Steve Dalkowski: the life and mystery of baseball’s flame-throwing what-if
Many believe the lefthander was the fastest pitcher to ever take the mound. But his career – and life – went off the rails before he could make an impactSteve Dalkowski, a career minor-leaguer who very well could have been the fastest (and wildest) pitcher in baseball history, died in April at the age of 80 from complications from Covid-19. And yet, partly because of one missing detail, his legend lives on, perhaps for ever. A book and a documentary – both of which were in the works well before Dalkowski’s death – have been released since Dalkowski, who had alcohol-related dementia, died in his home town, New Britain, Connecticut, where he became a phenomenon more than 60 years ago.Both the book, Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher, and the documentary, Far From Home: The Steve Dalkowski Story, carefully attempt to clarify, and even dispel, many of the myths that have surfaced about Dalkowski over the years. Nowadays, everything in sports is quantified down to each pitch, or play, and plenty of video exists. It was not always that way. Tom Chiappetta, the Connecticut native who took 30 years to assemble the documentary, has been unable to uncover film of Dalkowski pitching in a game. “This is the last time we’re going to have an American sports legend to talk about,” Brian Vikander, the pitching coach who wrote the book with Bill Dembski and Alex Thomas, tells the Guardian. “But it also talks to the foibles that all of us as individuals have.” Indeed, so much about Dalkowski is legend. Hundreds of newspaper obituaries were written about Dalkowski, but Vikander says most contained errors. Chiappetta, who “barely scratched the surface” with his documentary, says that Dalkowski’s “legend continues. One reason why is that people can’t get enough about his life.” This much we know: Dalkowski, a lefthander, was 5ft 10in and 170lb, not a particularly intimidating mound presence. But he was astonishingly fast and wild, with 1,324 strikeouts – and 1,236 bases on balls – over 956 innings pitched from 1957 to 1965. He had 262 strikeouts and 262 walks over 170 innings for the Class C Stockton Ports in 1960. His four-seam fastball, called his “radio pitch” because batters could hear it but not see it, was practically unhittable … when it streaked over home plate. But just as many pitches sailed over batters’ heads, even into the stands. It was said he once hit a fan waiting in line for a hot dog. He was known for throwing pure heat, but there was no way back then to quantify just how fast he threw. People swear he threw 110 miles an hour, maybe even faster. (New York Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman holds the documented record: 105.8 mph.) “That’s part of the mystique, for sure,” Chiappetta said. “They just didn’t have the technology back then to prove it.” Although several rudimentary attempts were made to measure the speed of his pitches, Dalkowski ended his pro career nearly a decade before a radar gun was first used for Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher. And Dalkowski’s career had peaked in the spring of 1963. That was when Dalkowski, all but certain to earn a spot with the Baltimore Orioles, felt a pop in his left elbow, possibly a torn ligament, though his injury was never diagnosed. (The pitcher Tommy John underwent groundbreaking reconstructive elbow surgery in 1974, which is routinely used to correct such injuries now.) The director and screenwriter Ron Shelton, a former Orioles’ farmhand, said he based the fast, wild and immature character “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, on Dalkowski in the classic 1988 baseball film Bull Durham. But there was a critical difference in their stories. Bull Durham ends with LaLoosh in the big leagues, a prospect polished by hard lessons learned in the minors. But Dalkowski never pitched in a regular-season game at higher than the Triple-A level. He was an alcoholic, and his life, like his radio pitch, spun out of control. And that became part of his legend, too. Sports in those days were not as scientific as now. There were no pitch counts to nurture a pitcher’s arm. Dalkowski once threw 283 pitches in a single game – 120 is considered excessive nowadays. Managers often had him warm up, and settle down, by tiring him out first. “Pitchers were expected to pitch nine innings back then – ‘Come on! Be a man!’” Vikander said. Far less time was spent on mechanics, even on strategy on how to approach batters. For example, Vikander said half of all hitters then as now take the first pitch, so Dalkowski might have benefitted from simply bearing down to throw, say, a curveball for a first-pitch strike. “There was information there that could have done things for Steve,” Vikander said. Though Dalkowski did briefly have a solid father-son-type relationship with Earl Weaver, who would later become the Orioles’ legendary manager, virtually no attention was paid back then to an athlete’s mental state, especially to those who struggled with high expectations. “He wasn’t set up psychologically to cope with that,” Vikander said of Dalkowski’s fame. Chiappetta said, “He had no coaching. No baseball coaching, no life coaching, no coaching of anything. If he’d be coming through baseball now, it’s a whole different world.” Dalkowski took odd jobs after he left baseball , disappearing altogether from family and friends, sometimes sleeping in alleys, next to, or in, garbage cans. He was found alone, disheveled, in a laundromat in California on Christmas Eve 1992. He did, however, have a piece of scrap paper with the phone number of a former teammate, Frank Zupo, and his life would change for the better because of help he received from his sister, Pat, and the Baseball Assistance Team, among many others. “I’m ashamed of just going down the drain, and I don’t have to do that to stop this Mickey Mouse drinking stuff to get my act together,” Dalkowski said in an interview with Chiappetta earlier in 1992 that is included in the documentary. He added: “You know who I hurt the most? God bless her soul – my sister. I cry about it at night. It’s too bad. I had everything on the platter. I just dumped it in the toilet, and I guess I flushed it.” The happier part of his story is that Dalkowski spent the last 26 years of his life at an elder-care facility in New Britain, where he became somewhat of a celebrity for being a local kid who became a minor-leaguer with dazzling potential – potential being the operative word. “He got 26 years of his life back,” Chiappetta said. “That’s a lot longer than he played baseball.” The search for information continues, in part because Dalkowski never made it to the big leagues, where information can be more easily found. Plus, Dalkowski stopped pitching 55 years ago. “We’re looking for guys who played ‘D’ [level] ball with him in 1957,” Vikander says. Early response to the book, Vikander said, has been “stellar,” which makes him hopeful that more information about him can be found and sent to the book’s website. Chiappetta is convinced there is old film – somewhere – of Dalko pitching. “The story just kind of continues,” Chiappetta says. If a film clip does surface, perhaps from a dusty attic, it may be possible to measure the speed of Dalkowski’s frighteningly fast, four-seam fastball. If we know for sure that he threw less than, say, 105.8 mph, his legend would surely diminish.But, then again, what if the clip shows that Dalko threw much faster?