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When one thinks of the pillars of mythology, naturally the Greek and Romans come to mind; what with all that Zeus and Jupiter stuff. But if one replaced the togas and laurels with stirrup socks and cleats, it could easily be baseball. No sport has more folklore than baseball, and nearly no subject for such tales tantalizes more than those of the “blazing” fastball. Guys like Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and others inspired such tales with their over-powering gas. The curious case of Sidd Finch and his supposed 168-MPH heater was a April Fool’s gag Sports Illustrated foisted on the baseball world. But somewhere between the factual fastballs of Ryan, Johnson, et al and the fictional Finch lies the legend of Steve Dalkowski.
Even some serious baseball fans may not have ever heard of him, but even the most casual followers of the sport likely have seen the story of Steve Dalkowski…he was the inspiration for Tim Robbins’ “Nuke LaLoosh” in the 1988 baseball classic “Bull Durham.” Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh was modeled as a minor-league prospect known for having a “thunderbolt for an arm,” but that came with an astonishing lack of control. To tell the whole story, let’s start with the night in 1962 which cemented Dalkowski’s legacy.
It was July 10, 1962 when Dalkowski put on a performance which essentially earned him an invitation to the major leagues. That was the night that a decidedly unathletic and somewhat awkward minor-league pitcher took the mound in Elmira, New York. The bespectacled Dalkowski didn’t look the part of a guy on his way to the bigs. He certainly have the reputation either.
That night, there was less than 500 people in the ball park, and every one of them knew that Dalkowski could be downright dangerous. Like LaLoosh, his journey through the bus leagues was filled with tales of Dalkowski’s power and lack of control. Whether they were true or not is up for debate; once people saw Dalkowski in action, they knew anything was possible, and that’s all you need for good mythology.
The most common involved tales of missile-like fastballs 10 feet over the catcher’s head, balls going through wooden backstops, or hitting an umpire in the face-mask and knocking him out cold. There were also stories of a fastball which tore off a batter’s earlobe, and others in which a Dalkowski pitch careened off a hitter’s helmet and soared as high a major-league pop-up.
Clyde King had a career in baseball at all levels which spanned 60 years. As a coach in the Baltimore Orioles system, King worked with Dalkowski and said in his 1999 autobiography “A King’s Legacy” that Dalkowski had the best fastball he had ever seen.
Ted Williams is widely regarded as the greatest hitter in the history of the game, and he’s on record as saying Dalkowski’s gas was also the best he had ever seen. There’s another bit of folklore which claims that Williams saw Dalkowski pitching during spring training and wanted to step in against him to see what it was like. The story goes that Williams watched Dalkowski wind up and the next thing he knew, the ball was popping into the catcher’s mitt. The man credited with the best eye in baseball never actually saw the ball. Legend has it that after that, Williams dropped his bat and said he never wanted to face that again.
That story is attributed to a guy who was also in minor-league baseball around this time. Ron Shelton wouldn’t make it in baseball, but he would go on to make one of the great baseball movies of all time; he wrote and directed “Bull Durham.” Shelton cobbled together things he knew, things he saw, and mixed it with a lot of that mythology to make Steve Dalkowski into Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.
The linear comparison between Dalkowski and LaLoosh comes from a no-hitter Dalkowski pitched as a senior in high school. In that game, he did not allow a single run; that’s not unusual as the overwhelming majority of “no-nos” are also shutouts. What set this apart was Dalkowski walked eighteen…count ’em…eighteen batters. He also struck out eighteen. That should sound familiar to fans of Bull Durham; it’s a conversation between manager Larry Reardon (played by Trey Wilson) and pitching coach Larry Hockert (played by Robert Wuhl).
Joe Reardon: He walked 18.
Larry Hockert: New league record!
Joe Reardon: Struck out 18.
Larry Hockert: Another new league record! In addition he hit the sportswriter, the public address announcer, the bull mascot twice…[Joe laughs]…Also new league records! But, Joe, this guy’s got some serious shit!
Hitters simply couldn’t handle Dalkowski’s fastball. The problem was neither could Dalkowski. At first, the thought was there was nothing wrong with Dalkowski that couldn’t be fixed. That’s why in 1956, the Baltimore Orioles signed him for $4,000, which just so happened to be the maximum signing bonus allowed by baseball at the time. The Orioles assigned Dalkowski to Class D Kingsport (Tennessee) in the Appalachian League for what looked to be the dawn of a legendary career. At Kingsport in 1957, Dalkowski’s numbers stayed pretty close to the “Nuke” LaLoosh game; he averaged 17.6 strikeouts and 18.7 walks per nine innings. He also threw 39 wild pitches in 62 innings and his record was 1 win and 8 losses. In one game on August 31st, he struck out 24 batters, walked 18, hit 4, and uncorked six wild pitches in an 8-4 loss to Bluefield.
Flash the clock ahead three years; Dalkowski had worked his way up to Class C Stockton (California) of the California League. There in 1960 he struck out 262 batters and walked the exaclty equal number in 170 innings pitched. Dalkowski kept being moved up in the Orioles’ system; the idea being that there had to be a pitching coach or manager somewhere who could “fix” Dalkowski’s control issue.
That’s how Dalkowski ended up with the Orioles Double-A affiliate in Elmira, New York in the Eastern League in 1962. This is where another legendary figure comes into the picture. The future Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver was working his way up through the organization managing in the minor leagues; in 1962 he was assigned to Elmira. the team’s . Watching Dalkowski’s five-hit shutout with no walks on that night in July caused Weaver to call his boss to tell him that Dalkowski had figured out his control issue.
Dalkowski was promoted to Triple-A Rochester (New York) in the International League where he finished out the 1962 season making 12 appearances and earning an invitation to the big-league camp for spring training 1963.
It was in the spring of 1963 that the mythology surrounding Steve Dalkowski appeared to be heading for a “fairy tale” ending. He pitched brilliantly during spring training; he didn’t give up a single hit and struck out 11 in 7 2/3 innings. He made the big-league club and was fitted for his Major League uniform. Dalkowski pitched that day, and in his final inning of work, he unleashed and old Dalkowski-style laser that went easily 10 feet over the catcher’s head. But that wasn’t the problem. It was on that pitch that Dalkowski felt something in his elbow pop. That’s when the “fairy tale” ending hit a hard reality.
He was never the same after that injury.
Dalkowski never pitched in the major leagues. After rehabilitation from his injury, he continued pitching in the minors in an attempt to get back to the bigs. But that fastball of mythic proportions just wasn’t there anymore. Coupled with the return of his control issues, the Orioles’ organization released Dalkowski in 1964. He bounced around the farm systems of the Pittsburgh Pirates and California Angels until he was released for the final time in 1966.
As far as the numbers go, according to Baseball Reference, Dalkowski’s minor league record was 46 wins and 80 losses with 1,324 strikeouts, 1,236 walks, and 145 wild pitches over 956 innings pitched spread across nine seasons. But the numbers that matter in terms of this tale are the ones around which the mythology revolved.
Clyde King, Ted Williams, Earl Weaver, and pretty much anybody else who saw it said Dalkowski’s fastball was the best they had ever laid eyes on. In the days before radar guns, there was no quantified number. Long-time major league umpire Doug Harvey is rumored to have speculated it was at least 110 miles per hour. Most who would quote a number were in that same ball park, but some swore it was more like 120 or 125.
What we know for sure is that Steve Dalkowski threw a baseball hard enough to remain a mythic figure over a half-century since the last time he touched one. Steve Dalkowski passed away last week at the age of 80 after a lengthy struggle with dementia.
RIP, Steven Louis Dalkowski. As long as there is baseball, it will be filled with folklore and the mythic figures to drive it. But there will never be another quite like Steve Dalkowski.
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