BY BOOMER SABATA
A young man with a weapon-of-mass-destruction of a fastball pitched for three separate minor league teams in 1958, the same year Hall-of-Fame catcher Roy Campanella broke his neck in a car crash. The youngster, who chucked ivory orbs in leagues with teams from Winnipeg to Jacksonville, struck out 203 batters in 104 innings that year.
He also walked 207, was only 19 years old, and supposedly had a 115 mph heater.
Two years later, Steve Dalkowski threatened sluggers’ lives in the California League, the same year Bill Mazeroski vanquished the Yankees with his walk-off World Series homer. His numbers improved, blistering potential bombers with 262 punchouts. He walked 262 as well.
Dalkowski, parallelled with baseball, experienced the worst and some of the best. However, after 1960, baseball was on its way to the summertime gravy-train of profits it is today. In 1963, Dalkowski finally had a chance to make the show but injured his elbow in a spring training game. He only threw about 90 mph after that, right when the sport started using radar guns.
The Connecticut-native, who passed away last week at age 80, was more than the inspiration for the film Bull Durham. But at the same time, he wasn’t. While he is one of the most interesting chapters in the volumes of baseball lore, he was also an impoverished lifelong alcoholic. The hardballer’s need for the hard stuff eventually led to alcohol-induced dementia, blanking Dalkowski’s memory of a thirty-year span of his life.
Mankind and baseball players desire the unattainable. Hitters want to hit 1.000 but no one has ever even hit .500, while humans have hungered to harness forces of the universe beyond their comprehension. Dalkowski, at one point, had the unattainable (as brief as it was). His fastball was a wrath of God that once tore off a part of a grown man’s ear. His sizzler was an unbridled asteroid of vengeful velocity. Though the universe could comprehend his speed (real asteroids can sling at over 50,000 mph), Steve Dalkowski’s fastball is a phenomenon that the baseball universe will never find the answer to.
There is something to his myth that is perfect for baseball. The pastime has, of course, moved on since Dalkowski sizzled four-seamers, but the man is still a once-molten brick in the mighty money tower that is modern baseball. This almost Shakespearean tragedy screams from the diamond, leaving only legends between the lines.
It is the story of a fastball so lawless it once imploded an umpire’s mask, knocking him unconscious (some managers will still say that’s a good pitch). Steve Dalkowski was a candle that burned twice as bright. And, though we will never know just how fast his fireball was, we at least know the “Nuke” once existed.
“His failure was not one of deficiency, but rather of excess. He was too fast. His ball moved too much. His talent was too superhuman… It mattered only that once, just once, Steve Dalkowski threw a fastball so hard that Ted Williams never even saw it. No one else could claim that.”
- Pat Jordan, Sports Illustrated, 1970