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Original Issue

The Wildest Fastball Ever

Steve Dalkowski's pitches didn't rip through the air, they appeared under mystified Ted Williams' chin as if by magic

On May 7, 1966, shortly after his release from baseball, The Sporting News carried a blurred, seven-year-old photograph of one Stephen Louis Dalkowski, along with a brief story that was headlined: LIVING LEGEND RELEASED. It began, "Steve Dalkowski, a baseball legend in his own time, apparently has thrown his last professional pitch." The description was not hyperbolic. Despite the fact that he never pitched an inning in the major leagues, few people in organized baseball at that time had not heard of Steve Dalkowski.

The legend began 10 years before, on a hot spring day in Miami, Fla., when Dalkowski was pitching batting practice for the Baltimore Orioles before an exhibition game with the Red Sox. According to several guys who were there, Ted Williams was watching curiously from behind the batting cage. After a few minutes Williams picked up a bat and stepped into the cage. Reporters and players moved quickly closer to see this classic confrontation. Williams took three level, disciplined practice swings, cocked his bat, and motioned with his head for Dalkowski to deliver the ball. Dalkowski went into his spare pump, his right leg rising a few inches off the ground, his left arm pulling back and then flicking out from the side of his body like an attacking cobra. The ball did not rip through the air like most fastballs, but seemed to appear suddenly and silently in the catcher's glove.

The catcher held the ball for a few seconds a few inches under Williams' chin. Williams looked back at it, then at Dalkowski, squinting at him from the mound, and then he dropped his bat and stepped out of the cage. The writers immediately asked Williams how fast Steve Dalkowski really was. Williams, whose eyes were said to be so sharp that he could count the stitches on a baseball as it rotated toward the plate, told them he had not seen the pitch, that Steve Dalkowski was the fastest pitcher he ever faced and that he would be damned if he would ever face him again if he could help it.

Ted Williams was not the only baseball authority awed by Dalkowski's speed. Paul Richards, Harry Brecheen, Earl Weaver and just about anyone who had ever seen him throw claimed he was faster than Johnson or Feller or any of the fabled oldtimers. The Orioles, who owned Dalkowski from 1957 to 1965, once sent him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where they used Army equipment to test the speed of his fastball. The machine clocked it at 93.5 mph, about 5 mph slower than Bob Feller's, which was clocked on similar equipment. But Feller had thrown his fastball from a high mound, which added 5 to 8 mph to its speed, and Dalkowski had thrown his from level ground. Also, Dalkowski had pitched a game the day before, which it was estimated knocked off another 5 to 10 mph. Finally, Dalkowski was literally exhausted by the time the machine clocked his pitch because he had thrown for 40 minutes beforehand, just trying to get a fastball within range of the device. All things considered, it was assumed conservatively that Dalkowski, when right, could throw a baseball at well over 105 mph.

His problem at Aberdeen was typical. His wildness was chronic and incurable. In nine years of minor league pitching he walked 1,354 batters in 995 innings. He struck out 1,396. In his last year of high school Dalkowski pitched a no-hitter in which he walked 18 batters and fanned the same number. In 1957 at Kingsport he led the Appalachian League with 129 walks, 39 wild pitches and 121 strikeouts in 62 innings. He once walked 21 batters in a Northern League game and in another he struck out 21 batters to tie a league record. In 1960 Dalkowski set a California League record with 262 walks in 170 innings. He fanned the same number. In 1961 he set a Northwest League record with 196 walks in 103 innings while striking out 150 batters.

Stories of Dalkowski's speed and wildness passed from one minor league town to another. Inevitably, the stories outgrew the man, until it was no longer possible to distinguish fact from fiction. But, no matter how embellished, one fact always remained: Dalkowski struck out more batters and walked more batters per nine-inning game than any professional pitcher in baseball history.

It was because of his blinding speed that the Baltimore Orioles bore with him through eight years of frustration. Each year the Oriole management would try something new to discipline his talent. They made him throw fastballs at a wooden target. They made him throw on the sidelines until he was exhausted, under the assumption that once his lively arm was tired and his speed muted he could throw strikes. They bought him thick, Captain Video-type eyeglasses to correct his faulty 20-80/20-60 vision. They made him pitch batting practice every day for two straight weeks in the hope that facing a batter would help guide his pitches. And finally they made him throw from only 15 feet away from his catcher with the belief that once he threw strikes from that distance the distance could be increased gradually to 60 feet six inches, from where he would also throw strikes.

Nothing doing. After 20 minutes throwing at a wooden target the target was in splinters. No matter how long he threw on the sidelines his arm never got tired. No matter how thick his glasses were all they helped to do was further terrify already terrified batters. In the end all the experiments failed, chiefly because if ever a man was truly possessed by his talent it was Steve Dalkowski.

"When I signed Steve in 1957," said Baltimore Scout Frank McGowan, "he was a shy, introverted kid with absolutely no confidence. Even in high school he walked everybody. But we gave him a $4,000 bonus, the limit at the time, because Harry Brecheen said he had the best arm he ever saw. Everyone knew it was a gamble, but we all thought it was worth it.

"I feel there were three things in particular that prevented Steve from making the big leagues. The first was that boy he almost killed in Kingsport. He hit him in the side of the head with a fastball and the boy never played ball again. They say the kid was never quite right in the head afterward, either.

"After that Steve was always terrified of hitting someone. One year Clyde King, his manager at Rochester, put a batter on each side of the plate and made Steve throw between them. He threw five or six strikes right down the middle.

"Another reason why he didn't make it was that he was too easily led. He seemed always to be looking for someone to follow, and in the minors he followed the wrong guys. One year we sent him to Pensacola to play under Lou Fitzgerald, an easygoing oldtimer. And who do you think Steve got hooked up with?—Bo Belinsky and Steve Barber! I think Steve could have made it if he was ever led by the right guys. Once we put Harry Brecheen behind the mound to talk to him on every pitch. Steve threw nothing but strikes. But the minute Harry walked off, Steve was as wild as ever.

"Finally, I think the Orioles made too much of a fuss over him. They were always billing him as the 'fastest pitcher alive,' and I think the publicity hurt him. Stuff like taking him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and conducting all those experiments. I think he would have been a lot better off if they just left him alone...."

But if Dalkowski failed to discipline himself and his talent, no one doubted his desire. He never took exception to the many experiments the Orioles performed with him, and Brecheen once said that if ever a man deserved to make the majors it was Dalkowski. There were many people close to Dalkowski who said that he suffered those experiments too good-naturedly; that he should have gotten angry and rebelled against them. But rather than become angry with all the interest in him, he seemed bewildered and confused by it. And no matter how many hours he worked in the distant bullpens of Aberdeen, Kingsport and Pensacola, Dalkowski never really seemed a part of all those experiments.

Then there was always the feeling that he never got angry enough for success. If he could only begrudge someone else's success; if he could only berate those with inferior talent who had surpassed him, it might inspire him to succeed. But all he ever said was that he hoped for his own success because he had carried his own uniform too long, and ridden the buses too often, and that, "I never really met a ballplayer I didn't like."

By 1962 the Orioles, suddenly luxuriating in an embarrassment of riches in the pitching department, became tired of Dalkowski. He was shipped to Elmira of the Class A Eastern League, with strong prospects of even further descent. But under Earl Weaver, Dalkowski began to throw strikes—relatively speaking, that is. For the first time in his career he walked fewer batters (114) than innings pitched (160), while still striking out a substantial number (192). He won seven games, lost 10, and posted a respectable 3.04 ERA. He led the league in shutouts with six, and also completed eight of 19 starts, the most of his career.

"I felt that he had been given every tip on control that was ever known," said Weaver. "I knew there wasn't anything I could tell him that he hadn't heard 100 times before. So all I did was try to keep quiet."

The next spring Dalkowski's progress was the talk of the Orioles' training camp. In one three-inning relief stint against the Dodgers he fanned five and gave up no hits or walks. After that, Harry Brecheen said that Dalkowski was just the sort of reliever the Orioles had been looking for. His prospects were definitely bullish. Then in an exhibition game near the end of spring training, Dalkowski fielded a bunt and threw off-balance to first base. He got the runner, but also pinched a muscle in his elbow. He was never the same pitcher again.

The Orioles shipped him to Rochester of the International League in the hopes that his arm might come around there. But he could pitch only 12 innings, and then 29 innings at Elmira, and for the first time his strikeout average slipped to less than one per inning. The following season he started at Elmira and then drifted down to Stockton. In 1965 he was sent to Tri-Cities of the Class B-caliber Northwest League, and finally in midseason the Orioles released him. The Los Angeles Angels picked him up and sent him to San Jose, but the following spring the Angels gave him his unconditional release.

Dalkowski drifted down to Mexico to play in the Mexican League in 1968, only to arrive just as a major hurricane disrupted the entire league. Steve finally returned to Stockton where he married a schoolteacher. He worked for a while in his mother-in-law's chain of pet shops then he divorced his wife and disappeared from sight.

Steve Dalkowski's real fame lies not in any list of statistics or legends but in all those low minor league towns like Wellsville and Leesburg and Yakima and Stockton, where young players still struggle toward the major leagues. To these minor-leaguers Dalkowski always symbolized every frustration and elation they had ever felt. His successes and failures were theirs and, though he failed, they looked with pride on that, too. Because his failure was not one of deficiency, but rather of excess. He was too fast. His ball moved too much. His talent was too superhuman. In a way, Dalkowski's failure softened the grimness of their own possible failure. It did not matter that he never won a major league game, or never became a star, or never even threw a single strike past "led Williams. It mattered only that once, just once, Steve Dalkowski threw a fastball so hard that Ted Williams never even saw it. No one else could claim that.