Remembering when the sportswriter met ‘The King’

Midway Stadium in St. Paul was abuzz with anticipation that night in July 1978, when Eddie Feigner walked to the pitcher’s rubber to take in the Twin Cities Media All-Stars in a charity softball game.

Greg Kleven

For those who might not have heard of Eddie Feigner, he is generally regarded as the greatest softball pitcher of all time. His team, known as “The King and His Court” was famous for taking on all comers, and the unique aspect of this team was that it included only four players – Feigner, a catcher, a first baseman and a fielder.

Anyway, the Media All-Stars were overmatched. There were a few athletes in the bunch – sportscaster Dave Sheehan and WDGY Radio personality Johnny Canton, and of course, the Sun sportswriter, Greg Kleven.

Greg’s softball jersey was something like size 7x and he wore the number 00 on his back.

When the game got underway, Feigner’s team jumped ahead 5-0 right away. Greg whiffed in his first at bat and so did all of his teammates.

But when Greg came to the plate in the fourth inning, he was determined to start a rally.

Like Babe Ruth, he pointed beyond the center-field stands, indicating his intention to drive a home run out of the park.

At that point, Feigner called a timeout and walked to the dugout. He came back with a bandana, which he wrapped over his eyes.

Following a couple of warm-up pitches, Feigner was ready to face Greg. The first pitch came down the middle of the plate and Greg was able to put his bat on it. A slow dribbler toward third base would normally have been an easy out for The King, but since he was blindfolded, he couldn’t make a play, so Greg was safe at first.

“There goes his no-hitter!” Greg yelled to his media teammates.

That was the only hit the Media All-Stars could muster during a 13-0 loss.

Greg had one more chance to bat late in the game, and he had a surprise for The King. Just before stepping into the batter’s box, Greg called timeout and trudged back to the All-Stars’ dugout.

When he returned, he had a strip of cloth in his hand, and he was making a blindfold of his own.

A big smile crossed Feigner’s face, and then he fired three riseballs down the middle to send Greg to the showers.

‘King’ for a Day

When Greg and I were sitting in the Sun sports office the next day, we read Eddie Feigner’s bio in the game program. We discovered that he had won 99 percent of his starts, dating back to the late 1940s, when he began touring America. We also read that he had pitched in more than 100 countries and that he had almost 800 no-hitters and 200 perfect games.

Greg wasn’t the only opponent to get a hit against The King, but he is the only one I ever knew.

A few years ago, Greg pulled that ball out of his drawer at the office.

“Remember this one?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “You got lucky.”

“I made my own luck that night,” he said. “I was King for a day.”

Fond Memories

Greg Kleven, my colleague for 44 years, passed away April 23, two weeks short of his 67th birthday. It is hard to choose only one story to tell, but the Eddie Feigner story is still my favorite. If Greg were here, he could tell it better than I can.

In addition to his base hit against Feigner, Greg had a number of significant sports achievements. A three-sport letterman in football, basketball and baseball at St. Louis Park High School, Greg went on to win an athletic scholarship at Moorhead State University, where he played football and baseball.

His college baseball coach, Dr. Bill Thomas, dubbed Greg “The biggest college pitcher in America.”

No one argued. At the time, Greg carried 310 pounds on his 6-6 frame.

One day early in his college baseball career, Greg was called in to pitch against Southern Illinois in a ballgame at Carbondale. The Dragons from Moorhead were down 9-0 at the time.

Fans in pick-up trucks beyond the outfield wall often chided opposing players.

“Hey, look,” one of them called out. “The bus driver is coming in to pitch.”

Greg struck out the next batter to halt Southern Illinois’ big inning.

For the next few seasons, Southern Illinois fans gave Greg a big hand every time he came in from the bullpen.

The “bus driver” had his own cult following.

Saying Good-Bye

As one of Greg’s best friends, I had a difficult time watching him suffer the last two years of his life.

He had mobility issues following hip-replacement surgery in 2011, plus infections he couldn’t shake and pain that was virtually constant. His arms were often black and blue, and I never quite figured out why.

On Easter Sunday, I visited Greg at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. He was having stomach problems, but was happy that I remembered to bring him a couple bags of his favorite treat, Sour Skittles.

I don’t know if he ever had a chance to eat the Skittles.

When I visited four days later, I was unable to see Greg. He was very tired and headed for the ICU. Greg passed away a few days later. We had already said our last good-byes a few times, just in case.

“You are like the brother I never had,” he told me at one point.

That might be the best compliment anyone has ever given me.

As my brother moves on to the afterlife, I know he’ll keep them informed and entertained. Assuming there’s a sportswriters’ wing in Heaven, it won’t take him long to find it.

Contact John Sherman at john.sherman@ecm-inc.com