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The fastest of them all – ‘Dalko’

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Baseball is a sport of legends. The game’s devotion to and celebration of its long history means that titanic figures from the past remain important to the ongoing conversation. Men who haven’t played in a century or more are still vital parts of baseball’s narrative fabric.

And while the majority of those legends are recognized as titans of the game – accomplished hitters and pitchers, deft with the glove or on the basepaths – not all of baseball’s folk heroes show up in the major league record books. Indeed, there are players who, while never appearing in a big league box score, nevertheless became nigh-mythic figures.

Players like Steve Dalkowski.

The new book “Dalko” (Influence Publishers, $26.95) – co-authored by William A. Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander – tells the story of Dalkowski, a career minor leaguer whose lightning bolt of an arm could never be properly be tamed. A figure whose career was wreathed in myth and whose subsequent life was one of struggle and strife, many claimed to have never seen his like before or since.

According to eyewitness accounts, there’s an argument to be made that no pitcher ever threw a faster fastball than Dalkowski. Not Johnson. Not Feller. Not Ryan. Nobody. But no physical proof exists – his pitches were never effectively measured and no video evidence exists. And thanks to an unsparing wildness – a wildness that no coach could ever counteract – Dalko never played in a major league game, instead fading into obscurity, the sort of player that was spoken about in hushed tones by those who remembered his dominating brilliance and his maddening lack of control.

Steve Dalkowski was born in 1939 in New Britain, Connecticut. His career as a schoolboy athlete indicated future greatness – he set the Connecticut high school strikeout record with 24 in a single game, throwing pitches that were faster than anyone there had ever seen. Faster than any seen by the myriad scouts who began turning up to Dalkowski’s starts to check out the phenom they’d been hearing about.

But even then, he struggled mightily with his control, walking almost as many as he struck out.

He graduated in 1957 and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles; from there, he was immediately sent to join the organization’s Class D minor league affiliate in Kingsport, Tennessee. From there, the legend quickly began to grow over the course of his nine-year career. Player after player and coach after coach would insist that they had never seen anyone throw the ball as fast as Dalkowski – his fastball was so fast that it earned him the nickname “White Lightning,” among others.

Still, his control was lacking. Utterly lacking. Take his 1960 season with Stockton in the California League, where in 170 innings pitched, he struck out 262 … and walked 262, putting up one of the most astonishing stat lines in professional sports history. So it was throughout his career. Despite all the strikeouts and very few hits, Dalko couldn’t overcome all the walks and wild pitches – his career minor league line was 46 wins against 80 losses with an ERA of 5.57, striking out 1,396 and walking 1,354 in just under a thousand innings.

(It’s worth noting that Dalkowski was one of screenwriter (and former minor league ballplayer) Ron Shelton’s inspirations for the character of Nuke LaLoosh in the beloved 1988 baseball film “Bull Durham.”)

Some have argued that it was coaching that let Dalkowski down. He was a physical marvel, but he had issues with the mental side of the game; many believe that it was nerves or lack of confidence that were his undoing, rather than anything physical. His issues with alcohol abuse may well have played a significant part as well, particularly toward the end of his career.

Regardless, despite his inability to harness his skills well enough to make it to the big leagues, he was a figure of much renown during his minor league career. He was a beloved figure at all of his stops, drawing big crowds to bear firsthand witness to that electric fastball.

It wasn’t enough – particularly after an arm injury during spring training in 1963 wound up sapping some of his speed. After bouncing around a bit, his professional baseball career came to an end in 1966.

What followed were decades of struggles. His battle with the bottle was ongoing, causing issues in his personal life while also undermining any efforts he made toward holding down a job. For years, he was a migrant worker, picking fruit and vegetables in the fields of California. The decades of drinking ultimately led to alcohol-induced dementia, a condition that would haunt him for the last half of his life. Despite nearly falling through the cracks, he was ultimately tracked down in the early 1990s and brought back to New Britain, where he would spend the rest of his days in an assisted living facility – and where he would occasionally have the chance to relive the high-speed glory days of his youth.

“Dalko” is a fascinating piece of sports biography, an effort to marry facts to the many legends surrounding the life of its subject. By engaging with people who knew Dalkowski – who saw him pitch – we get a clearer sense of just how dazzling his fastball was. For grizzled lifers like Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr. to wax rhapsodic about the sheer speed of it, for a top-tier fastballer like Sam Crawford (who penned this book’s foreword) to readily concede that Dalko’s was faster than his own – it speaks volumes, far more than one could glean from a stat sheet.

Through thorough and meticulous research and a wealth of interviews, this trio of authors has done everything possible to ground the myth of Steve Dalkowski, to find the provenance of the stories that sprung up around his once-in-a-lifetime arm. Some of those tales proved to be just that – tales – while many others had at least a modicum of truth to them. One thing that is for certain: Steve Dalkowski had one hell of a fastball, a pitch so fast that a lot of people – many of whom know a thing or two about the game – believe it to be the fastest to ever grace the game.

Baseball is a game of legends, but not all legends land in the Hall of Fame. Some were born too soon, others were born too late. Some were laid low by injury and others by sheer blind chance. Steve Dalkowski could have been one of the greatest to ever play the game – a baseball hero. Instead, he became something different, but no less worthy of celebration.

A baseball legend.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:47

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