s had. “I’m very thankful.”