Meet the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball history
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - The hardest thrower who ever lived? He's not what you would expect.
Steve Dalkowski isn't very tall (5-foot-11, max). He isn't very big (175 pounds, in his prime). He doesn't sport tattoos, handlebar-inspired facial growth, or a haircut that blooms from the base of his scalp like a sweat-soaked Kabuki fan (never did); he can't muster a decent I'm-so-intense-on-the-mound-gaze-of-death to save his life (never could).
Heck, he's never even been bought, sold or traded by the New York Yankees (never had the chance).
Truth be told, he once wore horn-rimmed glasses on the mound (big, thick ones). He spent most of his career in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system. And though he's as storied as they come, later serving as the inspiration for the Nuke LaLoosh character in the film "Bull Durham," he looks more like Tim Robbins, real estate actuary, than Tim Robbins, actor (though he could probably pass for actor Bob Hoskins).
In almost every way, Dalkowski - from his soft eyes to his warm smile to his pot belly - resembles nothing so much as your favorite uncle (the nice one). He's an average, ordinary, well-meaning guy. With one exception - a 110 mph-plus exception.
"He threw as hard as anyone I've ever seen," said Billy DeMars, a former major leaguer who managed Dalkowski in the minors. "Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Bob Feller - Dalkowski was in that group. The way Ryan had that great hand and wrist action when he threw - this kid had the same thing. It was like snapping a whip. He could have been right with the best."
Could have, would have, should have.
That's the thing about Dalkowski. Despite his bionic arm, he never pitched in the majors.
What went wrong? Well, it turns out Ryan was right: The left-handed Dalkowski could throw napalm, but he couldn't quite get the ball over the plate, at least not consistently. In nine minor league seasons, he fanned 1,396 hitters - and walked 1,354.
Perpetually wild on the field, he ended up wild, period. A 1963 elbow injury cost him both his fastball and his shot at the bigs. After the Orioles released him in 1964, Dalkowski drifted to Northern California, where for nearly three decades he worked as a migrant farm worker and drowned his disappointment in drink.
Today he lives at the Walnut Hill Care Center in his hometown of New Britain, suffering from alcohol-related dementia.
"When I first got out of baseball I thought about it a lot," said Dalkowski, now 61. "I had a lot of regret. But I'm happy with what I did."
That's the other thing about Dalkowski: Though years of alcohol abuse have dimmed his faculties, they have hardly diminished his legend. Among ballplayers of his era, he remains pitching's answer to Paul Bunyan - a mythic figure about whom the stories grow increasingly fantastic with each and every telling.
"Ask anyone from that time who the fastest ever was," said Ray Youngdahl, a minor league teammate. "They'll tell you Dalkowski. He just had the gift. I've faced Sandy Koufax, and I'll tell you what: He wasn't faster than Steve."
Dalkowski once threw a pitch clear through the welded mesh backstop of a Wilson, N.C., grandstand. He fanned bonus baby Rick Monday four straight times, then taunted Monday with "$104,000, my butt !" as Monday walked back to the dugout. In Miami, he uncorked a wild throw that hit a fan at a concession stand. And in Kingsport, Tenn., he tossed a 24-strikeout no-hitter - but walked 18 and lost 8-4.
"Best arm I've ever seen," said Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick, a minor league roommate. "He was a phenomenon. If he ever could have controlled himself, he would have been great."
IMPRESSING TEDDY BALLGAME
On a recent afternoon, Dalkowski and his sister, Pat Cain, sat with a reporter in the Walnut Hill lobby. Clad in a black Orioles cap, a minor league baseball jacket and a well-worn pair of green sweat pants, he recounted perhaps the most celebrated incident in his remarkable history.
The legend goes like this: While he was throwing batting practice before an Orioles-Red Sox spring training game, Dalkowski's buzzing fastballs caught the eye of Ted Williams. Intrigued, Williams asked for a catcher and stepped in to take a few cuts - only to watch Dalkowski fire a pitch right past him.
Afterward, he reportedly called Dalkowski "the fastest ever," adding that he would "be damned" if he had to face him again.
Asked to confirm the encounter years later, Williams told reporters he didn't remember it. But Dalkowski insists it happened.
"He took about three pitches, swung and missed," said Dalkowski, his words slow and soft. "Then he got out of there. He could see the seams on a pitch, but he said he never saw my ball."
Williams wasn't the only one. When Dalkowski was a schoolboy, New Britain High fans dubbed his fastball the "radio pitch."
"You could hear it, but you couldn't see it," Cain said. "When Stevie was in ninth or 10th grade, my father and I were sitting in the top bleachers before one of his games. We kept hearing this loud whistling noise, and I wondered, 'What is that?'
"Finally, my father turned around and said, 'I think it's your brother.' Stevie was back there, warming up. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! That was the first time we heard it."
It wouldn't be the last. Over three high school seasons, Dalkowski pitched 154 innings with 313 strikeouts and 180 walks. In a 1956 game against a New London team that went on to win the state title, he struck out 24.
"I just remember my thumb was always sore as heck and my left index finger was purple," said Connecticut baseball coach Andy Baylock, Dalkowski's high school catcher and a childhood friend. "I learned about soft hands - bend your wrist, flex your elbow, and cup your hand to keep an air pocket in there. I learned by necessity."
Dalkowski's talent wasn't limited to the baseball diamond. As a junior, he quarterbacked New Britain to an undefeated season and a postseason game in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
"In the minors , we had bets all the time how far he could throw a ball," said Frank Zupo, a former big-leaguer who caught Dalkowski in the minors. "Many times in Stockton Calif. , I saw him throw a football from second base all the way to the center field clubhouse. I mean, he could throw it incredible, like 75, 100 yards."
How did Dalkowski generate such velocity? Was it raw strength? Some crazy, bizarre pitching motion? Telekinesis? To this day, he doesn't really know. But Baylock has an idea.
"He had a big paw on him, and I'm sure he could rotate his shoulder beyond 180 degrees," he said. "You have to look at genetics. It's an exceptional thing when you can get every single link of your body coordinated to give you that final speed. Was it a gift? Absolutely."
In 1957, Baltimore scout Frank McGowan signed Dalkowski out of high school, giving him an official $4,000 bonus (the limit at the time), plus another $6,000 under the table and a new car.
"Why did I sign with Baltimore? Money," Dalkowski said. "And a blue Pontiac. Nice car."
Nice as it was, Dalkowski left the Pontiac at home for his first minor league stop at Class A Kingsport. Wild from the start, the 17-year-old rookie fanned 121 batters and racked up an Appalachian League-leading 129 walks in 62 innings while going 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA.
More control woes: In his lone victory, he walked 18 and struck out 24; during another game, he tore off a batter's earlobe with an errant pitch.
"The kid ended up in the hospital," DeMars said. "Never played again."
After similar stints in Knoxville and Wilson, Dalkowski was sent to Aberdeen, S.D., where DeMars was the new manager. A major league veteran, DeMars had heard about the kid with the cannon arm - and was anxious to see him firsthand.
"First day I had him, I asked him to throw 10, 15 minutes of batting practice," DeMars said. "And I jumped in first. Well, he threw a couple right on past me, and I got the hell out of there. I had already played for 15 years - there was no sense getting killed."
Watching Dalkowski pitch a night game in St. Cloud, Minn., DeMars (who had been ejected) spotted what he thought to be the reason for the lefty's wildness: Dalkowski never took his foot off the pitching rubber.
"So we went back to Aberdeen and were playing catch, and I noticed he was throwing great," DeMars said. "Because his foot was coming off the rubber. So I told him, 'Next time you pitch, just think about having your back foot come over the top and down.'
"The next night, he went out and walked five while striking out 20. He was unbelievable. When the game was over, he threw his glove 75 feet in the air."
Under DeMars, Dalkowski had his best season yet, finishing 3-5 with 121 strikeouts and 112 walks. And one KO.
During a game caught by Cal Ripken Sr., Dalkowski threw a fastball instead of a slider. The ball hit umpire John Lupini in the face, shattering his protective mask and rendering him unconscious.
"Steve was very lucky he was wild up and down, and not in and out," Zupo said. "If he was in and out, he would have needed a license to kill. He hit Carl Warwick one night in Macon, Georgia, and broke his arm."
THE MEASURE OF A MAN
In a vain effort to harness his power, the Orioles put Dalkowski through a wringer of oddball experiments. One manager had him throw 75 to 100 pitches in the bullpen before each start, the better to tire him out. Another gave him a thick-lensed pair of glasses to correct his 20-80/20-60 vision (which left him squinting comically at the plate). A third had him pitch to two batters on each side of the plate at the same time.
Paul Richards, Baltimore's general manager, went so far as to build a wooden target for Dalkowski, complete with a strike zone-sized hole.
"They gave him a bag of balls and told him to go out to the bullpen and see if he could throw through the hole," DeMars said with a laugh. "And by the time he was done, there was no target left. He shattered it."
On another occasion, the Orioles tried to measure the actual speed of Dalkowski's fastball. Since radar guns had not come into use, they took him to the Aberdeen, Md., Army Proving Grounds and had him throw at a military radar machine.
Coming off a full, 150-plus pitch game the night before and throwing off a flat surface, it took Dalkowski an hour to place a pitch inside the machine's range. After the first usable reading - 98.6 mph - the Orioles packed it in.
"They had a box with a radar in it," Dalkowski said. "You had to throw over it and cut the radar beam. I hit the box a few times."
Why couldn't Dalkowski throw strikes? According to Zupo, the problem was mental, not mechanical.
"You had to be talking to Steve all the time, like a golfer," he said. "You had to keep patting him on the butt and telling him, 'You can make this, don't worry.' "
Others thought Dalkowski lacked the requisite arrogance to be an effective power pitcher.
"He was a very, very nervous kid," DeMars said. "He knew he could throw hard, but he didn't have that confidence, that cockiness. I thought that hurt him. On nights when he pitched, he could hardly speak to you. But on nights he didn't pitch, he was the life of the party."
Probably too much so. Like most ballplayers of his era, Dalkowski favored the occasional beer. Or two. Or three. Or more.
"He was an alcoholic when I had him in '61," DeMars said. "One night he was supposed to pitch, but the game was rained out. So I told him, 'You're going to pitch tomorrow, so no beer - or just one.' Well, he didn't get in bed until 5 in the morning - with his clothes on."
Zupo, by contrast, insists that Dalkowski's drinking was nothing out of the ordinary.
"They made his drinking something else - like he drank a bottle of wine between innings," he said. "And it wasn't like that at all. So much has been distorted. He never came to the ballpark drunk. He never drank during a game. He was like every other ballplayer: You finish a game, you go have a sandwich and a couple of beers. No one was any different. Where do you go after 11 o'clock? You don't go to church."
PITCHING FOR EARL
Whatever the case, it didn't help that Dalkowski hung out with players like one-time roommate Bo Belinsky, a notorious party man. Former teammates recall that Dalkowski was often broke, the result of picking up his friends' bar tabs.
"Steve was the kind of guy that if he had a buck in his pocket and you needed a dollar to eat, he would give you the dollar and he would go hungry," DeMars said. "He was easily led by other players, and he could never say no. The guys would take him out, get him smoked and make him do crazy things."
Yet while alcohol would later engulf Dalkowski's life, it didn't interfere with his best chance at the bigs. In 1962 at Elmira, N.Y., he pitched 160 innings for a young Earl Weaver, recording 192 strikeouts, 114 walks and a 3.04 ERA - more than two runs per game lower than his previous best.
In Dalkowski's final 57 innings, Weaver claimed, he struck out 110, walked 11 and had a 0.11 ERA.
"Other managers wouldn't stay with me too long," Dalkowski said. "But Earl let me pitch."
The next March, Dalkowski tossed six innings of hitless spring training relief, and the Orioles told him he had made the club. But on March 23, disaster struck. Called into a game against the Yankees in the sixth inning, Dalkowski threw a slider to Phil Linz and felt a pop in his elbow.
"I don't know how I knew it," Dalkowski later told the Hartford Courant. "But I knew my career was over right there."
With arthroscopic surgery and MRIs a thing of the future, Dalkowski simply packed his arm into a cast and headed to Stockton. And though he had his best season there in 1964 (8-4 with a 2.83 ERA), his fastball was now merely good, not sublime.
That fall the Orioles released him. Two years later, the California Angels did the same. A brief stint in the Mexican leagues only prolonged the inevitable.
"I took a chance on him toward the very tail end of his career and signed him for San Jose," said Roland Hemond, senior executive vice president of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a former farm and scouting director for the Angels. "But at that point, he wasn't the legendary hard thrower he once was."
GETTING HIS DRIFT
Without baseball, Dalkowski drifted. He made his living as a migrant farm worker, picking fruit and chopping cotton in the fields of northern California for $15 a day.
As was the case with so many other former players from his era - Mickey Mantle, for example - his drinking became chronic, then harmful.
Along the way, Dalkowski met his second wife, Virginia, described by Zupo as a loving woman who "was great for Steve." He bounced in and out of rehab as others tried to help him.
Youngdahl, now a probation officer in San Mateo, Calif., put him in one treatment program (and even took Dalkowski into his home); the Association of Professional Ballplayers in America placed him in another.
"We had Steve in an institution, trying to dry him out," said Chuck Stevens, former president of the APBA. "It just didn't take. He was a real nice man, but he just couldn't handle it."
In the early 1980s, a sportswriter tracked Dalkowski down in Bakersfield, Calif. The writer described Dalkowski, still a farm worker, as placing bottles of wine at the end of his potato rows, the better to pick faster.
In 1991, Zupo and independent television producer Tom Chiappetta found Dalkowski in Oildale, Calif.
"He was almost finished," Zupo said. "It was get him into the hospital or he was going to die. It was real sad. He was just sitting on the couch, watching a little, teeny 12-inch television with a quart of beer in his hand. So I finally said, 'Listen, do you want to go to the hospital? You've got to do something.' And he said, 'Yeah, I think I better.' And we cried."
Zupo got Dalkowski into a Los Angeles hospital, but shortly thereafter, Dalkowski walked out. By the fall of 1992, he was roaming the city's streets. On Christmas Eve, a Hispanic family found Dalkowski in a laundromat, drunk and dazed.
The family took Dalkowski in, cleaned him up, even took him to church the next day. They found a phone number in his pocket - Zupo's - and called it. Zupo and Cain got in touch with Virginia, who brought Dalkowski to her family's home in Oklahoma City.
When Virginia died of a brain aneurysm in January 1994, Cain brought Dalkowski home.
"I remember when he got off the plane from Oklahoma ," Cain said. "We didn't know what to expect. And here comes Stevie, giving us a big hug."
"He was in bad shape. It was touch and go, and we didn't expect him to live very long. But he fooled us all."
Indeed. Though words and memories now come slowly to Dalkowski - liquor's lasting toll - his life is remarkably improved. Recently inducted into the New Britain Baseball Hall of Fame, he hasn't had a drink in six years. He sees his sister regularly. His old high school coach, Bill Huber, takes him to church on Sundays. He has a pair of baseball-playing grandnephews, Nicky, 12, and Ryan, 9.
"He has a lot of great friends here, the friends that have stayed with him all these years," Cain said. "It's a fun time now."
Moreover, Dalkowski still follows the game. Though he grumbles that today's pros are soft, he's a fan of both the Red Sox and Orioles, and an occasional attendee at games of the Class AA New Britain Rock Cats. Last month he caught up with Baylock at a UConn contest.
And get this: Dalkowski may even pitch again, sort of. Coleman Levy, the owner of the Rock Cats and a childhood friend, wants Dalkowski to toss out the first ball at a New Britain game this summer.
Of course, that raises the question: If the hardest thrower who ever lived had just one pitch, what would he throw?
"My favorite was the slider," he said. "Guys were always looking for the fastball."
Can't imagine why.
Article originally published in The Washington Times