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.




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