You know the legend of Steve Dalkowski even if you don’t know his name. He’s the fireballer who can summon nearly unthinkable velocity, but has no idea where his pitch will go. His pitches strike terror into the heart of any batter who dares face him, but he’s a victim of that lack of control, both on and off the field, and it prevents him from taking full advantage of his considerable talent. That, in a nutshell, was Dalkowski, who spent nine years in the minor leagues (1957-65) putting up astronomical strikeout and walk totals, coming tantalizingly close to pitching in the majors only to get injured, then fading away due to alcoholism and spiraling downward even further. Dalkowski, who later sobered up but spent the past 26 years in an assisted living facility, died of the novel coronavirus in New Britain, Connecticut on April 19 at the age of 80.
Ron Shelton, who while playing in the Orioles’ system a few years after Dalkowski heard the tales of bus drivers and groundskeepers, used the pitcher as inspiration for the character Nuke LaLoosh in his 1988 movie, Bull Durham. In 2009, Shelton called him “the hardest thrower who ever lived.” Earl Weaver, who saw the likes of Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Sam McDowell, concurred, saying, “Dalko threw harder than all of ‘em.”
“It’s the gift from the gods — the arm, the power — that this little guy could throw it through a wall, literally, or back Ted Williams out of there,” wrote Shelton. “That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”
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.
Born on June 3, 1939 in New Britain, Dalkowski was the son of a tool-and-die machinist who played shortstop in an industrial baseball league. Though of average size (Baseball-Reference lists him at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds) and with poor eyesight and a short attention span, he starred as a quarterback, running back, and defensive back at New Britain High School, leading his team to back-to-back state titles in 1955 and ’56 and earning honorable mention as a high school All-American. A left-handed thrower with long arms and big hands, he played baseball as well, and by the eighth grade, his father could no longer catch him. His buggy-whip motion produced a fastball that “came in so hard that it made a loud buzzing sound,” said Vin Cazzetta, his coach at Washington Junior High School in 2003. The coach ordered his catcher to go out and buy the best glove he could find.
Andy Baylock, who lived next door to Dalkowski in New Britain, caught him in high school, and later coached the University of Connecticut baseball team, said that he would insert a raw steak in his mitt to provide extra padding. Within a few innings, blood from the steak would drip down Baylock’s arm, giving batters something else to think about.
As impressive as Dalkowski’s fastball velocity was its movement. It rose so much that his high school catcher told him to throw at batters’ ankles. “It took off like a jet as it got near the plate,” recalled Pat Gillick, who played with Dalkowski in the Orioles’ chain.
Dalkowski began his senior season with back-to-back no-hitters, and struck out 24 in a game with scouts from all 16 teams in the stands. Nine teams eventually reached out. He signed with the Orioles for a $4,000 bonus, the maximum allowable at the time, but was said to have received another $12,000 — and a new car — under the table. In his 1957 debut stint, at Class D Kingsport of the Appalachian League, he yielded just 22 hits and struck out 121 batters in 62 innings, but went 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA, because he walked 129 and threw 39 wild pitches in that same span. In one game in Bluefield, Tennessee, playing under the dim lighting on a converted football field, he struck out 24 while walking 18, and sent one batter — 18-year-old Bob Beavers – to the hospital after a beaning so severe that it tore off the prospect’s ear lobe and ended his career after just seven games. Harry Dalton, the Orioles’ assistant farm director at the time, recalled that after the ball hit the batter’s helmet, it “landed as a pop fly just inside second base.”
“He had a reputation for being very wild so they told us to take a strike,” Beavers told the Hartford Courant’s Don Amore in 2019, “The first pitch was over the backstop, the second pitch was called a strike, I didn’t think it was. The third pitch hit me and knocked me out, so I don’t remember much after that. I couldn’t get in the sun for a while, and I never did play baseball again. I did hear that he was very upset about it, and tried to see me in the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him in.”
The Orioles brought Dalkowski to their major league spring training the following year, not because he was ready to help the team but because they believed he’d benefit from the instruction of manager Paul Richards and pitching coach Harry Brecheen. They warmed him up for an hour a day, figuring that his control might improve if he were fatigued. Nope.
Brought into an April 13, 1958 exhibition against the Reds at Memorial Stadium, Dalkowski sailed his first warm-up pitch over the head of the catcher, then struck out Don Hoak, Dee Fondy, and Alex Grammas on 12 pitches. “I’ve been playing ball for 10 years, and nobody can throw a baseball harder than that,” said Grammas at the time. Fondy attempted three bunts, fouling one off into a television both on the mezzanine, which “must have set a record for [bunting] distance,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
The Orioles sent Dalkowski to the Aberden Proving Grounds to have his fastball tested for speed on ballistic equipment at a time before radar guns were used. He was clocked at 93.5 mph, about five miles an hour slower than Bob Feller, who was measured at the same facility in 1946. The caveats for the experiment abound: Dalkowski was throwing off flat ground, had tossed a typical 150-some pitches in a game the night before, and was wild enough that he needed about 40 minutes before he could locate a pitch that passed through the timing device. Still, that 93.5 mph measurement was taken at 60’6″ away, which translates to a 99 or 100 mph release velocity. He was likely well above 100 under game conditions, if not as high as 120, as some of the more far-fetched estimates guessed.
Dalkowski began the 1958 season at A-level Knoxville and pitched well initially before wildness took over. He was demoted down one level, then another. For the season, at the two stops for which we have data (C-level Aberdeen being the other), he allowed just 46 hits in 104 innings — but walked 207 while striking out 203 and posting a 7.01 ERA. “Suffice to say, for those of you who have never gotten a glimpse of the far endpoints of human performance, Dalkowski’s stats are just about as ultimate as it gets. How anyone ever managed to get a hit off him is one of the great questions of history,” wrote researcher Steve Treder on a Baseball Primer thread in 2003, years before Baseball-Reference made those numbers so accessible. (In 2007, Treder wrote at length about Dalkowski for The Hardball Times.)
Indeed, in the data we have for his nine minor league seasons, totaling 956 innings (excluding a couple brief stops for which the numbers are incomplete), Dalkowski went 46-80 while yielding just 6.3 hits per nine innings, striking out 12.5 per nine, but walking 11.6 per nine en route to a 5.28 ERA. He almost never allowed home runs, just 0.35 per nine for his career.
At Aberdeen in 1959, under player-manager Earl Weaver, Dalkowski threw a no-hitter in which he struck out 21 and walked “only” eight, throwing nothing but fastballs, because the lone breaking ball he threw almost hit a batter. But after walking 110 in just 59 innings, he was sent down to Pensacola, where things got worse; in one relief stint, he walked 12 in two innings. At Pensacola, he crossed paths with catcher Cal Ripken Sr. — and crossed him up, too. Once, when Ripken called for a breaking ball, Dalkowski delivered a fastball that hit the umpire in the mask, which broke in three places and knocked the poor ump unconscious. Ripken later estimated that Dalkowski’s fastballs ranged between 110 and 115 mph, a velocity that may be physically impossible.
During his time in Pensacola, Dalkowski fell in with two hard-throwing, hard-drinking future major league pitchers, Steve Barber and Bo Belinsky, both a bit older than him. They couldn’t keep up. Recalled Barber in 1999, “One night, Bo and I went into this place and Steve was in there and he says, ‘Hey, guys, look at this beautiful sight’ — 24 scotch and waters lined up in front of him. And he was pitching the next day. In the fourth inning, they just carried him off the mound.”
“I never drank the day of a game. But before or after, it was a different story. It seems like I always had to close the bar,” Dalkowski said in 1996.
At Stockton in 1960, Dalkowski walked an astronomical 262 batters — and struck out the same number — in 170 innings. The Orioles, who were running out of patience with his wildness both on and off the field, left him exposed in the November 1961 expansion draft, but he went unselected. After hitting a low point at Class B Tri-City in 1961 (8.39 ERA, with 196 walks — 17.1 per nine! — in 103 innings), the 23-year-old lefty again wound up under the tutelage of Weaver. The future Hall of Fame skipper cautioned him that he’d be dead by age 33 if he kept drinking to such extremes. He also learned, via a team-administered IQ test, that Dalkowski scored the lowest on the team.
“That meant we were going about it all wrong with him,” Weaver told author Tim Wendel for his 2010 book, High Heat. “We were telling him to hold runners close, teaching him a changeup, how to throw out of the stretch. The problem was he couldn’t process all that information. We were overloading him.”
The future Hall of Fame manager helped Dalkowski to simplify things, paring down his repertoire to fastball-slider, and telling him to take a little off the former, saying, “Just throw the ball over the plate.” Weaver cracked down on the pitcher’s conditioning as well. “He handled me with tough love. He told me to run a lot and don’t drink on the night you pitch,” Dalkowski said in 2003. “Then he gave me the ball and said, ‘Good luck.'”
On a staff that also featured Gillick and future All-Star Dave McNally, Dalkowski put together the best season of his career. Over his final 57 frames, he allowed just one earned run while striking out 110 and walking just 21; within that stretch, he enjoyed a 37-inning scoreless streak. Though he went just 7-10, for the first time he finished with a sizable gap between his strikeout and walk totals (192 and 114, respectively) in 160 innings. He also allowed just two homers, and posted a career-best 3.04 ERA.
The performance carried Dalkowski to the precipice of the majors. In camp with the Orioles, he struck out 11 in 7.2 innings. On the morning of March 22, 1963, he was fitted for a major league uniform, but later that day, facing the Yankees, he lost the feeling in his left hand; a pitch to Bobby Richardson sailed 15 feet to the left of the catcher. He’d suffered a pinched nerve in his elbow. As it turns out, he’d been pitching through discomfort and pain since winter ball, and some had noticed that his velocity was no longer superhuman.
Dalkowski managed to throw just 41 innings that season. He struggled in a return to Elmira in 1964, and was demoted to Stockton, where he fared well (2.83 ERA, 141 strikeouts, 62 walks in 108 innings). Late in the year, he was traded to the Pirates for Sam Jones, albeit in a conditional deal requiring Pittsburgh to place him on its 40-man roster and call him up to the majors. The team did neither; Dalkoswki hit a grand slam in his debut for the Triple-A Columbus Jets, but was rocked for an 8.25 ERA in 12 innings and returned to the Orioles’ organization. His arm still sore, he struggled in spring training the next year and was reassigned to the team’s minor league camp, three hours away; it took him seven days to make the trip, to the exasperation of Dalton, who was ready to release him. Ripken volunteered to take him on at Tri-Cities, demanding that he be in bed early on the nights before he pitched. “That lasted two weeks and then he drifted the other way,” he later told Jordan. Dalkowski drew his release after winding up in a bar that the team had deemed off limits, caught on with the Angels, who sent him to San Jose, and then Mazatlan of the Mexican League. He was cut the following spring. “Living Legend Released,” wrote The Sporting News. That was it for his career in pro ball.
From there, Dalkowski drifted, working the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, picking fruit with migrant workers and becoming addicted to cheap wine; at times he would leave a bottle at the end of a row to motivate himself to keep working. Cotton, potatoes, carrots, oranges, lemons, multiple marriages, uncounted arrests for disorderly conduct, community service on road crews with mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous — his downward spiral continued. Organizations like the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America and the Baseball Assistance Team periodically helped, but cut off support when he spent the money on booze. Steered to a rehab facility in 1991, he escaped, and his family presumed he’d wind up dead. He resurfaced on Christmas Eve, 1992, and came under the care of his younger sister, Patricia Cain, returning to her after a brief reunion with his second wife, Virginia Greenwood, ended with her death in 1994.
Cain moved her brother into an assisted living facility in New Britain. Dalkowski was suffering from alcohol-related dementia, and doctors told her that he might only live a year, but he sobered up, found some measure of peace, and spent the final 26 years of his life there, reconnecting with family and friends, and attending the occasional New Britain Rock Cats game, where he frequently threw out ceremonial first pitches. He did so as well at an Orioles game in 2003, then did it again three years later, joined by Baylock. In 2009, he traveled to California for induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, an offbeat Hall of Fame that recognizes the cultural impact of its honorees, and threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game, rising from a wheelchair to do so.
Cain brought balls and photos to Grandview Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center for her brother to sign, and occasionally visitors to meet. “It was good entertainment,” she told Amore last year. “He drew people to see what this was all about. But he’s just a person — that we all love, that we enjoy. And he’s in good hands. … To me, everything that happens has a reason. I haven’t quite figured out Stevie’s yet.”
Before getting COVID-19, Dalkowski’s condition had declined. He tested positive for the virus early in April, and appeared to be recovering, but then took a turn for the worse and died in a New Britain hospital.
Dalkowski never made the majors, but the tales of his talent and his downfall could nonetheless fill volumes. He was a puzzle that even some of the best teachers in baseball, such as Richards, Weaver, and Rikpen, couldn’t solve. His story offers offer a cautionary tale: Man cannot live by fastball alone.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.