Digging up a wild tale
October 21, 2005
[Editor’s note: Part one of this column was printed in Wednesday’s Sierra Sun. The subject: Steve Dalkowski, an average-size, left-handed minor league pitcher who some say threw 110 mph, but wore thick glasses, had an IQ of around 60 and had little control of his blazing fastball. Dalkowski was signed by the Orioles straight out of New Britain High School (Conn.) in 1957 after striking out 24 batters in a game his senior year. Pitching in the Orioles’ minor league system, Dalkowski ” who was portrayed by the character “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in the movie Bull Durham ” racked up unbelievable numbers, finishing his career with 1,396 strikeouts and 1,354 walks in 995 innings.]
Steve Dalkowski was blessed with the ability to throw a baseball real hard, possibly harder than anyone, ever. And he had little control.
From a batter’s standpoint that made for a frightening at-bat, even for some of the game’s greatest hitters. Ted Williams once stepped up to the plate against Dalkowski in spring training.
“Fastest ever,” Williams said. “I never want to face him again.”
While most organizations will not tolerate a pitcher averaging 13.81 walks per nine innings ” as was Dalkowski’s ratio in 1960 ” the case with the young southpaw was different. After all, the man equaled that number in strikeouts per nine innings the same season.
Somebody just needed to harness his control.
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One manager had him pitch for 11 straight days to tire him out, another had him toss the ball from 15 feet away to get a feel for the strike zone. Nothing worked. That is, until Dalkowski arrived at Class A Elmira in 1962 to play under a young manager named Earl Weaver.
Weaver, realizing he was not dealing with a rocket scientist and that Dalkowski was likely confused by all the instruction piled upon him, kept it simple. After agreeing to take a little zip off his fastball, Dalkowski also began consistently sneaking in his sharply breaking slider to steal strikes one and two. Once Dalkowski got two strikes on a hitter Weaver would whistle, signaling the OK to fire a fastball.
The strategy worked.
Dalkowski finished the 1962 season with a 7-10 record, but had a 3.04 ERA, 192 strikeouts and, for the first time in his career, fewer walks than innings pitched ” 114 in 160 innings. In his final 57 innings, Dalkowski had 110 strikeouts, 11 walks and an ERA of 0.11.
The Orioles invited him to spring training the next year. After throwing six scoreless innings without allowing a hit, manager Billy Hitchcock informed Dalkowski that he had made the team.
Here comes the irony.
The day he was fitted for his uniform ” March 22, 1963 ” Dalkowski suffered a severe muscle strain in his elbow. Some sources say the injury occurred while fielding a bunt by Yankees’ pitcher Jim Bouton, others that Dalkowski heard a pop in his elbow while throwing a slider thrown to Phil Lance. Either way, Dalkowski missed the entire 1963 season.
Upon his return in 1964, Dalkowski’s fastball had leveled off to about 90 mph. The Orioles released him mid season. Unable to overcome the arm injury, Dalkowski floundered around in the Pirates and Angels organizations before retiring in 1966.
Dalkowski liked to drink. He started with beer in the ninth grade and progressed from there.
“Dalkowski could do some drinking. He just couldn’t stop,” said former teammate Cal Ripken Sr.
Following a baseball career characterized by severe alcoholism, Dalkowski increased his intake when he retired. He had married a schoolteacher in Bakersfield in 1965, but they were divorced two years later.
By 1967 he was working in the southern San Joaquin Valley picking cotton, sugar beets, beans and carrots . He was a wino, and would often place a cheap bottle of wine in the next row as motivation to keep working.
In dire need of financial and mental assistance, the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America helped Dalkowski periodically between 1974 and 1992. At one point, after going through rehabilitation, Dalkowski sobered up for several months only to start drinking again. The organization dropped its support because the money they gave was being used to buy liquor.
In 1993 Dalkowski married a motel clerk and moved to Oklahoma City. When she died of a brain aneurysm the following year, Dalkowski’s sister, Pat Cain, moved him into the Walnut Hill Care Center, just down the street from his old high school baseball field. Cane was told her brother likely would not live another a year.
Amazingly, Dalkowski is still alive and well. In 2003 he threw out the first pitch at a Double A New Britain Rock Cats game, and did the same before an Orioles-Mariners game the same year. However, due to alcohol-related dementia, Dalkowski does not remember 30 years of his life, starting in 1964.
“I keep trying and trying to remember,” Dalkowski told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “But I don’t.”
Daryl Patterson, a family friend who was my pitching coach in high school, witnessed Dalkowski pitch in 1964 while playing in the California League. Although it was the year after Dalkowski’s arm injury ” during his post 100-plus mph days ” the man was still a wonder to watch.
“(Dalkowski) carried a hell of a reputation,” said Patterson, a big right-hander who pitched in the major leagues for a total of about five years between 1964 and 1975 and won a World Series with the Detroit Tigers in 1968. “I was anxious to see the guy.
“What I remember about him was his arm action,” Patterson continued. “It was like something I had never seen and have never seen since. I can understand how he was wild.”
Trying to picture Dalkowski’s motion is tough enough. Trying to paraphrase the description is worse. So I’ll let Patterson.
“His arm action was behind his back,” Patterson said. “When he brought his arm up it looked like his hand was at the back of his neck. Then he doubled-up his arm and came right over the top. He had such a live arm, he couldn’t control it. I’ve never seen a pitcher, ever, whose arm was that flexible. It was an unbelievable thing. I’ll never forget it.”
Dalkowski was throwing hard, Patterson said ” probably the hardest he had seen at that point in his career ” but not 100 mph. It made sense to Patterson when I informed him that Dalkowski had injured his elbow the year prior.
Asked who was the fastest pitcher he had ever seen, Patterson pulled the names Nolan Ryan and Vida Blue from the top of his head. But it was Ryan who made the biggest impression.
“I saw Ryan in ’66,” Patterson recalled. “It was the most ungodly thing I’ve ever seen.”
And just think, Weaver, the manager who finally tamed Dalkowski’s fastball, had this to say of him:
“He was unbelievable. He threw a lot faster than (Nolan) Ryan. It’s hard to believe but he did.”
Online references: The Sporting News, “Minor League Legends,” Sports Illustrated, “Where are they now,” Wikipedia, Steve Dalkowski, Steve Dalkowski Page.
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