Baseball Men - The Phenom

Baseball Men - The Phenom

Our new interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Steve Dalkowski, Minor League legend as ‘the fastest pitcher ever'.

Not even the bravest Hollywood screenwriter would try to pitch this one. Just think about this movie plot:

 

"Alright, it starts off with this ordinary-looking guy with an ordinary name, growing up in this ordinary town.

 

"Except it turns out this kid was born with one of the most extraordinary abilities in sports - he can pitch a baseball faster than anyone, anywhere. He can throw so fast people can hardly see the ball, so hard that he can literally throw it through a fence. He can do impossible, miraculous things that have never been done before in the history of the game.

 

"Oh, but there's a twist, of course. This kid, he throws so hard that he can't control it, either. You see, he's got off-the-charts speed for all kinds of strikeouts, but outside-the-zone wildness for all kinds of bases on balls. As a pitcher, he's his own worst enemy.

 

"The drama comes in this kid's effort to harness his stuff. He goes off to the Minors, where all these coaches just scratch their heads. They do their best to tame the ultra-fastball, trying all kinds of wacky props and stunts to just, maybe, develop one of the greatest pitchers of all time, another Bob Feller, another Nolan Ryan.

 

"After all kinds of struggles, there's a turning point in the story. There's this one manager, a future Hall of Famer, who finally figures out the pitcher's stuff. Finally, the kid's invincible - he goes off to Spring Training the next year and the greatest hitter who ever lived is too intimidated to hit against him. The kid's on the verge of finally making it to the big leagues.

 

"Only, there isn't any happy ending. He never does make it. The fans never do get to see what he can do.

 

"It turns out at that exact moment, after all that struggle, the kid gets hurt. Badly hurt. So hurt that he's, finally, tragically . . . ordinary for the first time in his baseball life. No more healthy arm, no more lightning fastball, and, eventually, no more playing career.

 

"Hmmmm. You know? Forget it. It's too sad and, besides, no one would buy it - too unbelievable."

 

Well, truth is stranger than fiction. What no screenwriter would dare invent, a real-live ballplayer once lived.

 

All of it really did happen. There was once this ordinary-looking kid (5'11", 180 lbs. after a full meal), born in 1938 with an ordinary name (Steve Dalkowski) who grew up in a relatively ordinary, industrial town (New Britain, CT).

 

It's true that the kid, somehow, had a blazing velocity (he would routinely strike out 17 or 18 batters per game in his senior year of 1956), but he was nearly as wild as he was fast (a typical year would see him issue 129 bases on balls in 62 innings).

 

And the rest of the stuff was true, too. The record shows that Minor League coaches (for the Orioles) tried all kinds of wacky stuff (wooden cutout targets and the like) reign in all that velocity, until one future Hall of Famer (Earl Weaver) did figure it out. The pitcher was nearly unhittable in one Minor League season (in ‘62), so one glorious Spring Training (1963) really did see the greatest hitter of all time (Ted Williams) refuse to step into the box.

 

Finally, sadly, the rest is nonfiction, too. Even on the verge of achieving his dreams, there was a severe arm injury, one that eventually killed a Major League dream. Sad, but true.

 

 

If the facts of his playing career couldn't have fit into any kind of Hollywood tale, neither, unfortunately, did Steve Dalkowski's later years.

 

After his on-field career ended, the one-time phenom, like many former ballplayers, went through tough times. In his particular case, there were many years of very tough times - by the mid-1990's, a combination of severe emotional and alcohol problems had left the one-time prospect alone and nearly destitute.

 

And yet, like the ballplayer he once was, Steve Dalkowski has managed to rally for a late comeback. With the help of his family, he found new sobriety and some measure of recovered health. Nowadays, his greatest blessing may be in his loving and protective sister, Pat Cain, who joined us in an interview in the care facility where Steve now resides.

 

The years and illness have taken a toll on the 67 year-old, to the point where Pat has a sharper memory and voice regarding some of her big brother's early days. And yet, when Steve Dalkowski talked baseball on September 14th, he had many good moments, moments when his eyes lit up and he flashed a premiere athlete's easy grin. It was something to see. In recounting the nearly incredible storyline he once lived, at least, the old fireballer was still pretty quick.

 

When did you first get interested in baseball?

 

Steve Dalkowski:  I used to go to a lot of my father's games and watch him play.

 

Pat Cain:  Our father, who the ball players called Ratso, signed a Minor League contract for the Philadelphia Athletics, way back in Connie Mack's time, but he hurt his knee. But he was well known as a semipro player around here for years, in the industrial leagues.

 

What position did he play?

 

SD:  Shortstop. Some outfield, too.

 

Did he have a strong arm himself, in getting the ball to first base?

 

SD:  Oh yeah. He was fast.

 

Apart from your father, did you have any favorite ball players?

 

SD:  Billy Pierce. He pitched for the Chicago White Sox.

 

What did you like about him?

 

SD:  He was fast.

 

When did you start thinking about pitching?

 

SD:  When I went to Little League.

 

PC:  Actually, Steve's 1948, '49 teams were the first Little League teams in New Britain.

 

Were you a hard thrower from the beginning?

 

SD:  Oh yeah.

 

PC:  I can help you get through this a little bit - Stevie sometimes has a hard time remembering his times before the Minors.

 

In high school, Stevie had an Italian-American coach . . . Mr. Cozetta?

 

SD:  Cozetta.

 

PC: . . . A Mr. Cozetta, and he once saw Stevie throwing the ball in from the outfield, and he converted him to pitcher on the spot.   

 

Do you have any idea why you were so fast?

 

SD:  Not really. I did a lot of running, I did pushups. Nothing special.

 

PC:  You played football.

 

SD:  I played football, too. It just came natural. It just got faster and faster when I grew up.

 

PC:  My brother was a great football player, by the way. Stevie was a left-handed quarterback, all-state. Washington State, Columbia, and Notre Dame all recruited him, but he chose baseball.

 

Pat, if I could ask you - when Steve first started displaying this miraculous kind of pitching ability, what did the family make of it?

 

PC:  Coming from a big family - my Mom and Dad both came from families with eight kids - we didn't make a big deal out of anything. Even today. It was just what it was. We would just go to his games and wonder how many he struck out. We were always proud of him in a quiet way, but we didn't make any big deal out of it.

 

But New Britain was different. Whenever Steve pitched, there were thousands of people there. Late into the evening, because of all the walks.

 

Today, a phenom with that kind of lightning would be a national story, maybe even an international story.

 

PC:  It wasn't. He wasn't any kind of celebrity or anything - he was just this Polish kid from New Britain who knew how to throw fast. In town, it was a big deal, but otherwise, no.

 

Well, the other half of the legend was in Steve's wildness. One of your former teammates described it as very peculiar - your fastballs were almost always up and down over home plate, rather than right to left of it.

 

SD:  Yeah. The ball just rose, it took off. The torque, I guess.

 

One of the theories was that you were throwing so hard that it created this off-the-charts topspin, so that, even if you did almost everything exactly right in terms of mechanics, you could still be wild.

 

SD:  That sounds about right.

 

Were you over-throwing?

 

SD:  No, I almost never threw as hard as I could. (laughs) When I did, that's when the ball would really take off.

 

I'm sure young Clark Kent had the same feeling.

 

SD:  (laughs) They tried to tell me to throw slower, but then they'd start hitting the ball. Besides, I was like anyone - I wanted to bring it.

 

When did you start thinking about becoming a pro?

 

SD:  In tenth grade. I could strike everybody out.

 

PC:  I can remember my father and I sitting at one of his tenth grade games at the park, on the top bleacher. All of a sudden we heard this [loud] ‘whhhhm' sound. Like that-   ‘whhhhm'. At first we thought it was static from a radio or the wind in the trees or something, but it kept going and going and going every few seconds. It was the sound of Stevie warming-up.

 

What did your coaches say about your throwing ability?

 

SD:  My coaches talked about it all the time. They just said the same thing, most of them - ‘How the heck do you throw so hard? You're not big, you're not strong - how do you get your leverage and all that?'

 

Did you ever come up with an answer?

 

SD:  No. I still don't know.

 

Do you have any idea exactly how fast you were at your best?

 

PC:  Cal Ripken, Sr., who was Steve's catcher in the Minors, thought that he might have been 110, maybe 120 miles per hour. It seems far-fetched, but who would know better?

 

It's a tough thing to figure out, because in the late 1950's, early 1960's, accurate radar guns weren't really in use.

 

PC:  They did test him at Aberdeen Testing Grounds once, right after he threw a complete game.

 

SD:  I think I got up to 105. Most were 98, they said.

 

PC:  98 is not bad, either.

 

Not for an off-night after a complete game, it's not. Do you remember when Major League scouts started coming around to see you?

 

SD:  Sure.

 

What was that like?

 

SD:  It felt good.

 

PC:  We grew up in the projects and I can remember, at 14, 15 years old, getting up on a friend's porch and watching a row of Cadillacs lined up on our street. They were waiting to see my brother, trying to get him to sign. We finally decided to go to the Orioles. Who was that guy who signed you?

 

SD:  Paul Richards.

 

PC:  Mr. Richards, who was the manager for the Orioles at the time, came over to see us. That was huge. Lee MacPhail, the team's General Manager, came over.

 

SD:  I didn't say much. They did most of the talking. Paul Richards, I liked him a lot.

 

What did you like about him?

 

SD:  (laughs) He really knew what he was doing. He was a catcher, so he knew how to handle pitchers.

 

After you did sign with the Orioles, you went off to the Minors in 1957. What was that like for you?

 

SD:  I was scared.

 

Why?

 

SD:  I didn't like being away from home much.

 

Well, were the batters scared, too?

 

SD:  (laughs) They were scared, yeah. They stepped back in the box as far back and away as they could. I hit a few of them, but not too many. You can't last if you hit too many.

 

PC:  In high school, at least, most of the batters just stood there. And prayed for a walk.

 

What was it like throwing those fastballs at your catchers?

 

PC:  Andy Baylock, who became the coach at UConn [the University of Connecticut] for many years, was a friend when we were growing up. He caught Stevie in high school and he'd put steak in his glove, so it wouldn't break the bones in his hand.

 

SD:  (laughs) Yeah. It really, really hurt their hands. They said when it hit their glove, it echoed like hell.

 

How did the umpires react to your throws?

 

SD:  It was hard to get them to get in position to see the pitches. One time, Doug Harvey broke his face mask on a foul tip, or at least he thought it was a foul tip. It was a fastball. It never hit the bat or the catcher's glove.

 

What did your Minor League coaches do to try to help you with your control?

 

SD:  Well, they cut out these squares in pieces of wood for a strike zone; they used to try to tire me out. A lot of times they worked on my motion. Harry Brecheen, he was the pitching coach, ‘I don't know' he'd say. He'd turn his cap around backwards, mutter and say ‘I don't know'.

 

PC:  I think what Peter wants to know is if the Orioles had a plan for you to develop more control.

 

SD:  They had no plan, no. When they saw me do something wrong, they just said it. They'd say ‘wrong' and I adjusted. I'd throw strikes, they'd walk away, and I'd throw balls again. (laughs) I don't know why.

 

Well, control must have been the one crucial issue for you because, when you did throw strikes, almost no one could hit the ball. From what I've heard, virtually everything that happened in your games was either a strikeout or a walk. Is that true?

 

SD:  That's true.

 

One thing batters are told to do when they're facing premiere fastball pitchers is to make contact, and just let the other guy supply the power. Did some hitters try to do that?

 

SD:  Yeah, they tried that. They'd just stick the bat out like this (mimes a half-swing).

 

Did that work?

 

SD:  (laughs) No. They still couldn't catch up.

 

I'd like to ask you about some incredible incidents from those days in the Minors, if that would be alright.

 

SD:  Shoot.

 

‘Steve Dalkowski was so fast and so wild that opposing batters were ordered to take every pitch until strike two'.

 

SD:  Yeah, that's true. I couldn't believe it. They told me that after the game. A lot of times, they'd take everything.

 

‘He was just as fast after 100 pitches as he was at the beginning of a ball game'

 

SD:  True. Working didn't bother me. I got stronger.

 

That's amazing . . .

 

SD:  Yeah, I know. (laughs)

 

‘He could throw a baseball through a wood fence'.

 

SD:  True. I did it in Aberdeen, in Pensacola, Elmira, and Rochester.

 

‘He could throw a baseball from second base over the center field clubhouse on the fly'.

 

SD:  True. That was in '60.

 

‘He could throw a ball through a backstop fence.'

 

SD:  That was in Elmira [early in 1962]. (laughs) I remember the crowd wouldn't sit back there behind home plate after that, and I was wondering why. They said - ‘because of you'.

 

Do you have any memories of an opponent named Richie Allen?

 

SD:  He couldn't hit me. Dick Allen once said I gave him more trouble than anyone.

 

How about Tony La Russa?

 

SD:  He was a good contact hitter for the Athletics. Didn't know him very well off the field.

 

Did you have any close friends on those Minor League teams in the early ‘60's?

 

SD:  Sure. Boog Powell, Chuck Estrada, Cal Ripken [Sr.]. (laughs) Ripken, he always used to say he wasn't an ‘organization man'. But he was.

 

Do you remember him bringing a little kid named Cal, Jr. around the team?

 

SD:  When he was real young, yeah. He was a bat boy for us at Pensacola, in Class D. He was a little wild, but he was such a little kid.

 

What do you remember about another former teammate, Bo Belinsky?

 

SD:  (laughs) He was always late. He had a girl in every town.

 

How about your roommate from 1962, Pat Gillick?

 

SD:  He was something else, like a walking encyclopedia. He was so smart. I liked all my teammates, on the field, off the field.

 

Well, in 1962, you ran into another pretty smart guy, a manager named Earl Weaver. What do you remember about him?

 

SD:  He would always talk about winter ball in Venezuela. (laughs) He tried to talk Spanish, but the Latin players would laugh at him. They called him ‘El Gordo', ‘the fat one'. They'd really get on him, boy.

 

Despite Mr. Weaver's rusty language skills, he managed to help you out on the mound. What happened that year in Elmira?

 

SD:  Weaver would bang on a water bucket, the water cooler, when he thought I wasn't concentrating enough! He banged on it loud, even during warm-ups. He was a loud guy, anyway. [Doug] Harvey didn't like it, so he'd whistle after that.

 

The other thing was, he worked on my motion. He drew a line on the mound, and said not to step in front of that line. The idea was to shorten [the motion]. That helped my control 100%.

 

It did. It's said that after you managed to start throwing strikes in late ‘62, you were nearly unstoppable . . .

 

SD:  When I threw strikes, forget it.

 

That led to another story. In that Spring Training of 1963, it is said, Ted Williams once refused to bat against you in an exhibition.

 

SD:  True. He wouldn't bat against me and because he couldn't even see the ball, ‘I heard it but I didn't see it', he said. This is from Williams, who used to say he could see the stitches on a fastball.

 

Unfortunately, that at-bat happened almost right before your injury.

 

PC:  That was the same day [March 23, 1963] he was fitted for a Major League uniform for the first time.

 

SD:  It hurt, it hurt. I believed, all those years in Minors that I could get to the Majors. I deserved to go.

 

PC:  The players said they could hear the pop in his arm around the infield. Nowadays, that would be another Tommy John surgery, but back then . . .

 

SD:  After that, I just couldn't throw hard enough.

 

Well, there's something else I have to ask you about, and that was the drinking. How much of your problems in the Minors were due to alcohol?

 

PC:  It did play a part, Steve. You have to admit that.

 

SD:  Yeah. A lot of it got blown out of proportion, but if I didn't drink, everything would have been a lot better for me.

 

Have you ever come across pitchers who remind you of Steve Dalkowski as a young pitcher?

 

SD:  No.

 

PC:  If you look at Ted Lilly, you're looking at my brother at his age, in his face. And he has the exact same lefty delivery and follow-through, too, though not the same stuff. The first time I saw him, I said ‘Oh, my God' I couldn't watch the Sox game when he was pitching, it was so eerie.

 

Pat, have you ever come across anyone who reminds you of Steve in terms of pure stuff?

 

PC:  No.

 

Steve, what do you think?

 

SD:  Nah.

 

Have you ever seen anyone who comes close?

 

PC:  Who was I watching the other night, a lefty reliever? He pitches for L.A. and he throws really, really hard.

 

Francisco Rodriguez?

 

PC:  Is he the one with the goggles?

 

Yeah.

 

PC:  Him. A little bit. But Stevie was much faster.

 

For a pitcher who was so incredibly quick, and who never did make it to the Majors, memories are very slow to fade. I mean, guys like Ralph Kiner, Gene Mauch, Bill James, many others - they still cite him among all these Hall of Fame pitchers.

 

PC:  I never would have expected it. It's 50 years later, and when people from the area learn that my maiden name is Dalkowski, they'll still tell me ‘I remember this and that from Steve's games over at Walnut Hill Park'. How do they remember all these things?

 

I'm sorry Stevie's gone through his problems- life is full of ups and downs - but I'm so grateful he was in baseball and went to those places and met those people and had those experiences. Baseball people - guys like [Orioles historian] John Eisenberg and Pat Gillick - are unbelievable. In helping Steve get better in these last ten, eleven years, I've had a ball and made so many friends, just because so many people are still interested in Stevie's career. 

 

It is amazing. I think maybe it's because people can identify with his career. Everyone who loves the game has dreamed of gaining a God-given ability out of nowhere, and every talented player has feared losing their gifts. There's a lot of promise and heartbreak in all of that.

 

SD:  That's a good way to say it. It was strange.

 

And, as Pat mentioned, Steve, you are still remembered to this day, especially in Baltimore. What was it like when you were invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Camden Yards?

 

SD:  Oh, I was nervous, boy.

 

PC:  All his friends from New Britain were there [in September 2003]. [Orioles owner] Mr. [Peter] Angelos gave us a luncheon beforehand, it was unbelievable.

 

Then we got up in the morning of the game and my younger son said, ‘Mom, he doesn't want to go to the ball park'. He said, ‘Uncle Steve's nervous. He won't do it'. ‘What do you mean he's not going?!'. Finally, though, we got him to go to the ball park with the promise he wouldn't have to throw out the first pitch. I was a wreck.

 

I can guess why. Steve, tell the truth - you were still worried about throwing strikes.

 

SD:  (laughs) Nah. Just all the people . . .

 

PC:  He came around, though. [O's reliever] Buddy Groom caught the ball.

 

But you'd slowed down a little bit by then. I doubt if you can even throw 85 miles per hour nowadays.

 

SD:  (laughs). Nah.

 

Are you two still interested in baseball?

 

PC:  We go to the [New Britain Rock] Cats' [AA-level Minor League] games [in New Britain] about twice a year. A couple of years ago, Terry Ryan, the Twins' General Manager, found out that Stevie was in the ball park. He came over to us, shook hands, and said, ‘So this is Steve Dalkowski. I've been waiting to meet you all these years'. That was so, so nice.

 

SD:  It was great. Sometimes, people still ask me for my autograph.

 

Do you sign?

 

SD:  (laughs) Any time.

 

What does ‘the fastest pitcher ever' think of the game now, after all these years?

 

SD:  I'm a big fan. I wish things had been different for me. But I still love baseball.

 

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