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 baiting 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.