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Article Published June 3, 2021

She Just Wanted to Play

By Pem McNerney/

Way back in the 1940s, there was this kid growing up in Waterbury. He was a trouble maker, causing problems in school, and his dad couldn’t handle him. So his dad sent him off to his brother, the kid’s uncle, who ran the local dry cleaners, saying, “Why don’t you see if you can do something with him.”

The kid’s uncle put the kid to work helping with deliveries. One day they made a delivery to the home of the Joyce family in Waterbury. The uncle told the kid, in this house lives a teenager who plays in a softball league with adults. Sure she was young, but she learned fast, worked harder than anyone out there, and got along with everyone, too. She was a local legend on her way to becoming a national legend. The kid seemed interested, so his uncle took him to see Joan Joyce play with the Raybestos Brakettes a couple of times.

Many, many years later, after Joyce went on to become an international legend and the greatest multi-sport athlete who ever played, she got a letter from that kid, now grown.

Talking about that letter from her home in Florida, where at 80 years old she is still in the game as a college coach, she says, “He told me how much I influenced his life, because of my work ethic and what I was doing,” she says. “No kidding. Stuff like that. Wow. I didn’t know I had so much influence.”

She sounds surprised.

Those who know her are not surprised, not by how awed the kid was and not by how much influence Joyce had on his life. And they are definitely not surprised by the fact that she is surprised by that.

A Lifelong Fan

Joyce will be visiting Connecticut this month to see a musical at The Legacy Theatre. Joan Joyce! a new All-American musical starts Saturday, June 5 at 10 a.m. and runs on Saturday mornings through June 26, find out more at The play is based on the book Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce written by Branford’s Tony Renzoni, who himself was once an awestruck kid from Waterbury watching Joyce play ball.

Renzoni keeps a list that says on the top of it, “A Brief Summary of Joan Joyce’s Accomplishments, Statistics, and Records.” It runs three pages with tiny type and includes 91 items. A 753-42 win-loss record and 150 no-hitters in softball, along with 50 perfect games. A three-time AAU Basketball All-American who averaged 30 points per game in basketball at a time when there were no 3-pointers. The only woman to make both the Basketball and Softball All-Star teams at the same time. Named to the All-East United States Volleyball Association Regional team. Set LPGA and men’s PGA record of just 17 putts in one round of golf—a record that still stands today. Struck out Ted Williams on several occasions—all when she was in her early 20s. Struck out home-run king Hank Aaron. In addition to softball, basketball, volleyball, and golf, the list references bowling, tennis, rowing, bike racing, and swimming.

Renzoni has been a Joan Joyce fan since he was a boy growing up.

“I saw her strike out Ted Williams. Everyone knew who Joan Joyce was and what she did. She was our girl. She was always our girl in Waterbury,” he says.

We are talking on the phone, him from his home in Branford, and Joyce from her home in Florida.

He decided to write a book one day when he was reminiscing about Joyce and her accomplishments with some of his Waterbury friends from grammar school and “I don’t know how we got on the topic, but we said, ‘What a great book this would be, somebody must have written about her,’” he recalls.

But no one had. So Renzoni did.

“He knows more about me now than I do,” says Joyce, laughing.

“The reason why is that I believe in over-researching,” he says. “I researched it all, over 10,000 newspaper articles from the archives.”

“Yeah, and he sent me all of them,” says Joyce, still chuckling.

“And I said, ‘Who is is going to believe this?’” he goes on. “So this is what I do, I double and triple checked. I checked with coaches. I checked with opposing players. I checked it all.”

“It was a labor of love,” he says, adding that once I know the story I too will understand. “Her life and career read like a movie.”

Watching and Learning

I ask Renzoni what he means when he says her life reads like a movie.

“Here’s what I’m talking about. When she was 12 years old, she helped build a house. She was in 8th grade, and she was walking by this house,” he says.

Joyce picks up the story from there, in a tone of voice that suggests it was no big deal.

“We lived two houses down the street. It was a vacant lot. One day they came in and started to cut down trees. They were bulldozing this, bulldozing that,” she says. “I started to go up and watch them. They started to pull stuff out to the street, so I started to do some things to help them. I was just taken with what they were doing. I was 12. I didn’t know anything.”

She helped pull stuff out to the street, and lug things around the construction site. She was fascinated by the carpentry and so she started to help the carpenter with the wood working, and then helped tile the bathrooms.

“So we built the house,” she says.

Renzoni says he asked her brother Joe, “She helped build a house?” and “he says, ‘Yeah, I walked by one day and Joan was on the roof, building a house.’”

When she wasn’t building a house or at school, Joyce and her brother Joe were at a ballfield in the summer, and at a basketball court in the winter, watching her father’s teams. Her mom and dad worked different shifts at the factory so so that one parent would always be with the kids. At halftime at her dad’s games, she would steal some guy’s glove and play catch, or she and her brother Joe would go out on the court and shoot baskets. She learned how to play by imitating the players.

The same year she helped build the house, when she was 12, she played her one and only Little League game.

“Her brother invited her to play with the boys,” says Renzoni. “She hits a triple. She hits a double. After the game, the administrator, he comes up to her, puts his arm around her shoulders, and says, ‘Little League is not for girls.’”

“Yeah, exactly,” says Joyce.

“That didn’t sway her,” says Renzoni. “She turned to softball.”

When she was 13, she was buddies with her mailman, Tony Marinara, who played ball on one of her father’s teams. She would run to the top of the hill on her street to wait for him, and run back and forth, up and down the street, helping him with his rounds, so that he would have an extra 15 minutes to help her with her pitching.

“I helped him with his route and he helped me with my pitching,” she says.

He told her about the Raybestos Brakettes. She tried out and made the team when she was 14.

Three years later, she was a pitcher for the team, but there was a problem. She had a powerful delivery, but she pitched a windmill pitch. She would come up to throw for batting practice, and no one wanted to practice with her.

“It was kind of wild,” says Renzoni. “She was hitting people. So, get this. Talk about destiny. There’s a guy at the ballpark putting up bunting. And he yells down to Joan, ‘Did you ever hear of the slingshot method?’ And Joan says no. He comes down from the ladder and shows her the slingshot method.”

Joyce listened to the guy who had been up on the ladder and changed the way she pitched immediately.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just some guy. The guy up on the ladder was Frank “Hotdog” “Hotsie” Kuchta, a pitcher for the Raybestos Cardinals and a member of the Softball Hall of Fame. A little league game was playing later that afternoon, and Kuchta was up on the ladder dressing the field when he saw Joyce playing, offered that advice, and changed the course of her career.

When the Going Got Tough

As Renzoni learned more about Joyce’s story, he was particularly struck by two things. One is that she loves to step in when her team was down or in a jam. The other is how beloved she is, not just by her family, friends, and teammates, but also by opposing players who never had a bad word to say about her. Joyce agrees she always loved to get her team out of a jam. “When the going got tough, I wanted the ball,” she says. “I didn’t want someone else to have to take on that responsibility. I took it on myself. And I always responded well to that kind of pressure. If we were down a run in a game, you didn’t want to pitch to me. I was always going to get that hit.”

She loves to tell the story about the time she was playing for the Connecticut Falcons in a game against the St. Louis Hummers. She was up in the press box, giving an interview to a reporter from The Hartford Courant. They were talking and having a smoke (back in the day when smoking was no big deal and no one really knew how bad it was for you, she is quick to add) and she saw her team fall behind.

“So we get to the seventh inning and we’re still one run down,” she says. “And I look at the reporter, and I say, ‘You’re going to have to excuse me for a minute.’ And I took the cigarette out of my mouth, and put it in the ashtray, and went down to the dugout.”

Sure enough, when she got down there, the coach pointed to her and she went in as a pinch hitter. She hit a home run that won the game.

“And then I went right out of the game, back up the stairs, and back to the press box, picked up the cigarette, and picked up the interview,” she says, laughing. “He about died.”

Just One of Them

As for why people liked her, even her opponents, Joyce, when asked about that, says, “I would probably say that’s because I wasn’t a flaunter of being good. I just did my job and you know I was just a plain old softball player. I was just one of them.”

In those days it was unusual for a girl to be a great athlete.

“People called you tomboy and all kinds of things,” she says.

There were also the doubters. She was warned as a freshman at Crosby High School that she might not get much playing time on the basketball team and next thing you know, they had to limit her as to how many points she was allowed to score in a game so that she wouldn’t run up the score.

She started to play with the Libra AA, a women’s basketball team, when she was in high school. Those games took her to New York and New Jersey and all over the place.

“I was playing with women older than me, but I knew where my place was. I knew I was only a youngster,” she says. “I just kept my mouth shut and I played my game.”

Her success with the Libra AA made the newspapers, “like Joyce scored 24 points or whatever,” she says. Her teachers started to follow her games.

“My history teacher, he’d say to me, ‘What’d you do last night?’ And the first 10 minutes of my class was talking sports,” she says.

So she felt supported?

“Exactly,” she says.

Then there was the time she took a job at Bethel High School in the Physical Education (PE) Department. People warned her: Don’t take the job. The men’s and women’s PE departments don’t get along, and the men have all the power. The athletic director and the male teachers at the school hate “the female side of things.”

“They said, ‘They won’t give you the gym. They’ll do nothing for you,’” she says.

She took the job, and started teaching and coaching. They’d send her all the bad kids, and she took them on. She started helping the other coaches. And when the day was done, she’d go over to the men’s office, and have a smoke and talk sports and debate who was better, the Sox or the Yankees.

One day, she was offered the opportunity to bring a regional girls volleyball championship to the school.

“I went to the AD and said, ‘I understand it’s hard for you guys to give up the gym for the girls,’” she says. “And he looked at me and said, ‘That might have been in the past. But you can have whatever you want. If you want to host this tournament, you can have whatever you want.’”

Just an Ordinary Girl

Joyce has been inducted into many Halls of Fame, including the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, where there is a tribute video on her page. The narrator recounts Joyce’s many national and international accomplishments, calls her the greatest softball player of all time and a coach and mentor who inspired countless athletes. Joan’s father, Joe, “encouraged Joan at every turn.”

Her father is next up on the video, wearing a hat emblazoned with Florida Atlantic University, where his daughter coaches women’s softball.

Looking like he’s nearly bursting with pride, he says, “She was a great athlete from the word go. No question about it.”

Janis Joyce, Joan’s sister, is the next to chime in: “She just wanted to play. It didn’t matter the game or the sport. She just wanted to play.”

Then her dad again: “She was an ordinary girl, I mean, that loved sports. That’s all it was. You know?”

So, this ordinary girl who just wanted to play, what would she say to someone who might want to follow in her footsteps? “I would tell them to dream big, work hard, and just go after your dreams,” she says.

And, for excellence in any field of endeavor, she says this: “Be sure to pick something fun to do, something that’s interesting for you, and then just work hard and have fun doing it.”

She’s excited to come up to Connecticut to see the musical that bears her name. There will be about 10 women, students she has coached, joining her. She also will attend a golf tournament in Connecticut that bears her name, riding around in a golf cart, and getting her picture taken with all of the players.

Still, for all the excitement, she remains a bit puzzled by some things.

“The interesting thing that I feel, you know, that surprised me a lot, is how many people write to me at the school, or send me things, of how I have influenced their lives. I mean, I’m talking about people I don’t even know,” she says. “It surprises me.”

If you want to see Joan Joyce explain the difference between a windmill pitch and a slingshot pitch, search for “The Slingshot Pitch — Joan Joyce — YouTube” on Google.