The fastball pitcher's inevitable weakness is wildness. But there is strength in that weakness, for it evokes fear. Reggie Jackson has said that he is not so much afraid of being embarrassed by Ryan as he is of being killed by him. Ryne Duren, the old Yankee fireballer, could transform the doughtiest of hitters into poltroons merely by warming up. All of his warmup pitches would be thrown violently and one would invariably go so far awry it would thud sickeningly into the screen behind the plate. Wildness was not Duren's only strong weakness. He was notoriously myopic, squinting down at the hitter like some gigantic Mr. Magoo through thick-lensed spectacles, and, as he later admitted, he was not always entirely sober. Who then in his right mind could dig in at the plate against a man who could throw a baseball through armor plate, who was wild at best, who could see the hitter only dimly if at all and who, to cap it off, might well be in his cups? In his brief career, Duren was the most feared pitcher in baseball.
The wild fastballer is the fire-snorting dragon of baseball lore. Frankie Frisch, the manager and second baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals' Gas House Gang, watched a very young, very fast, very wild Bob Feller warming up before facing his team in a spring exhibition game in 1936. After one of Feller's misguided deliveries splintered a section of the backstop, Frisch turned to rookie Lynn King.
"Young man," asked Frisch, "have you ever played second base?"
"No, sir," replied King.
"Well, you're playing there today."
Baby Doll Jacobson of the St. Louis Browns spun frantically away from one of Vance's pitches in another exhibition game only to discover that what he had assumed was a beanball actually was a curve that spun sharply over the plate.
"Strike three," the umpire called. "You're out."
"Yes," said Jacobson, lying flat on his back, "and glad of it."
Steve Dalkowski became a fastball legend without ever reaching the big leagues. There are those who saw him, including Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, who consider him to be the hardest thrower of all time. But incurable wildness kept him in the minors, where he set records for both strikeouts and bases on balls. Foul-bunt attempts off Dalkowski's hummer supposedly flew out of the park, and one day he was so wild, it is said, that one of his fastballs shattered a bat rack. But he could bring it.
"He'd come right over the top," says Weaver, "and that ball would rise maybe six inches. I honestly believe he was faster than Ryan."