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Seasons Magazines

Connecticut’s Greatest Athlete?

By  Tony Renzoni


Joan Joyce has long been considered the greatest female athlete in sports history. This sentiment has been echoed by many sports critics, historians, teammates, rivals, journalists and fans. Is she considered Connecticut greatest athlete?

In her prime, Joyce was the most feared female pitcher in fast-pitch softball. She was a famous female softball pitcher in the United States, Europe, China and other parts of the world. For example, Joyce pitched a no-hitter against a Chinese National All-Star team in Lanzhou (Lanchow) China—in front of an overflow crowd of 45,000 fans. The only batter to reach base for the Chinese team was by a walk in the third inning.

Joyce was revered by her opponents as well as her teammates. Her pitching success against several of Major League Baseball’s greatest hitters—such as Ted Williams—gave her further recognition throughout the United States and worldwide. But her athletic accomplishments were not limited to the sport of softball. Joyce excelled in a variety of sports, setting records all along the way. And, most overlooked, Joyce was an extremely successful coach and referee.

At a time when the sports world was dominated by male athletes, Joyce stood out as an equal. Her goal in life was to be one of the best athletes, male or female. By all measures, she achieved that goal and has earned a place among sports elites.

Keep in mind that Joan Joyce grew up at a time when females were banned from male-dominated sports and professional team sports. Many people who have witnessed her performance will testify that if she were allowed to play baseball on a professional level with her male counterparts, she would have found a way to become at least an above average Major League Baseball player, especially since she adapted herself to a variety of positions on the ball field other than the pitcher’s mound.

Over the years, certain women have achieved fame and success in individual sporting events (tennis, track and field, and others). But Joyce was a multi-dimensional athlete. She was a groundbreaking athlete whose dominance in team sports such as softball, basketball and power-volleyball gave rise to women who dreamed of expanding their participation in a variety of sports. Because of Joan Joyce, pitching mounds were extended by four feet, golfers were required to hit their shots farther, golf courses were marked differently, and opponents as well as teammates were inspired to play harder. But most of all, because of Joyce, boundaries were broken. Young girls growing up can now see themselves achieving fame and success as a member of a team sport and not just individual sporting events. Because of athletic pioneers like Joan Joyce, women now have the chance for identification with a team and for work opportunities as coaches, administrators, broadcasters and endorsements after their playing careers.

In terms of excellence in a diversity of sports, Joyce is in an elite class, with only the legendary 1930s great Babe Didrikson (Zaharias) being mentioned in the same category. Didrikson excelled in golf and track and field. Joyce not only dominated the world of fast-pitch softball but also was a star athlete in basketball, power-volleyball, golf and bowling. Like Didrikson, Joyce took up golf later in life. She began playing golf seriously at age 37, while Babe was 24 when she began. And, like Didrikson, Joyce always believed that there was no sport that, in time, she could not excel in. In making a comparison between these two great athletes, one important and often overlooked fact that distinguishes Joyce from Didrikson is that Joyce had an extremely successful 34-year career as a referee and an 18-year career as a university golf coach. In addition, Joyce had a very successful career as Florida Atlantic University’s head coach for nearly 30 years and, most noteworthy, a successful and highly regarded overall coaching career for over 60 years.

Fans that saw Joyce pitch in person were in complete awe as they watched Joyce pitch using her famed “slingshot” delivery. She would hurl the softball with such force and speed that many batters would swing at her pitches when the ball was already in the catcher’s glove. As one frustrated batter was heard to say after batting against Joyce, “It would help if I was able to see the ball!” Her pitches were extremely fast—equivalent to a 119-mph baseball, in terms of a batter’s reaction time.

Joyce’s career statistics are staggering and speak for themselves. She hurled 150 no-hitters, 50 perfect games, a career earned run average of .090 and over 10,000 strikeouts, just to name a few. The stats and records she set in other sports are equally impressive, including an Amateur Athletic Union tournament basketball record of 67 points in one game and an amazing Ladies Professional Golf Association and Professional Golfers’ Association of America record of just 17 putts in a round of golf (that has not been broken in over 40 years). Unlike many other famous athletes, she has both a league and a stadium named after her. Amazingly, Joyce has been inducted into 21 Halls of Fame. In several historic duels, Joyce easily struck out the great Ted Williams on several occasions, earning Williams’s lifelong respect.

Joyce has left an indelible mark on women’s athletics. Throughout her playing and coaching career, she has been a champion of women in sports. Joyce has created a legacy that has been a major contribution in bringing women’s athletics into the public spotlight.

So why isn’t Joan Joyce a “household” name? The reason is two-fold. During her playing days, she received very little coverage from media outlets. (There was no ESPN in her day.) Although she was a charismatic, inspirational and talented person, Joyce didn’t promote herself, unlike many of her contemporaries or today’s athletes. Instead, she always gave credit to her entire team. She considered herself first and foremost a great teammate and all her teammates would agree with that.

Joyce was a humble individual who preferred to stay out of the limelight. But many times the spotlight found her. In 1995, Joyce took her young FAU first-year team to watch the U.S. women’s softball team practice in Orlando, Fla. The team was practicing for the 1996 Summer Olympics held at the Golden Park in Columbus, Ga. Besides observing the play of the U.S. team, the hope was that her players would get to meet some of the future Olympians and possibly get some autographs.

But at the end of the practice, the U.S. players spotted Joyce, and immediately surrounded her, asking for her autograph. Although much younger, all the  U.S. players knew of Joan Joyce’s greatness and asked Joan to demonstrate her famous slingshot delivery.

With the goal of getting Joyce the true recognition she deserves, several projects are underway. The “Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce” book by Tony Renzoni has been turned into a musical play called “Joan Joyce! The Musical.” The play has been performed in front of sold-out performances with 15 performance runs in several established theatres in Connecticut. A children’s book, “Joan Joyce: The Wonder Girl” co-written by Keely Baisden Knudsen, Lauren Salatto-Rosenay and Tony Renzoni, has been released with the goal of having children learn all about this amazing athlete.

So, was Joan Joyce Connecticut’s greatest athlete? The answer is a “Yes.” If the question involved her dominance in only one sport such as softball, a case can be made for other athletes who excelled in their specific sport. However, Joyce excelled at a high level in a variety of sports, setting records not only in softball, but in basketball, golf and other sports. For example, her record of 17 putts in one round of golf (a ladies’ LPGA and men’s PGA record) has not been broken in over 40 years. Even with her countless achievements in softball, Joyce and her dad felt she was better in basketball (her favorite sport) than softball. She also had a very successful career as a college golf coach, referee and FAU head softball coach. This is the reason why she has been inducted into 22 Halls of Fame.


Tony Renzoni is the author of “Connecticut Rock ’n’ Roll: A History”; “Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce”; “Connecticut Bootlegger Queen Nellie Green”; “Historic Connecticut Music Venues: From the Coliseum to the Shaboo”; “Connecticut’s Girls of Summer: the Brakettes and the Falcons”; “Joan Joyce: The Wonder Girl”; and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Connecticut: Magic Moments and Unforgettable Disc Jockeys.”