On May 7, 1966, shortly after his release from baseball, The Sporting News carried a blurred, seven-year-old photograph of one Stephen Louis Dalkowski, along with a brief story that was headlined: LIVING LEGEND RELEASED. It began, " Steve Dalkowski, a baseball legend in his own time, apparently has thrown his last professional pitch." The description was not hyperbolic. Despite the fact that he never pitched an inning in the major leagues, few people in organized baseball at that time had not heard of Steve Dalkowski.
The legend began 10 years before, on a hot spring day in Miami, Fla., when Dalkowski was pitching batting practice for the Baltimore Orioles before an exhibition game with the Red Sox. According to several guys who were there, Ted Williams was watching curiously from behind the batting cage. 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.
Ted Williams was not the only baseball authority awed by Dalkowski's speed. Paul Richards, Harry Brecheen, Earl Weaver and just about anyone who had ever seen him throw claimed he was faster than Johnson or Feller or any of the fabled oldtimers. The Orioles, who owned Dalkowski from 1957 to 1965, once sent him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where they used Army equipment to test the speed of his fastball. The machine clocked it at 93.5 mph, about 5 mph slower than Bob Feller's, which was clocked on similar equipment. But Feller had thrown his fastball from a high mound, which added 5 to 8 mph to its speed, and Dalkowski had thrown his from level ground. Also, Dalkowski had pitched a game the day before, which it was estimated knocked off another 5 to 10 mph. Finally, Dalkowski was literally exhausted by the time the machine clocked his pitch because he had thrown for 40 minutes beforehand, just trying to get a fastball within range of the device. All things considered, it was assumed conservatively that Dalkowski, when right, could throw a baseball at well over 105 mph.
His problem at Aberdeen was typical. His wildness was chronic and incurable. In nine years of minor league pitching he walked 1,354 batters in 995 innings. He struck out 1,396. In his last year of high school Dalkowski pitched a no-hitter in which he walked 18 batters and fanned the same number. In 1957 at Kingsport he led the Appalachian League with 129 walks, 39 wild pitches and 121 strikeouts in 62 innings. He once walked 21 batters in a Northern League game and in another he struck out 21 batters to tie a league record. In 1960 Dalkowski set a California League record with 262 walks in 170 innings. He fanned the same number. In 1961 he set a Northwest League record with 196 walks in 103 innings while striking out 150 batters.
Stories of Dalkowski's speed and wildness passed from one minor league town to another. Inevitably, the stories outgrew the man, until it was no longer possible to distinguish fact from fiction. But, no matter how embellished, one fact always remained: Dalkowski struck out more batters and walked more batters per nine-inning game than any professional pitcher in baseball history.
It was because of his blinding speed that the Baltimore Orioles bore with him through eight years of frustration. Each year the Oriole management would try something new to discipline his talent. They made him throw fastballs at a wooden target. They made him throw on the sidelines until he was exhausted, under the assumption that once his lively arm was tired and his speed muted he could throw strikes. They bought him thick, Captain Video-type eyeglasses to correct his faulty 20-80/20-60 vision. They made him pitch batting practice every day for two straight weeks in the hope that facing a batter would help guide his pitches. And finally they made him throw from only 15 feet away from his catcher with the belief that once he threw strikes from that distance the distance could be increased gradually to 60 feet six inches, from where he would also throw strikes.
Nothing doing. After 20 minutes throwing at a wooden target the target was in splinters. No matter how long he threw on the sidelines his arm never got tired. No matter how thick his glasses were all they helped to do was further terrify already terrified batters. In the end all the experiments failed, chiefly because if ever a man was truly possessed by his talent it was Steve Dalkowski.
"When I signed Steve in 1957," said Baltimore Scout Frank McGowan, "he was a shy, introverted kid with absolutely no confidence. Even in high school he walked everybody. But we gave him a $4,000 bonus, the limit at the time, because Harry Brecheen said he had the best arm he ever saw. Everyone knew it was a gamble, but we all thought it was worth it.
"I feel there were three things in particular that prevented Steve from making the big leagues. The first was that boy he almost killed in Kingsport. He hit him in the side of the head with a fastball and the boy never played ball again. They say the kid was never quite right in the head afterward, either.