Monday, September 28, 2009



That dubious honor goes to Ted Wingfield of the 1927 Boston Red Sox who, in 75 innings pitched, struck out exactly 1 batter. My research didn't uncover the identity of that unlucky hitter, or whether or not he was called out on strikes. I've seen more hitters strike out in Tee-ball! Mr. Wingfield won 1 and lost 7 for the season with an ERA of 5.06. Look at it another way: he faced 346 hitters and 345 either walked or put the ball in play. One needs to consider that, unlike today, most hitters of that era were contact hitters who didn't swing for the fences. Two seasons earlier, Mr. Wingfield had pitched 254 innings and struck out only 30. Among modern day pitchers, Dan Serafini of the 1999 Chicago Cubs struck out only 17 in 62 innings, while walking 32. As you can imagine, he didn't stick in the majors for long.


A no-hitter is a good thing, of course, but today's managers will remove a pitcher after 100-110 pitches even if he is working on one. On August 19, 1965, Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds pitched a 10-inning no-hitter against the hapless Chicago Cubs but walked 10 batters (and struck out 12). Maloney threw 187 pitches in the game. Actually, it was his second 10-inning no-hitter of the season. On June 19th, Maloney shut down the NY Mets for 10 innings but lost the game when John Lewis led off the 11th inning with a homer. Maloney struck out 18 batters in that game but walked only 3. He also pitched a one-hitter against the Braves on Opening Day.


Third baseman Butch Hobson of the Boston Red Sox made 43 errors and fielded .899 in 1978 in 133 games in the field. It wasn't his lack of experience--it was his third full season in the majors.


The 1883 Philadelphia Phillies made 639 errors in only 99 games, an average of more than 6 per game. Keep in mind that fielders didn't wear gloves in those days. In modern times, with improved equipment, teams don't make a lot of errors. The last team to commit more than 200 errors in a season was the 1963 last place NY Mets with 208 in 162 games.


Ron Herbel, a pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, had the worst career batting average for all players with over 100 at bats--a pathetic .029 over his 8 year career. He began his career by going hitless in 55 at bats. After he got a hit, he went hitless another 53 times. Thus, he started his career 1 for 109. He collected a total of 6 hits in 206 at bats, including 2 doubles over his career. Herbel's other claim to fame was that on June 21, 1967, he served up a grand slam homer to third string catcher and notoriously weak hitter, Bob Uecker, now a radio and TV personality and the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers. Uecker frequently tells humerous stories about his lack of hitting prowess during his playing career. Herbel's dubious distinction was that he gave up the only grand slammer of Uecker's career.

Mr. Herbel made Bob Buhl look like a good hitter. Buhl, a good starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves and Chicago Cubs, won 166 games in his 14 year career. But in the 1962 season, mostly with the Cubs, Buhl went oh for 70, although he did have 7 sacrifice bunts, 1 sac fly and even stole one base. Over two seasons, Buhl eventually batted 88 times without a hit. He did get 76 hits in his career with a lifetime batting average of .089.


The great pinch hitter, Smoky Burgess of the Chicago White Sox batted in 148 games between June 30, 1965 and June 23, 1967 without scoring a run, until he hit a home run. During that period, he batted a respectable .283 with an on-base percentage of .373. But than, the overweight Burgess was extremely slow and was always removed for a pinch runner. (see KENSUSKINREPORT June 1, 2008)

Among regular players, Mario Guerrero of the Oakland A's batted at least twice in 42 straight games without scoring a run. He batted 150 times between August 11, 1978 and April 30, 1979 without crossing the plate. In the 1978 season, Guerrero had 546 plate appearances and scored only 27 runs, although he batted a solid .275. Place the blame on the inept hitters who followed him in the batting order.

The baseball season is winding down, the Sox and Cubs aren't in danger of making the playoffs, so let's work on football.



Sunday, September 27, 2009


Baseball, like most sports, is a young man's game. By the time a player gets to middle age, his skills diminish, and you'll find very few players over age 40 in major league baseball, or football and basketball, for that matter. Obviously teams are reluctant to invest in the future of a 30 something athlete who probably won't be playing for much longer. Thus, it is remarkable when a player makes it to the big time at an advanced age.

Although 40 years old is young for most careers in the real world, when it comes to sports, older players often find that, in the media, their ages are attached to their names. For example, "40 year old Brett Favre leads the Vikings to victory!" or "45 year old Jamie Moyer pitches the Phillies to the championship," or even "48 year old Julio Franco hits grand slam homer." In my regular monthly poker game, the leading winner the past three months was 91 year old Herman V., a retired toy store owner. Experience counts for something.

This season, the New York Mets signed a 40 year old rookie relief pitcher, Ken Takahashi, a southpaw, who had previously starred with the Hiroshima Carp for 14 years. Takahashi adapted well to his LOOG (Lefty One Out Guy) role in the Mets' bullpen. Forty year old rookies are unusual in sports, and the next logical question was: Who was the oldest player to debut in the major leagues?

The oldest rookie to debut was the legendary Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at age 42. He pitched well that season, winning 6 and losing 1, with a fine earned run average. Although he was considered a rookie, Paige, a member of baseball's Hall of Fame, was the best pitcher in the old Negro Leagues for many years, so he wasn't exactly inexperienced. He helped the Indians win the World Championship that year. Paige pitched well enough for about 5 more years, even making the All-Star team in 1953 when he was 47. He was brought back in 1965 to start a game for Kansas City against the Boston Red Sox and pitched 3 scoreless innings, allowing only one hit. He was 59 years old. (See KENSUSKINREPORT, March 23, 2009).

The next oldest was the Pittsburgh Pirates' Diomedes Olivo, who debuted in 1960 at age 41, appearing in 4 games in the September pennant drive with a team that ultimately won the World Championship. Olivo was sent back to the minors the next season where he was the Player of the Year in the International League. In 1962, as a 43 year old rookie, Olivo returned to the Pirates where he appeared in 62 games, won 5 and lost only 1, with an excellent ERA of 2.77. In all fairness, Olivo wasn't inexperienced either. He was the greatest pitcher in the history of the Dominican Republic up to that time and is in that country's Hall of Fame.

Recently, a movie was made about Jim Morris who was a promising minor league pitcher until he hurt his arm. He retired from baseball and pursued a career as a high school science teacher and baseball coach. After several years he found that his arm had healed, and he could fire a 98 mph fastball, faster than he could throw when he was younger.

Fulfilling a promise to his students, Morris tried out with the Toronto Blue Jays and was signed to a contract. He made his rookie debut at age 35 and pitched in 21 games for the Jays in 1999 and 2000 before more arm troubles ended his career. In the 2002 Disney movie The Rookie, Morris was portrayed by actor Dennis Quaid. The movie is very inspiring.


Saturday, September 19, 2009


It was Friday afternoon, on a clear and cold December 28, 2001, as Dianne and I rushed through our jobs so we could catch the 6:05 plane from Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Fort Lauderdale. We arrived at the airport around 4 o'clock and checked our bags and sailed through security in about a 10 minute span. We had lunch/dinner at Chili's at the airport because the airlines had discontinued dinner flights.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful, and we quickly got our Avis mid size rental car and set off down U.S. 1 to our hotel, the Hampton Inn where we arrived at about 10 P.M. We like Hampton Inns because we can rack up Hilton Honors points to use for free rooms at really nice hotels at a later date. We awoke around 9 A.M. and got our free Continental breakfast at the hotel and went out into a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the 70's.

We drove down the Florida Turnpike, bypassing Miami, and within an hour were on the famous Florida Overseas Highway, U.S. 1, leaving the Florida mainland. The road meanders for 20 miles or so through the swamps of the Everglades, with mangrove trees on both sides and water beyond that. From time to time, the azure waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico come into view through the dense foliage. The total distance from Fort Lauderdale to Key West is 185 miles.

We made it to Key Largo, about 55 miles South of Miami where we stopped at the Visitor's Center and picked up some maps and brochures. Key Largo is the longest key, about 10 miles long and less than a mile wide. The economy is geared to tourism, with numerous small restaurants, motels, boat launches and related businesses, like dive shops, sea related gift shops (think seashells), etc.

The road is measured by mile markers from Key West. The "0" mile marker is in Key West, and Key Largo is located between 90 and 105--the miles from Key West. Thus, one can find any specified location by knowing the mile marker where it is located.

We continued on through Tavernier and Islamorada and stopped for lunch. By and large, on each island you find the same types of tourist businesses as on Key Largo but there are bridges between the islands, some of them spanning several miles.
There are a total of 42 bridges on the trip from the mainland to Key West. These bridges are engineering marvels in that they were constructed across open water and required pouring hundreds of concrete caissons strong enough to withstand the hurricanes that plague the area.

The bridges were built between 1907 and 1912 by the Florida East Coast Railroad, owned by Henry Flagler who had been John D. Rockefeller's partner in the Standard Oil Company. Money was no object, and Flagler had previously built the railroad down the East coast of Florida and followed it up with luxury hotels in places like Palm Beach and Miami to get people to go there.

At that time, Key West, unbelievably, was the largest city in Florida, but was inaccessible by land. It was the cigar manufacturing capital, and was prosperous
because of extensive trade with Cuba. The U.S. Navy had a large base in Key West. Many of the locals made their livings salvaging shipwrecks. Even sponge diving was a major industry.

We passed through Marathon, crossed the mammoth 7 mile bridge and Big Pine Key, and eventually reached Key West in mid afternoon. Our hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott, was a little disappointing to us not only because of its location about 2 miles from the center of Key West, but also because it was not a resort type hotel like the Lincolnshire Marriott which we're familiar with. The room was comfortable, however, and the hotel had a nice pool and hot tub. Our room faced a bay, but not the open sea. There was a beach there, but it appeared to be a manufactured beach. We found that the beaches in the Keys in general are a letdown compared to, say, those in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona or Myrtle Beach. The beaches are coral and not normal sand.

Without unpacking, we drown down to Old Town Key West and negotiated the narrow streets full of tourists and small shops. Our first stop was the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum which is in the center of the action, one block from the famous Duval Street and Mallory Square, and across the street from the Audubon House and Gardens. Mel Fisher was a professional treasure hunter who scanned the ocean bottom for sunken Spanish treasure ships. He and his discoveries were featured on the Discovery Channel on many occasions. He located the Spanish ship Atocha, and recovered gold and silver worth hundreds of millions of dollars and had to fight off the U.S. Government in court to get the rights to it. The museum was very interesting, showing how Fisher's crew was able to bring all of this treasure to the surface. It also featured exhibits about shipping in the 1600's, detailing life aboard the ship for sailors, how many of each occupation (carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.)were on board, and displaying artifacts, etc.

After the museum, we walked over to the Hilton Marina. The Hilton has a hotel right on the shore, but it was booked solid for New Year's. On the shore is the famous sunset celebration done every sunny day. The marina area has several bars, booths selling gifts and t-shirts, and street entertainers--similar to Venice Beach in California which we've enjoyed in the past.

After sunset, we walked back through the Hogs Breath Saloon to Sloppy Joe's Bar. Both were favorites of author and adventurer Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961 by his own hand. (He became distraught when the Castro regime in Cuba confiscated his considerable holdings there.) We had a drink at Sloppy Joe's and continued up Duval Street which is the main drag through the tourist area. The buildings dated from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many have been rehabbed. The street has numerous gift shops, art galleries, restaurants, and t-shirt shops, as well as colorful people. We eventually arrived at Papa's Restaurant, in an old house, where we had dinner. We sat on the balcony. I ordered Hemingway's favorite, shrimps Cuban style which was in a curry sauce with bananas and papayas. It was somewhat sweet tasting, and I probably wouldn't order it again. For an appetizer, I had the local favorite, conch chowder which is similar to Manhattan clam chowder. For dessert was key lime pie, the signature dish in this town. We reserved tickets for a sunset cruise on a tall ship for the next day.

Before returning to our hotel, we drove to a public beach, Higgs Beach, that evening and walked on the pier which is popular with fishermen in the daytime. The beach had signs warning of contact with the Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish. You don't want to be stung by one--I was when I was a young boy, and I can still remember the extreme pain. There is much seaweed on the beach, so I don't know how you would see a jellyfish in time to avoid it. The beaches on the Atlantic coast on the mainland are much superior to this one. We went back to our hotel for the evening and took a swim and a dip in the hot tub.

The next day, Sunday, December 30th, was overcast but warm--mid 70's. We parked at a city garage at the Historic Seaport and left the car there all day for $12. We walked the block over to the Flagler railroad station which is now a gift shop. This is a stop for the conch train, a train driven on the streets through the old town area. We caught the conch train for a 90 minute tour to see all the high spots in Key West. The train went directly to its depot at Mallory Square where we stopped for a snack at the gift shop. I had a coconut milk shake at Baskin & Robbins which was the best I've ever tasted!

The conch train took us past the attractions we would visit later like the Truman Little White House and the Hemingway House. Eventually the trip was over and we had some time before our sunset cruise. We walked to the Curry Mansion which was owned at one time by William Curry, Florida's first millionaire (wreck salvaging and ship supplies). The house was built in the late 1800's and decorated with antiques and period furniture. We went up to the widow's walk, probably the highest point in town, and took several pictures. The house is now a bed and breakfast, but the rooms for rent are actually in a building across the street. We had lunch at an oyster bar by the Historic Seaport, across from the Turtle Museum which we did not visit.

We returned to the Historic Seaport for our cruise. The sky was clearing up, and we might actually see the sunset. The ship was the Western Union, a 130 foot schooner with 3 tall masts. There were about 50 people on the cruise with us. The high point of the cruise was the wedding we witnessed. A middle aged couple from Tennessee, the O'Neals, arranged to be married by the ship captain. The couple distributed disposable Kodak cameras to us and several others to record the wedding for posterity. Gregory O'Neal is an attorney in suburban Nashville, and we had a lot to talk about. The wedding was performed at sunset at sea and was very beautiful. We love weddings anyway. Drinks and champagne were included as well as a cup of conch chowder. That two hour cruise was our favorite part of the trip.

After the cruise, we walked back to town and found Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street. This restaurant was made famous by Jimmy Buffett, the well known singer and reputed cousin of financier Warren Buffett. The cafe is on two levels. It is very noisy and crowded. The loud speaker system plays all Jimmy Buffett, all the time. I had a cheeseburger, made famous by the J.B. song Cheeseburger in Paradise. The seafood bisque was very good also.

We finished dinner and found the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum further down Duval Street. We didn't have high expectations, but spent two hours there, amazed at the weird exhibits like two headed cats and stuff like that.

New Year's Eve day brought rain. We had planned to take a glass bottom boat tour, but it was cancelled because of the weather. We parked on the street and walked through the rain to the Hemingway House. On the way, we stopped at a small grocery store and bought plastic ponchos to keep the rain off. The Hemingway House was a very interesting guided tour. We learned the story of Hemingway's life--his four marriages, life in Europe after World War I, his fishing trips, safaris--the bases of his novels. The house has a swimming pool and extensive gardens. The pool was built by his first wife, Pauline, a gift to Ernest when he returned from Europe. It was the only swimming pool in Key West at the time. Ernie was upset because the pool cost so much money, and he threw his last penny at Pauline. Talk about the perils of Pauline! Well she had the penny embedded in concrete and it is still there. Actually Mrs. Hemingway was wealthy in her own right. Every room has a story and we heard most of them.

We then drove to the Hilton to sign up for the New Year's Eve party. It had been scheduled for the pier, but because of the rain, it had to be moved inside to the Truman Ballroom (there's a Dewey Ballroom also). We paid $190 for tickets to the party, left the car at the Hilton garage and walked uptown. Dianne wanted onion soup, and the concierge told us about a French cafe on the 800 block of Duval. The 800 block turned out to be 8 blocks away, but we sloshed over there anyway. We arrived, tired and soaked. I took off my sandals in the restaurant to dry off my feet. Fortunately, the food was very good. The soup and the crepe dishes were outstanding.

After lunch, we went to the Truman Little White House. I've always admired Harry Truman, a regular guy who became president, accepted the awesome responsibility, and by and large made the correct decisions concerning the major issues of Postwar America. The house was originally the officer's quarters at the Navy base. We saw many Truman artifacts and original furniture. For example, they had Truman's poker table. We learned that, although Truman loved the game, he was not a good poker player because he was too optimistic and would stay in the hand too long with bad cards. Often, the admirals and cabinet members would let him win, for job security. The museum showed films about the Truman years (Cold War, Marshall Plan, etc.).

We toured the Audubon House which actually was not the great naturalist's house. Instead it was the house of Capt. John Geiger, who made his fortune salvaging wrecked ships. At one time, the naturalist, John James Audubon visited there, and the Geigers had several original Audubon paintings hanging on the wall. The furniture is European and is mostly mahogany. Key West is an incongruous place for that type of furniture, but it was salvaged from ships bound for someplace else.

Rather than move the car and search for a scarce parking place later, we decided to taxi back to our hotel to change for the New Year's Party. We got back to the hotel and decided to sit in the hot tub for awhile. On a cold rainy day, this is a pleasure. The hot tub has a thatched roof over it for shelter.

We got back to the Hilton about 7 P.M. and waited for awhile in the lobby. We met some nice folks from Connecticut while waiting. The dinner was scheduled for 7:30 and at that time the tables were assigned and the bar opened. You could drink as much as you wanted, but we weren't interested in getting drunk. The waiters passed out hot hors d'oevres which were very tasty. We sat between a couple from upstate New York and a local couple. The man from Key West was a plumbing contractor. The people were very friendly and fun loving. The party had an 8 piece orchestra from Miami who played a wide assortment of music and we did a lot of dancing.

The dinner was filet mignon, stuffed with some type of boursin creme sauce which was excellent. Along with that was lobster tail medallions with butter sauce and roasted red pepper whipped potatoes. The appetizer was a shrimp and stone crab cocktail. The salad was watercress, poached pears, smoked prosciutto, gorgonzola cheese and sundried tomatoes. Had enough? Dessert was a sweet table with stuff like banana creme brulee, tiramisu, cakes, pastries, and, of course, key lime pie.

After the stroke of midnight, we went down the block to Duval Street and found thousands of people in the streets celebrating. They quickly dispersed after that and we went back to our hotel. Hopefully 2002 would prove to be a better year.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Recently, while walking through Memphis, like the Marc Cohn song, we visited the ghosts of Elvis and Johnny Cash at the Sun Studios. Visiting the studio, located at 706 Union St., in a questionable neighborhood, next to Walker Radiator Shop, is an almost religious experience. One is overpowered by the thought that giants of the music industry had walked this hallowed ground. The rich history this ancient building has seen cannot be comprehended. When Sam Phillips opened his music business on this site some 60 years ago, with a 10 year lease, nobody could have dreamed that this nondescript building would become an iconic monument of the rock era.

In the beginning, the struggling Phillips' Memphis Recording Service would record anything--weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and amateur musicians on his 50's era Ampex recording device. The company's slogan was "We record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime." In this Delta blues country, he recorded many Black musicians like Riley King (we know him as B.B.King--B.B. stands for "Blues Boy") and Chester Arthur Burnett (named after the 21st president), a huge man with a booming voice who became known as Howlin' Wolf, along with many lesser names known mainly to serious blues aficionadoes. A young Elvis Prestly (at least his first name was spelled correctly in the program) had recently performed successfully in his high school talent show and wanted to cut a record for his mother's birthday. In his now familiar baritone voice, the young Presley sang My Happiness, an old Tin Pan Alley song, later a 1959 hit for Connie Francis.

Phillips was off that day in 1953, and his office manager Marion Keisker did the recording. She thought Presley had some potential and played the recording for Phillips who was unconvinced. She kept lobbying, and several months later, Phillips needed a backup singer and called Elvis into the studio. He didn't do well, but Phillips put him in touch with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. They made a few country songs together, and one day, the three were jamming in the studio with Elvis singing a country blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup called That's All Right Mama. Phillips knew then that he had something--a white singer who sounded black. Sun recorded the song and got play on the local stations with the help of DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) who interviewed Presley, emphasizing that Elvis was a graduate of Humes High School--many listeners had assumed that he was black, but knew that Humes was an all white school.

We entered the crowded shrine and found a small soda fountain selling milkshakes as well as every imaginable souvenir--postcards, t-shirts, caps, pictures, posters. The walls, counters and tables were covered by 50's newspaper clippings, photos of singers like Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis with his 13 year old second wife, and, most of all, Elvis! You can buy a Hawaiian shirt with a large picture of Elvis and Ann-Margret. I later saw a guy on Beale Street wearing one.

The tour guide was a pleasant, personable young man with Buddy Holly glasses named El Dorado. I didn't ask if that was his real name. In any event, Mr. Dorado has a sense of irony and understatement, which is easy to have in the presence of so many musical geniuses. For example, he spoke of the 1956 jam session in the studio featuring the new star Presley with Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes) and Johnny Cash, with their then unknown piano player whom we now know as Jerry Lee Lewis. The large photo of that so-called million dollar quartet is now a collector's item.

The walls are peppered with old 45 rpm Sun label records with the names of so many legends. In some cases, Phillips recorded the songs for other labels like Chicago's Chess Records, and Jerry Wexler's Atlantic Records. Mr. Dorado would play samples for us from the original recordings. He played the 1953 Sun recording Bear Cat by Rufus Thomas which sounded to me an awful lot like the Big Mama Thornton song Hound Dog, which I called to his attention. "You ain't nothin' but a bear cat!" At that time, the lawyers thought the same thing and filed suit. Phillips had to pay a settlement. Elvis's later recording of Hound Dog on RCA Records sold millions.

The first rock 'n' roll song was the 1951 song Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, an ode to the popular Oldsmobile model. The accompaniment band was led by none other than Ike Turner, long before Tina came along. Brenston was a saxophone player in Turner's band. Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock came 4 years later.

The early years of the Memphis Recording Service featured local Black blues musicians like Little Junior Parker, Little Milton Campbell, and Little Walter Horton. All those "little" people left Phillips longing for some BIG names. He recorded many of those artists for other labels. The local blues guys began to flee the poverty of the Delta region and migrate to Chicago where Chess Records was snapping them up. Phillips started Sun Records in 1952 with his brother Judd (later Jerry Lee Lewis' long time manager) to protect his business. He had to win a legal battle to use the name "Sun" Records which had been used by several record companies. For example, Sun Records in New York featured singer Herman Yablokoff singing the popular 1950 song Papirossen (cigarettes) in Yiddish. When that company went defunct, Phillips' company copied the design of the record label.

A successful recording was done by a group of inmates at the Nashville State Penitentiary who called themselves the "Prisonaires". For obvious reasons they couldn't come into the studio, so Phillips had to travel to the prison. Their lead singer, Johnny Bragg wrote Just Walkin' in the Rain which became an R & B hit. In 1956, singer Johnnie Ray covered the song making it a megahit which Ray performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.

When Elvis came along, Phillips struck gold. He signed the "King" to a 3 year contract, and after about a year and a half, he sold the contract to RCA Records for $40,000, of which Elvis received $5,000. In retrospect, that appeared to be one of the worst business decisions in history, but a closer look reveals that it was not. Phillips didn't have the resources to promote his artist properly, and he needed the money to pay off debts. Don't shed tears for Sam Phillips. He invested some of the money with a new Memphis hotel chain named after a 1942 Bing Crosby movie called Holiday Inn and did OK for himself.

He also changed the focus from blues to "rockabilly" which was a combination of hillbilly and rock 'n' roll music. Carl Perkins recorded a No. 1 hit with Blue Suede Shoes which was also covered by Presley. Perkins was in line to be the next superstar, but a serious car accident derailed his career. He drifted into alcoholism for several years but found redemption in England, of all places, after the Beatles hit the big time. He was the "anti-Beatle" and became very popular there with people who couldn't handle the Beatles' contribution to culture.

A couple hours later, we left the studio, out of breath from the intense experience, and went down to Beale Street to make sense of all we had learned. To sit at the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis had played, to stand on the same spot with the same microphone where Elvis and Johnny Cash had recorded--that is the essence of the uniquely American musical experience.



Tuesday, September 1, 2009


In every era of baseball a pitcher or two stands out as the hardest thrower. Baseball's Hall of Fame has several of these legends like Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Bobby Feller, Goose Gossage--pitchers who could deliver the ball at speeds of 100 mph or more. But the virtually unknown Steve Dalkowski was acclaimed the fastest of all by such baseball luminaries as Ted Williams, and Baltimore Orioles managers Cal Ripken Sr. and Earl Weaver. He earned the nickname, "White Lightning" for his lightning fastball which was estimated at 105-110 mph (they didn't have radar guns at that time). He wasn't all that big--only 5'11" and 170 pounds, but his wrist action was exceptional.

Pitchers who can throw that hard are few and far between, and baseball managers are always scouting the bushes, seeking that raw young talent who can develop into a star pitcher. A pitcher who can strike out enough hitters doesn't have to worry about defense. Years ago, Sports Illustrated wrote an extensive article about Sidd (short for Siddartha) Finch who, by practicing yoga and Eastern religions, learned to throw the ball at a speed of 164 mph. He was supposedly signed by the New York Mets. After the article appeared, the phone lines lit up, and eventually the story was exposed as an April Fools' joke.

Steve Dalkowski was real, however. He starred in football and baseball in high school in New Britain, Connecticut in the mid 1950's. He was a left handed quarterback for a New Britain High team which won the division championship in 1955 and 1956, On the pitcher's mound, he struck out 24 batters in one game, a Connecticut record that still stands.

When he graduated in 1957, the Baltimore Orioles signed him for a $4,000 bonus and sent him to the minor leagues where he was to spend his entire career. At his first stop in Kingsport, Tennessee, he pitched 62 innings, allowing only 22 hits and striking out an incredible 121 batters. His problem was the 129 walks he allowed. A normal pitcher who walked a batter every inning would soon find himself out of a job. With Dalko, however, his potential was so great that the O's had coaches swarming all over him, giving advice. Unfortunately, all that coaching confused him, and he never did learn to control his wildness.

He careened around the bush leagues for several years at various whistle stops--Aberdeen, SD; Stockton, CA; Elmira, NY: Pensacola, FL. At most places, he racked up huge numbers of strikeouts, and even huger numbers of bases on balls. For example, on August 31, 1957, at Kingsport, Dalkowski struck out 24 Bluefield hitters and lost the game 8-4. He walked 18, hit 4 batters and threw 6 wild pitches. Nowadays, managers remove the pitcher from the game after about 100 pitches--but not then. In fact, in an extra inning game for Elmira in the Eastern League, he threw 283 pitches (27 strikeouts and 16 walks).

The Orioles organization took him to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in an effort to measure the speed of his fastball, but in a 40 minute pitching performance, he was unable to aim the ball through the radar machine to get an accurate reading.

The following year at Stockton, Dalko's wildness continued. He pitched 170 innings, allowing only 105 hits, but walked 262 batters while striking out an equal number. His earned run average was 5.14. He won 7 and lost 15.

At Elmira, NY, in 1962, under the tutelage of Earl Weaver, Dalkowski's game started to improve. Weaver ordered IQ tests for all his players and found that Dalko's was significantly lower than normal. Taking that into account, Weaver made it simple--just aim the fastball down the middle--batters couldn't hit it anyway. Dalkowski had his best season, 7 wins, 10 losses, with a 3.04 ERA. In 160 innings, he struck out 192 with 114 walks and only 117 hits. It was his first season with fewer walks than innings pitched.

That earned him a promotion to Spring Training with the big club in 1963. In one game he pitched 6 hitless innings and the Orioles announced that they were calling him up to the big leagues. But in a pre-season game on March 23rd, pitching against the NY Yankees, he injured his arm throwing a slider and was out for the season. He never pitched in the majors. In his only appearance in a major league stadium, in a 1959 pre-season game he struck out the side on 12 pitches against the Cincinnati Reds.

Stories about his wildness abound. Former Yankees' manager Bob Lemon said Dalkowski once hit a man in the back with a pitch. The man was in the stands getting a hot dog.

At Aberdeen, he once pitched a one-hitter and lost the game 9-8 because he walked 17 (and struck out 15).

Heck! Two Hollywood films were made about this guy! Teammate Ron Shelton later became a Hollywood writer and director and made Dalkowski the model for the Tim Robbins character Nuke Laloosh in his 1988 movie Bull Durham about a minor league baseball team. In the film, which starred Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, LaLoosh was the offbeat pitcher who unlike Dalkowski, finally did make it to "the Show".

In the 1994 movie, The Scout, Albert Brooks plays a baseball scout who discovers a talented but troubled pitcher, Steve Nebraska, played by Brendan Fraser, who winds up in daily therapy sessions with a psychiatrist hired by the team. The character is believed to be loosely modeled after Mr. Dalkowski.

Dalkowski's problems were many, both on and off the field. One reason for his wildness on the mound was his poor eyesight. He wore thick glasses when he pitched, which of course intimidated batters even more. Could he see where he was throwing? His behavior was self destructive. The team paired him up with the notorious southpaw Bo Belinsky who in his future major league career pitched a no- hitter for the California Angels but became better known for carousing in nightclubs and marrying C-movie actress Mamie Van Doren. As a roommate, Belinsky probably wasn't the best influence for a young, impressionable player like Dalkowski who began drinking heavily. The drinking got so bad that after his baseball career, he couldn't hold a job, became a migrant worker and had little contact with his family. He was arrested numerous times for drunkeness and other reckless behavior.

Eventually alcohol induced dementia rendered him unable to work at all. He periodically went through rehab, courtesy of the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America. He was married to a motel clerk named Virginia, and that's all we know about her. In 1994, his wife died, and Dalkowski's sister and a former teammate found him in Oklahoma City and brought him home to Connecticut and placed him in a nursing home. He was only 55, but not expected to live much longer. Cut off from booze, however, his health improved although, because of the brain damage caused by his long term alcoholism, he remembers little of his last 30 years. In 2003, he was able to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before an Orioles game against Seattle. His legendary fastball was a distant memory, and his old teammates dreamed of what could have been.