Where Are They Now? Steve Dalkowski
He became a legend by throwing the fastest fastball ever -- and rarely getting it over the plate. Then he flamed out, on and off the field
By Pete McEntegart
The following story originally appeared in the June 30, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Steve Dalkowski sits in an easy chair in the office of Stan Cliburn, the manager of the Double A New Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats. It's mid-June. Cliburn and his twin brother, Stu, the team's pitching coach, are introducing the Rock Cats' players to their guest. Dalkowski, a New Britain native, will be throwing out the first pitch at that night's game. Stu Cliburn tells his charges that Dalkowski is judged by many who would know to be "the hardest-throwing pitcher ever." Gazing at the bearded 64-year-old man with the round face and comfortable paunch sitting before them, the strapping young players probably find that difficult to believe. But this is baseball, so there are always the numbers.
Stu ticks off Dalkowski's career record. In most respects it is less than impressive. Pitching exclusively in the minors, from 1957 to '65, Dalkowski went 46-80 with a 5.59 ERA. But then Cliburn drops another statistic: In 995 innings the lefthanded Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters. The players gasp and chuckle at a number that belongs more to the video games they play than to real baseball. Of course, Dalkowski walked 1,354, and that, too, is part of his legend. Cliburn asks Dalkowski if he might give his pitchers some advice. "Try to throw strikes," he says quietly.
That is something at which Dalkowski rarely succeeded -- maybe because his wildness on the field was compounded by long nights in bars. The drinking persisted long after his mighty fastball skipped town. The day he learned he was finally going to pitch in the big leagues, he blew out his elbow, and the magic was gone, forever. A few years later he dropped out of sight, even to his family and friends.
Now he's back home. As he steps onto the mound at New Britain Stadium, he waves to the crowd of 4,162, and the P.A. announcer introduces him as a "New Britain legend." His pitch will be caught by Andy Baylock, his former catcher at New Britain High, who retired in May after 24 years as baseball coach at the University of Connecticut. Just before they leave the dugout, Baylock kids Dalkowski, saying, "Don't throw the gas."
Dalkowski smiles. "No gas today," he says. The pitch bounces halfway to Baylock, who stands about 15 feet in front of the plate.
To those who saw him in his prime, there will never be another Steve Dalkowski. He was not a big man, just 5'11" and about 170 pounds. He peered in to the catcher through thick glasses to correct his weak vision. Yet when his left hand released a pitch, the ball took off with stunning speed, rising like the jet stream until the catcher might have to stand to corral it -- if he could. Dalkowski had the fastest fastball ever, in the opinion of lifetime baseball men who saw him, such as Pat Gillick and Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver. "As 40 years go by, a lot of stories get embellished," says Gillick, now the Seattle Mariners' general manager and once a minor league teammate of Dalkowski's. "But this guy was legit. He had one of those arms that come once in a lifetime."
Dalkowski showcased that arm in two sports. As a quarterback he led New Britain High to division championships in 1955 and '56. Yet baseball was his passion. Steve Sr., a tool-and-die maker at the Stanley Works factory, hoped his son would become an outfielder. By the time he was 15, though, Steve noticed he could throw the ball harder than anyone else in town. He's still not sure where the velocity came from. His only theory is that his unusually strong wrists enabled him to put extra snap on the ball.
All 16 major league teams had representatives watching when Dalkowski, then a senior, set a state record that still stands by striking out 24 batters in a 1957 game against New London High. No scout was more persistent than Frank McGowan of the Baltimore Orioles. Upon Dalkowski's graduation the Orioles signed him, giving him a $4,000 bonus (then the maximum) plus, Dalkowski says, $12,000 under the table and a new car. The sparkling Pontiac, blue with a white racing stripe, appeared in front of the family's door in the housing project on Governor Street. McGowan escorted Dalkowski on the train to Kingsport, Tenn., for his first game in the rookie Appalachian League.
At Kingsport, Dalkowski established his career pattern. In 62 innings he allowed just 22 hits and struck out 121, but he also walked 129, threw 39 wild pitches and finished 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA. Yet the Orioles were intrigued with his potential, especially after he struck out 24 batters (walking 18) in his only victory.
In 1958 Dalkowski was invited to the Orioles' camp in Miami. One day that spring Ted Williams was lurking around the batting cage and decided to see this Dalkowski kid for himself. The Splendid Splinter stepped into the batter's box, watched one pitch fly by and stepped out of the cage, muttering to reporters that he'd be damned if he would face Dalkowski until he had to. Williams told Dalkowski he hadn't even seen the ball -- he'd just heard the pop of the catcher's glove. In an exhibition game that spring against the Cincinnati Reds in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with his parents watching, Dalkowski fanned the side in the ninth on just 12 pitches. He would never again pitch in a big league ballpark.
No one is certain just how fast Dalkowski threw in those days before the use of the radar gun. Dalkowski believes he threw 110 mph at his peak. Gillick, Cox (the Atlanta Braves' manager, who batted against Dalkowski) and others say it was definitely over 100, perhaps 105. In 1958 the Orioles took Dalkowski to the Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Grounds to measure his heater. The experiment did not go well. Dalkowski had pitched the night before and was throwing from a flat surface rather than a mound. Worse, he spent a maddening 40 minutes trying to throw the ball through a laser beam emanating from a metal box about the width of the plate. When he finally got the ball through the laser, the pitch clocked in at 93.5 mph, and everyone went home.
For the next three years Dalkowski careened from dominance to ineptitude. The Orioles tried everything to harness his gift. One manager constructed a plywood target with a hole for Dalkowski to throw through, but a few fastballs turned that to splinters. Another manager had him pitch for 11 straight days to tire him out, or throw from 15 feet to get a feel for the strike zone, or warm up with batters standing on both sides of the plate. Through it all Dalkowski kept putting up exotic numbers. He threw a no-hitter while striking out 21 and a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts that he lost 9-8 because of his 17 walks. In Stockton, Calif., in 1960 he tied the California League single-game record by fanning 19, but he walked nine and lost 8-3 when Cox, then a young Reno second baseman, hit a grand slam in the ninth after whiffing his first four times up. "He had me down 0-2, and he hit my bat," says Cox.
As the numbers multiplied, so did the stories. Dalkowski once tore a batter's ear lobe off with a pitch. When he plunked another hitter in the batting helmet, the ball landed just in front of second base. (After that he was almost exclusively wild up and down, not in and out.) There was the time in Pensacola in 1959 when catcher Cal Ripken Sr. called for a curveball but Dalkowski thought he saw the fastball sign. The pitch smacked the umpire flush in the mask, breaking it in three places and sending the ump to the hospital with a concussion. On a dare Dalkowski once threw a ball over the stands behind home plate from a centerfield wall 440 feet away. To win a $5 bet, he fired a ball through a wooden outfield fence.
Dalkowski's contemporaries say he was mostly business on the field, but off the diamond was another matter. He had started drinking beer as a ninth-grader. In the minors, with bars and girls in every town and all day to sleep off a bender -- not to mention hell-raiser Bo Belinsky as a onetime roommate -- his drinking got worse. In 1963, when Dalkowski reached Triple A Rochester, the Orioles assigned him to room on the road with 31-year-old Joe Altobelli, in hopes that Altobelli could be his mentor. (Film director and writer Ron Shelton, who played for Altobelli at two stops in the minors, later cast the arrangement as Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis.) One teammate, Ray Youngdahl, would commandeer Dalkowski's paycheck and give him an allowance so he wouldn't squander it all.
That Dalkowski ever ascended to Rochester was due largely to Weaver, then a young manager. In 1962, at Class A Elmira, Weaver, who knew instructors had been confusing Dalkowski with a surfeit of advice, told him as little as possible -- except that he believed in him. Dalkowski finally consented to take a little steam off his fastball and began to consistently throw his biting slider for strikes to get ahead in the count. When Dalkowski got two strikes on a batter, Weaver would whistle, signaling Dalkowski to fire away. That was music to Dalkowski's ears. "With two strikes," he says, "I really let it all hang out." Dalkowski finished 7-10 but with a solid 3.04 ERA. He had 192 strikeouts and, for the first time, fewer walks (114) than innings pitched (160). He threw 37 straight scoreless innings, emerging as a shutdown reliever.
Dalkowski was the talk of Orioles spring training in Miami in 1963. After he threw six scoreless, hitless innings over several relief outings, manager Billy Hitchcock told him he had made the club. On the morning of March 22, 1963, Dalkowski was fitted for a major league uniform. That afternoon he pitched against the New York Yankees. He struck out four in two innings, but while throwing a slider to Phil Linz something popped in his elbow. Dalkowski had injured a nerve, and his arm never recovered. Soon he was back in the minors.
At midseason in 1964, Baltimore released Dalkowski. He hung on for two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates' and the Los Angeles Angels' organizations. In Bakersfield in 1965 he married a schoolteacher named Linda Moore, but they divorced two years later. Soon he was in the California fields, picking cotton and sugar beets, beans and carrots. Dalkowski's drink of choice was cheap wine, which he would buy when the bus stopped on the way to the crop field. Often he would place a bottle in the next row as motivation.
Dalkowski doesn't remember much of the next 30 years. He suffers from alcohol-related dementia, but the gaps in his memory don't start until about 1964. "I keep trying and trying to remember," he says. "But I don't." His sister, Pat Cain, can't fill in the blanks for him, because he stopped talking to his family around that same time. At some point he was married again, to a motel clerk named Virginia, though today he struggles even to recall her name. He never had children. ("Thank God," he says soberly.)
Dalkowski moved to Oklahoma City with Virginia in 1993, but when she died of a brain aneurysm in 1994, it was time for him to come home. His parents had passed away, but Cain was living in New Britain. She arranged for Dalkowski to move into the Walnut Hill Care Center, just down the hill from Dalkowski's old high school baseball field. Initially, Cain was told that Dalkowski likely wouldn't live more than a year. Yet Dalkowski has rallied. Given his decades of drinking, he is remarkably healthy, and he has begun to display the easy manner his old friends remember.
Sitting with his family and friends in the stands after throwing the first pitch at the Rock Cats game, he mugs good-naturedly with his three-year-old grandniece, Samantha. He sings along with God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch. Yet it's the game that interests him most. When a New Britain pitcher gets two strikes on a batter, Dalkowski says, "Let it all hang out." Dalkowski can no longer let it all hang out, yet he finally seems to be keeping it together.