He is a figure from the deepest heart of baseball legend and lore. In his every aspect, of electrifying performance and of gargantuan struggle, on and off the field, he appears far more plausible as an invention, as a character of baseball fiction inhabiting the same imaginary universe as Ring Lardner’s Jack Keefe, Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs and George Plimpton’s Sidd Finch, than as historical reality.
But though the events of his baseball career and his hard, sad life seem entirely contrived, flamethrowing bush-league southpaw Steve Dalkowski was and is a true, living, breathing human being. If you’ve never heard of Dalkowski, rest assured that the statistics you’ll be presented with below are completely factual, and the descriptions of his exploits are, as nearly as I can determine, just as factual. If you have heard of Dalkowski, I find that it’s useful to be reminded of these amazing facts every once in a while, as a booster shot for the lesson that truth is, indeed, sometimes stranger than fiction.
It’s impossible to know with certainty, of course, but considering all the evidence, it’s very likely that Steve Dalkowski was the hardest-throwing pitcher in the history of baseball.
A near-identical statement came from Cal Ripken Sr., who caught Dalkowski and whose professional career as a player, manager and coach spanned five decades. He observed Ryan, J.R. Richard, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson: “Steve Dalkowski was the hardest thrower I ever saw.”
Pat Gillick who was a teammate of Dalkowski before embarking on his decades-long career as a successful front office executive, put it this way: “As 40 years go by, a lot of stories get embellished. But this guy was legit. He had one of those arms that come once in a lifetime.”
Consider this anecdote related by Pat Jordan in his classic exploration of pitchers and pitching, The Suitors of Spring:
… a hot spring day in Miami, Fla. Dalkowski is pitching batting practice for the Baltimore Orioles while Ted Williams watches curiously from behind the batting cage. After a few minutes Williams picks up a bat and steps into the cage. Reporters and players, who had been watching with only casual interest, move quickly around the cage to watch this classic confrontation. Williams takes three level, disciplined practice swings, cocks his bat and then motions with his head for Dalkowski to deliver the ball. Dalkowski goes into his spare pump. His right leg rises a few inches off the ground. His left arm pulls back and then flicks out from the side of his body like an attacking cobra. There is a sharp crack as his wrist snaps the ball toward the plate. Then silence. The ball does not rip through the air like most fastballs, but seems to just reappear silently in the catcher’s glove as if it had somehow decomposed and then recomposed itself without anyone having followed its progress.
The catcher holds the ball for a few seconds. It is just a few inches under Williams’ chin. Williams looks back at the ball, then out at Dalkowski, who is squinting at him. Then he drops the bat and steps out of the cage.
The writers immediately ask Williams how fast Steve Dalkowski really is. Williams, whose eyes were said to be so sharp that he could count the stitches on a baseball as it rotated toward the plate, says that he did not see the pitch, and that Steve Dalkowski is the fastest pitcher he ever faced and probably who ever lived, and that he would be damned if he would ever face him again if he could help it.
But alas, how was it that a pitcher with such overpowering stuff never reached the major leagues—indeed, not only never reached the majors, but in nine years of pro ball got only 24 innings as high as AAA and compiled a ghastly minor league record of 46-80, with a 5.59 ERA? Quite simply, the problem was Dalkowski’s control, or more precisely his utter lack of it. If there’s reason to question whether Dalkowski’s velocity was unmatched in history, there’s really none to doubt his wildness. Not only has there never been another professional pitcher who achieved feats of wildness equal to Dalkowski’s, there’s never been another pitcher who came remotely close.
Every rendering of Dalkowski’s story repeats the list of his nobody-would-believe-it-if-they-made-this-up events:
- In high school, he had an 18-strikeout, 18-walk no-hitter.
- On Aug. 31, 1957, in an Appalachian League game, Dalkowski struck out 24, walked 18, hit four batters, threw six wild pitches, and lost 8-4.
- In one Northern League game, Dalkowski threw a one-hitter, striking out 15, but walked 17 and lost 9-8.
- In the California League, he threw a four-hitter, striking out 19, but lost 8-3.
- In one extra-inning game in the Eastern League, Dalkowski struck out 27 batters and walked 16 while throwing 283 pitches.
- One time he was pulled in the second inning after throwing 120 pitches.
- A Dalkowski pitch once tore off part of a batter’s ear.
- A Dalkowski pitch once struck a batter on the helmet and the ball rebounded to second base.
- In one game, Dalkowski threw three pitches that penetrated the backstop screen, sending fans scattering.
- On a bet, Dalkowski fired a baseball through a wooden outfield fence.
- Also on a bet, Dalkowski threw a ball from second base over the roof of a clubhouse beyond the center field fence.
- Dalkowski misread his catcher’s sign for a curve, and threw the fastball instead. The catcher missed the pitch entirely, and it struck home plate umpire Doug Harvey flush in the mask, breaking it in three places, knocking Harvey back several feet and requiring him to be hospitalized for three days with a severe concussion.
- In his only appearance in a major league stadium, an exhibition game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in March 1959 against the Cincinnati Reds, Dalkowski pitched the ninth inning and struck out the side on 12 pitches.
- Dalkowski’s catchers wore not one, not two, but three extra pads inside the mitt.
- When Dalkowski warmed up in the bullpen, an extra player would stand behind the bullpen catcher, to flag down errant pitches.
Just how fast?
No radar gun ever recorded the velocity of Dalkowski’s pitches; that device hadn’t yet been invented. But the question of exactly how fast Dalkowski flung his missiles tantalized everyone. So in 1958, the Orioles decided to try measuring it. They took Dalkowski to the Army Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md.
There, some Army engineers had a contraption that could record the velocity of projectiles. Dalkowski was instructed to throw a pitch through a metal box about the size of home plate, through which a laser was being beamed. Bob Feller’s fastball had been timed at 98.6 miles per hour via a similar method in the 1940s. However, Feller had been able to throw from a mound; poor planning in this experiment required Dalkowski to throw from a flat surface. Even poorer planning had this experiment occurring the day after Dalkowski had pitched, exhausting himself in his typical 150-plus-pitch outing.
And, of course, this was Steve Dalkowski: Try as he might, he couldn’t locate one of his pitches through the small target. Finally, after about 40 minutes of sweaty exertion, Dalkowski hurled one through the laser beam. It recorded the velocity as 93.5 mph, an amazing feat under the circumstances. All observers agreed that pitch wasn’t anything close to the hardest Dalkowski could throw. But he couldn’t get another one in there, he was spent, and the experiment was concluded in frustration. It was a microcosm, one might say, of Dalkowski’s entire career.
The man behind the cannon
Dalkowski wasn’t a big guy at all. He was 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, a Billy Wagner without the first notion of control. As though batters facing him needed anything more to cause them anxiety, Dalkowski’s vision was quite poor, his eyes in a perennial squint behind Coke-bottle glasses.
The Baltimore organization, through the meticulous design of Paul Richards, administered an intelligence test to each of its players. Dalkowski’s IQ measured at the bottom range of normal. He was, according to this test, borderline mentally retarded.
In his first five seasons in the Orioles’ system, through 1961, Dalkowski had made no progress at all. In 1962, Earl Weaver was managing him for the second time, at Single-A Elmira. Weaver decided that given Dalkowski’s limited intelligence, the flood of coaching advice the organization had been pouring upon him regarding mechanics, pitch repertoire and selection, holding runners, and so on was part of the problem. As Weaver put it, “The more you talked to Dalkowski, the more confused he became.” So Weaver in 1962 went with a program of keeping things as simple as possible for Dalkowski, and at age 23, in his sixth minor league season, Dalkowski was finally effective.
In 1963 Dalkowski had an excellent spring training, and in late March Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock told him he’d made the big club at last. On the morning of March 23, Dalkowski was fitted for his big-league Oriole uniform. But that afternoon, pitching in an exhibition against the Yankees, Dalkowski “felt something pop” in his left elbow. He missed much of the 1963 season, and when he returned that summer (in the minors, back under Weaver in Elmira) Dalkowski’s velocity was noticeably reduced. He bounced around the minor leagues with intermittent effectiveness through 1965 before receiving his final release.
While the validity of 1950s-era IQ tests is open to question, it seems apparent that Dalkowski’s poor reasoning and planning ability might have been a primary cause of his struggles, not just in harnessing his athletic gift, but in managing his life and behavior in general. Teammate Steve Barber, on Dalkowski’s personal hygiene: “He had real bad habits. He never had his underwear clean or anything. He had his sweatshirts and stuff in the locker by mine, and they smelled so bad I told him, ‘If you don’t wash those things by tomorrow, I’m going to cut them up.’”
Most problematic was Dalkowski’s wildly irresponsible drinking, and related erratic behavior. Ripken: “Dalkowski could do some drinking. He just couldn’t stop. He liked to stay out, drink and have some fun. He’d always be borrowing money to buy booze and was broke from payday to payday.”
Barber again: “I remember one night, Bo (Belinsky, Dalkowski’s roommate; how bad an idea was that?) and I were together, and we went into this place, and Steve’s there, and he says, ‘Hey, guys, come over and look at this beautiful sight’—24 scotch-and-waters lined up in front of him. And he was pitching the next day! Then he stopped on the way home and bought a gallon of wine and killed that, too. The next night they just carried him off the mound in the fourth inning.”
Teammate Herm Starrette relates: “One night in Elmira he got pretty lit up after a game, and he was driving around in (teammate) Ray Youngdahl’s Cadillac—brand-new, a real beauty with fins and everything. Then the cops stopped him right near the stadium. He’d been drinking, and they were going to take him in, and then Steve threw the thing in reverse and just slammed it into the cop’s car. He really rammed that cop car. It was smoking. Tore up the Cadillac. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. But they took him down to jail and called Earl (Weaver), who was managing, and said, ‘We got Steve down here,’ and Earl said, ‘God damn it, let him stay there tonight.’”
Youngdahl eventually took to commandeering Dalkowski’s paycheck in an attempt to prevent him from quickly blowing it on booze.
The lost years
Washed up as a professional ballplayer at the age of 26, unskilled in any other endeavor (aside from the capacity to consume prodigious quantities of alcohol), lacking learning ability and self-discipline, Dalkowski’s prospects weren’t good. He spent most of his adult life as an itinerant field laborer in California’s Central Valley, and as a chronic drunkard.
In the 1980s, the Association of Professional Ballplayers in America (APBA), an organization dedicated to providing assistance to needy ex-players, tried to help Dalkowski. Chuck Stevens, the APBA director, explained, “Dalkowski had a 14-foot medical sheet. They tell me he had about 35 common drunk arrests in every town in America. It’s a very sad story. But, we had him absolutely dry for three months. We put him in an alcoholic rehabilitation center and found him a job. For three months, Steve Dalkowski was a productive citizen.” But soon Dalkowski fell off the wagon, and the APBA, realizing that its monetary assistance was buying booze, cut Dalkowski off.
By the 1990s, Dalkowski was in his 50s and near a bitter end, broke as usual and now disabled by alcohol-induced dementia and generally ruined health. His sister, Pat Cain, and one of his former catchers, Frank Zupo, found Dalkowski in Oklahoma City and brought him back to his hometown of New Britain, Conn. They placed him in a convalescent home that was literally across the street from the hospital in which he’d been born.
Despite little expectation that he’d survive much longer, Dalkowski’s extraordinarily robust constitution emerged again: He rallied and resides to this day in New Britain, though due to permanent brain damage from all the alcohol, Dalkowski retains little memory of much of his life.
Though in the larger sense Dalkowski’s baseball career, like his life, is a cautionary tale of failed promise and dark longing, there’s at least one level upon which his on-the-field exploits are an enduring legacy. While it isn’t a record of success, Dalkowski’s statistical record is certainly unique. His performance profile is beyond question the most singular in the sport’s long and meticulously detailed accounting.
Here are Dalkowski’s year-by-year stat lines. “EP” is his estimated total number of pitches, using Tangotiger’s pitch estimation formula.
Year Age Club League Class G GS CG IP W L H HR BB SO ERA HB WP EP 1957 18 Kingsport Appal. D 15 10 2 62 1 8 22 1 129 121 8.13 4 39 1577 1958 19 Knoxville So. Atl. A 11 10 0 42 1 4 17 0 95 82 7.93 2 10 1117 1958 19 Wilson Carolina B 8 ? ? 14 0 1 7 ? 38 29 12.21 ? ? 414 1958 19 Aberdeen Northern C 11 10 3 62 3 5 29 4 112 121 6.39 3 16 1507 1958 Total 30 20 3 118 4 10 53 4 245 232 7.63 5 26 3039 1959 20 Aberdeen Northern C 12 10 3 59 4 3 30 4 110 99 5.64 3 13 1437 1959 20 Pensacola Ala.-Fla. D 7 ? ? 25 0 4 11 ? 80 43 12.96 ? ? 788 1959 Total 19 10 3 84 4 7 41 4 190 142 7.82 3 13 2225 1960 21 Stockton California C 32 31 7 170 7 15 105 3 262 262 5.14 9 11 3864 1961 22 Kennewick Northwest B 31 22 1 103 3 12 75 6 196 150 8.39 6 28 2570 1962 23 Elmira Eastern A 31 19 8 160 7 10 117 2 114 192 3.04 0 12 2885 1963 24 Elmira Eastern AA 13 2 0 29 2 2 20 2 26 28 2.79 1 2 538 1963 24 Rochester I.L. AAA 12 0 0 12 0 2 7 1 14 8 6.00 2 1 231 1963 Total 25 2 0 41 2 4 27 3 40 36 3.73 3 3 769 1964 25 Elmira Eastern AA 8 2 1 15 0 1 17 0 19 16 6.00 0 0 333 1964 25 Stockton California A 20 13 7 108 8 4 91 3 62 141 2.83 3 6 1922 1964 25 Columbus I.L. AAA 3 2 0 12 2 1 15 2 11 9 8.25 0 0 242 1964 Total 31 17 8 135 10 6 123 5 92 166 3.66 3 6 2497 1965 26 Kennewick Northwest A 16 15 4 84 6 5 84 8 52 62 5.14 3 4 1488 1965 26 San Jose California A 6 6 2 38 2 3 35 1 34 33 4.74 1 3 728 1965 Total 22 21 6 122 8 8 119 9 86 95 5.02 4 7 2216 Career Total 236 152 38 995 46 80 682 37 1354 1396 5.59 37 145 21642 Career Total AAA 15 2 0 24 2 3 22 3 25 17 7.13 2 1 Career Total AA 21 4 1 44 2 3 37 2 45 44 3.88 1 2 Career Total A 84 63 21 432 24 26 344 14 357 510 4.02 9 35 Career Total B 39 117 3 13 82 234 179 8.85 Career Total C 55 51 13 291 14 23 164 11 484 482 5.51 15 40 Career Total D 22 87 1 12 33 209 164 9.52
It just staggers the imagination, doesn’t it?
Something to note is the surprisingly low number of hit batsmen; the logical explanation would be that most every batter was diving for cover as soon as Dalkowski released each pitch. That anyone ever hit a home run off him (and few did) is rather amazing.
Another factor regarding Dalkowski’s HBP total is mentioned in many accounts of his pitching: For whatever reason, his wildness, egregious though it was, tended strongly to be high and low (especially high), but not particularly inside and outside.
Here’s another way to wrap one’s mind around this stuff: How about Dalkowski’s yearly hits, walks, strikeouts and estimated pitch totals, per nine innings?
Year H BB SO EP 1957 3.2 18.7 17.6 229 1958 4.0 18.7 17.7 232 1959 4.4 20.4 15.2 238 1960 5.6 13.9 13.9 205 1961 6.6 17.1 13.1 225 1962 6.6 6.4 10.8 162 1963 5.9 8.8 7.9 169 1964 8.2 6.1 11.1 166 1965 8.8 6.3 7.0 163 Career 6.2 12.2 12.6 222
Through 1961, after five seasons in the minors, Dalkowski had a career record of 19-52 with a 7.07 ERA, despite a strikeout rate of more than 15 per nine innings. He was throwing around 230 pitches per nine innings.
Given this, Weaver’s breakthrough with him in 1962 was truly remarkable—reducing Dalkowski’s long-established walk rate by about two-thirds, and reducing his pitch count rate by nearly one-third. Here we see it graphically, this time expressed as a proportion of batters faced:
Yes, you’re reading that correctly: In both 1957 and 1958, nearly three-quarters of the batters Dalkowski faced either walked or struck out.
The plunging walk rate in 1962 is quite dramatic, but the declining strikeout rate following the early 1963 arm injury is all too clear as well.
The perspective of a fellow phenom
Like Dalkowski, Pat Jordan was a fastballing teenaged hot prospect whose baseball career soon ended in frustration and bitterness. Unlike Dalkowski, Jordan was able to leverage his pro ball experience into a platform from which to launch a successful second career, as a writer.
Here’s Jordan’s reckoning of Dalkowski’s curse, and his blessing:
Dalkowski could only have succeeded if he had tempered his blazing speed with control and discipline—in short, had compromised his fastball, because with control inevitably comes a loss of speed. His wildness can be considered a refusal to give up any of his speed, even in the hope of gaining control and big-league glory. Instead, Dalkowski settled for those isolated, pure, distilled moments of private success attributable solely to talent.
References & Resources
“The Wildest Pitcher,” Time, July 18, 1960: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,869618,00.html
Pat Jordan, The Suitors of Spring (New York: Warner Paperback, 1974), pp. 26-27, 33.
Jared Hoffman, “Minor League Legends: Steve Dalkowski,” The Sporting News, Aug. 24, 1999: http://www.sportingnews.com/archives/sports2000/players/175838.html
Jeff Hause, “Poor Sports: Celebrating the Worst in Athletics: Steve ‘White Lightning’ Dalkowski,” Sports Hollywood, Aug. 31, 2001: http://www.sportshollywood.com/poorsports13.html
Robert Fabbricatore, “Poor Sports: Guest Column: ‘I Faced Steve Dalkowski,’” Sports Hollywood, Oct. 22, 2001: http://www.sportshollywood.com/poorsports.html
Pete McEntegart, “Where Are They Now? Steve Dalkowski,” Sports Illustrated, June 30, 2003: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2004/pr/subs/siexclusive/07/09/dalkowski_flashback/index.html
Peter Handrinos, “Baseball Men—The Phenom,” The Birdhouse, Oct. 3, 2005: http://stlcardinals.scout.com/2/447168.html
Hollywood writer-director Ron Shelton is often described as having been a teammate of Dalkowski’s, but he wasn’t. Shelton was, however, a pitcher in the Baltimore organization under manager Joe Altobelli, who had recently been a teammate of Dalkowski’s. Shelton listened with relish to Altobelli’s anecdotes about Dalkowski. The Orioles had assigned the on-the-way-down veteran Altobelli to act as mentor and protector to the abundantly talented but-perennially immature Dalkowski, no doubt an exasperating task. Shelton used the Altobelli-Dalkowski relationship as inspiration for his characters Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) and “Nuke” LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) for his iconic baseball film Bull Durham.