The Fastest Pitcher Who Never Was
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some fastballs and legends are heard but never seen.
By Sean Braswell
There’s a story that has been making its way through the clubhouses, buses and hotels of minor league baseball for more than half a century. It’s Miami, 1962, just before a spring training game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps the best hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams (recently retired) has been watching with interest as a squat, bespectacled 5-foot-11 left-handed pitcher throws batting practice to the Orioles hitters. The guy on the mound — the one who looks like a bank teller, squinting behind his thick glasses — is Steve Dalkowski, and “Teddy Ballgame” is about to come face to face with perhaps the hardest thrower who ever lived.
Williams asks to step into the batting cage and he motions for the man on the mound to throw the ball. Dalko, as his teammates call him, obliges, raising his right leg, cocking his left arm back and letting rip with a fastball that seems to disappear from his hand and then materialize in the catcher’s mitt, just inches from Williams’ chin. The future Hall of Famer drops his bat and leaves the cage; when asked how fast the young hurler’s pitch was, the man with eyes so sharp he could see the stitches on the baseball says he never even saw the thing.
Stories of Dalkowski’s awe-inspiring velocity and wildness spread.
It’s like a scene from a movie, and likely just as fanciful. “Great story,” says Terry Cannon, co-director of the Institute for Baseball Studies at Whittier College, “but it never happened.” (An upcoming biography claims that Dalkowski and a former catcher fabricated the story). The Williams tale, however, is just one of the many stories, real and imagined, surrounding the legend that is Steve Dalkowski — a legend that would inspire several cinematic flamethrowers who struggled with control, including Bull Durham’s Ebby “Nuke” Laloosh and Major League’s Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.
A New Britain, Connecticut, native with a fastball that “made a loud buzzing sound” according to his junior high coach, Dalkowski once threw a no-hitter in high school in which he struck out 18 and, like Laloosh, walked 18. In a minor league career that lasted from 1957 to 1965, Dalkowski’s errant pitches would also reportedly knock an umpire out cold, rip through a wooden backstop and tear off a batter’s earlobe. Stories of Dalkowski’s awe-inspiring velocity and wildness spread. “As is often the case with legends,” says Cannon, “many of the stories now accepted as fact never happened, while others have been greatly embellished over the years.”
But the stats don’t lie. In his nine-year minor league career, the chronically inaccurate fireballer struck out a whopping 1,396 batters — but he also walked 1,354. Dalkowski was terrified of hitting batters, though he rarely did, despite his control problems. “Dalko was the easiest pitcher I ever caught,” Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr. once observed. “He was only wild high and low, rarely inside or out — but the batters didn’t know that.”
And there’s no debunking the testimonials from those who witnessed Dalkowski firsthand. Ripken, fellow longtime Oriole Earl Weaver and others who played against hard throwers of that era like Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Goose Gossage claim that Dalkowski threw faster. And while there were no radar guns at the time — and, alas, no footage of Dalko that exists today — the Orioles once sent him to an Army test site, where he was clocked in the mid-90s, albeit in sneakers and without a mound to throw from. Based on that and the eyewitness accounts, some guess Dalko threw closer to 100 to 105 mph, but we’ll never really know.
What we do know is that the Orioles, like their fictional film counterparts, did everything they could to rein in their potential superstar’s control, from eyeglasses and mental exercises to throwing batting practice. Finally, in 1962, it looked like the focus was paying off — Dalkowski had his first season where he walked fewer batters than innings pitched, and, after a solid spring training in 1963, he looked set to finally make the big league squad.
Then, during a game at the end of spring training, Dalko was fielding a bunt and throwing to first when he felt his arm pop, and the resulting injury to his elbow ligament would stifle his one, and as it turned out only, shot at the show. Dalkowski would struggle, both on the field and off, while his career veered into failed comebacks, the Mexican leagues, alcoholism and begging for money in clubhouses. Today, suffering from alcoholic dementia, he lives in New Britain, where he could not be reached for comment, though he did make an appearance in the 2016 documentary Fastball.
Could Dalkowski have righted his careening career if injury and fate had not intervened? As Jonathan Fraser Light, author of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, points out, his arm could have matured, just like Koufax, another hard-throwing lefty who struggled with control problems when he was younger. Dalkowski may have never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, but, says Cannon, his legacy lives on in the fictional characters he has spawned, and he will be remembered every time a hard-throwing prospect flames out. “They’ll refer to him as ‘another Steve Dalkowski,’ and the stories will keep coming,” Cannon says. “The Dalkowski well will never run dry.”