The Fireballer

A Legend to the Game of Fast-Pitch Softball











John Caynor, left us on August 25, 2018, and through his passing I inherited an archive of his fast-pitch softball memorabilia. The next weekend was followed by grief and examination of numerous newspaper clippings of his days as a player and through all of this I realized that he did not just play ball, but he was one of the best pitchers of his day. His softball archive consisted of: five softballs (one national championship ball, one 1973 perfect game ball, one F&M Bankers team signed ball, and two practice balls), two pair of cleats, a glove, three perfect game trophies, and four binders stuffed with newspaper clippings and photos of my father and his teammates.

His fast-pitch softball career spanned seventeen years, but was interrupted by; naval ship deployments, one to Vietnam, and military orders overseas and to various military base assignments, and work related commitments.  These interruptions forced him to play on as many as thirteen teams in only thirteen of these years', when most hall of famers played with one or few. He missed games and at least four seasons within his seventeen years because of work related commitments and his service in the US Navy. He retired from the Navy in 1978 as an honorable 20 year veteran.

“Big John”, as he was affectionately known, won the state championship five times, the regionals six, was runner-up in Air Force worldwide softball tournament once and all-navy three times, while being runner-up once. He was selected the Most Valuable Player at the Central Atlantic Regional Championships in 1973, and the Most Valuable Pitcher at the Southwest Regional Championships in 1980, at the age of 40.


"Here’s a man who began his softball career in 1964, and threw seven perfect games in 1966, followed by being runner-up in All-Navy. Here’s a man who two years later in 1968, in the prime of his career, didn’t play because of a military transfer overseas, and yet came back in 1969-70 to play in the USAFE championships, as well as win All-Navy and be selected to the Air Force Worldwide Softball tournament in 1970. Here’s a man that missed the 1971 season after being deployed to Vietnam on the USS Sanctuary AH-17, and yet came back to win All-Navy just two months after arriving back in the states. Here’s a man that returned to the Phiblant Gators for the 1972 season after a five year absence of sporadic playing and still went 32-7 that year. Here’s a man that missed the 1975 season after receiving a military transfer to Mississippi, but returned to the 1976 season joining the Greenville Robertson Plumbing team, and took them to the state, and the regionals, only to yield at the nationals. Here’s a man who helped Greenville return to the regionals in 1977. Here’s a man that after retiring from the navy in 1978, and accepting a job with Roadway, could not play in the 1978-79 season because of work related commitments, but returned to the Greenville team in 1980 to take the team to the nationals once more, before deciding to hang up his cleats at the age of 41. However, he blew the dust off his cleats nine years later, when asked to pitch against the famed Eddie Feigner, with the King and his Court, where he still dominated at the age of fifty, fanning batter, after batter. Big John’s career illustrates a man with natural talent and innate abilities to play at the highest level even after surrendering large gaps of missed playing time.”


On several occasions his team or situation was the underdog and considered the Cinderella story and yet somehow became the victor. He seemed to play at his best when the pressure was at its peak. He pitched seven perfect games in one season, and 14 perfect consecutive innings in another. These stats make a perfect game sound almost effortless, but it’s not, as after Caynor threw a perfect game for the world class Fox Hill team in 1973 it took another five years before an F&M pitcher would hurl another perfect game. Southpaw Bob “Snake” Bersan tossed one on May 27, 1978.

During this time he also competed at an All-Navy level in basketball and volleyball as well as achieving a professional competency in golf. He was an all-around athlete.

“Big John” was well known for his rise and drop curves which were an oddity of the time. He once fanned 24 batters in an 11 innings game, and hurled a perfect game while throwing only 66 pitches. The catcher felt as if he was sitting in a rocking chair watching the seven-inning game. “Big John” used to move his finger on the seam of the ball and flick it to make the ball move. In one game while doing this, he tore the fingernail off and the catcher asked for super glue so the fingernail was reattached. That’s determination and competitiveness.

In 1973, he was termed the “Cinderella story” for the Fox Hill team. In the pinnacle of men’s fast-pitch softball, Fox Hill, a Hampton, Virginia based team, was one of the best in the nation. Already state champions, the Fox Hill team recruited “Big John” in 1973 to assist the pitching staff (consisting of pitching great, Ron Peterson, and Billy Covington) in getting through the Central Atlantic Regional Championships and on to the Nationals that season. Not only did he do what was expected of him, he did one step beyond, in the span of one day, the Fox Hill team beat Ty Stofflet twice and George Ulmer once. Two hall of famers, and the best pitchers of the day. “Big John” pitched the first game in the tournament against Delaware and shut them out. The second game Peterson pitched against Rising Sun and Ty Stofflet. Stofflet no-hit the Fox Hill team, sending them into the losers bracket. Now, Fox Hill faced Flatiron, and George Ulmer, with Caynor on the mound. Caynor shutout Ulmer 1-0, and then he had to face Stofflet, who he beat 2-1, before a shoulder injury took him out. During the game, when Stofflet came to bat, who was known to be a good hitter, “Big John” hurled a knuckle ball passed, and Stofflet backed out of the batter’s box and peered at Caynor as if to said, “What was that?” Ron Peterson rounded out the third game against Stofflet, winning 2-0. For his remarkable achievement, “Big John” received the MVP award for the 1973 Central Atlantic Regionals. The Fox Hill team went on to the Nationals where “Big John” won the first game against hall of famer, Al Lewis, but his injury cut his efforts short even after visiting the doctor during the tournament.

This remarkable feat was just one of many in “Big John’s” career as a hard-throwing, fast-pitch, softball pitcher, and is the focus of this narrative.

 

NOTE: “Big John” was inducted into the Tidewater Virginia Softball Hall of Fame in 1990 as one of 22 members of the Fox Hill All-Stars.























































 

“John pitched in late 60’s for the Phiblant Gators Navy team that was a charter member of the Central Atlantic Major Softball League always competitive pitcher he did not have the team behind him to finish in top of league. After the 72 season Fox Hill was looking to add a third pitcher to staff John was added and had a great season his performance in the regionals when he beat Flatiron and the great George Ulmer and Ty Stofflet of Reading Pa back to back on the last day to spark Fox Hill to Championship. He hurt his shoulder on that day and then strained it again after two innings on opening night of Nationals a week later. After a cortisone shot he beat the legendary Raybestos Cardinals team 3-0 and later lost to Springfield Mo. He pitched one more year finishing 2nd in regionals to Ty and Reading Pa.”
Craig Smith          F & M Banker General Manager

 
“Your Dad was a great pitcher and I was on that team in 1973 that won the regionals in Winchester as a 19 year old. Your father was one of the best pitchers the Navy ever had and I was honored to play on the same team with him. Your Dad threw hard, but it was his movement/location that made him so good.”
Bobby Wills          F & M Banker Pitcher

 
“Your father was a great pitcher and a very good man. We all liked him and truly respected him too.”
Bruce Wright        F & M Banker Rightfielder

 
“At that time he was ranked the third best pitcher in the world.”
Willie Frazier       NAS Meridian Athletic Director

 
“John is one of the few people in the world to beat Ty Stofflet, generally recognized as the best in the world.”
Charles Pratt         Robertson Plumbing 1st Baseman