Jean Faut tossed her arms into the air and laughed. This wasn’t the memory she was aiming for.
Faut, 92, had been waiting weeks for “Women in Baseball Night” at BB&T Ballpark, just over a half hour from her home in Rock Hill. A rain delay added two more hours. So when she finally took the mound before the Charlotte Knights’ 5-2 loss to the Louisville Bats on Tuesday night, she was ready.
But when Faut – widely considered the greatest female overhand pitcher in baseball history – tossed out the first pitch, it bounced a few feet in front of her. She threw up her hands, a smile drawn wide, as the crowd treated her to a hearty applause.
She was a star on the mound again.
Her command was always her strongest asset as a player. And while her fastball may have lost some zip since she last pitched 64 years ago, her jovial spirit and memories of her playing days haven’t waned at all.
Faut says she has hundreds of stories from her time in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which she calls “the greatest years of my life.”
She played eight seasons for the South Bend Blue Sox. Hours before the first pitch on Tuesday, sitting in a back room of BB&T Ballpark with Frances Crockett and Anna Kimbrell – the other two women honored Tuesday – she recounted many of them.
She still remembers shagging fly balls for her local semipro team in East Greenville, Pa., where she learned to pitch overhand. She remembers getting on a bus from Pennsylvania to Mississippi to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1946. She remembers the flying cockroaches in Pascagoula, Miss., the site of spring training that year, and she remembers crawling up her hotel stairs from exhaustion. And how could she forget spring training in Cuba in 1947, when her top flew off during a high dive in Havana?
That last one was her most embarrassing memory, she says, but it’s as vivid as the rest.
“Those are the kinds of things you remember about the league,” she said.
Fictional movie, real-life league
Most baseball fans remember the league mostly from “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 fictional movie featuring the real-life AAGPBL. Faut enjoys the movie, but she jokes that some of the scenes would have never been allowed in real life.
And she says Rosie O’Donnell was the only actress who could stand a chance in the league.
“I don’t think the rest of them could have made a team,” she said to a chorus of laughs. “I don’t. I don’t think so.”
Faut, who lives in Rock Hill, joined the fledgling AAGPBL at age 21, with no professional experience beyond exhibitions and practice with her local semipro team. Three years later, she led the league in shutouts and won the batting title. By career’s end, she owned a 1.23 ERA with 140 wins and two perfect games – no other pitcher had one after the league adopted overhand pitching in 1948.
“When the All-American went from fast-pitch softball to overhand,” she said, “I was home free.”
She also earned Player of the Year honors in 1951 and 1953, her final year in baseball. She came one vote short in 1952, when she amassed a 20-2 record with a league-best 0.93 ERA.
“I think they were tired of having me up there,” she said, jokingly.
That year, she won the second of two straight championships with the Blue Sox. Faut’s then-husband, Karl Winsch, was in his second year as South Bend’s manager. But his tough approach didn’t sit well with the players, prompting some to leave the team near the end of the 1952 season.
Faut said her teammates weren’t talking to her, and neither was her husband. So she promptly put the team on her back, batting cleanup and boasting a sub-1.00 ERA to lead the 12-player roster to a title.
“That’s the greatest memory I have,” she said.
Six decades later, Faut still gathers with her fellow AAGPBL players for an annual reunion. Last year it was in Florida, this year in Cincinnati. Faut said the reunions include anyone who ever played a game in the league, and even some of the stars from “A League of Their Own” join in. The group was once over 600 people, Faut said, but now that number has dipped below 100. She doesn’t know how many years they have left.
Still an inspiration
But Faut’s legacy extends well beyond the league. Her face lights up when she recalls watching girls in Little League uniforms, convinced they’ll be the wave of players to revive the AAGPBL.
“They must be getting ready for the league,” she says.
Kimbrell, born in Charlotte and raised in Fort Mill, still remembers seeing Faut in the stands when she was just a kid. Kimbrell later became the first female high school baseball player in the state of South Carolina, and she signed with the independent-league Sonoma Stompers in 2016.
Kimbrell also won a gold medal with Team USA in the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. And in that back room at BB&T Ballpark, she had the chance to thank her inspiration.
“I got to do that because of what you did,” she told Faut.
Sure, Faut can’t match the velocity and control of her 1952 season. But she’s thrown enough pitches to inspire a generation, and that won’t easily be forgotten.
C Jackson Cowart: @CJacksonCowart