Legend has it that the oohs and aahs began shortly after Steve Dalkowski took the mound to toss batting practice before a spring training game in southern Florida a lifetime of Marches ago. As Dalkowski loosened up with one 100 mph fastball after another, a crowd of players and sportswriters congregated around the batting cage. Ted Williams, who had just retired following the 1960 season and was working as a Boston Red Sox hitting instructor, ambled over to see what all the commotion was about. Known as the greatest hitter of all-time, Williams still believed there wasn’t a pitcher alive he couldn’t handle, so he grabbed a bat and stepped into the cage.
A hush reportedly came over the ballpark, as Dalkowski squinted through his glasses at the sight of his New England boyhood idol in the batter’s box. The Baltimore Orioles prospect with the thunderbolt left arm went into his windup, and faster than you could say “Teddy Ballgame,” the ball was in the catcher’s mitt. Williams looked back in disbelief and fear, dropped his bat and walked out of the cage. Asked by reporters how hard Dalkowski was throwing, Williams confessed he never saw the pitch, only heard it. He added that he’d be damned if he’d ever step into the box against that bleeping pitcher again.
That tall tale is just one of many that helped the one-time Rochester Red Wings hurler to become a legend of mythic proportions. Pretty remarkable, when you consider he never pitched in a regular-season big-league game. Dalkowski, who died last week in New Britain, Conn., of the coronavirus at age 80, was blessed with perhaps the greatest arm of all time, but cursed with a lack of control on and off the mound. He spent decades trying to drown the failed expectations and emptiness in booze. The man who inspired the flaky, hard-throwing Nuke LaLoosh character in the classic movie, Bull Durham, was never able to harness the gift he was given. But that didn’t stop him from achieving cult figure status while racking up some of the most mind-boggling pitching stats in the history of the game.
This is a guy who once struck out 21 and walked 17 while throwing a no-hitter. A guy who averaged nearly 14 strikeouts and 13 walks per nine innings during his nine-year minor-league career. A guy who once fired a wild pitch over a 30-foot backstop and plunked an unsuspecting fan buying a hot dog at the concession stand – thereby giving new meaning to the phrase “a little extra mustard on his fastball.” A guy who almost tore off a batter’s ear with an errant heater. A guy who convinced the great Ted Williams that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the batter’s box.
“He had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift,’’ said Bull Durham director and screenwriter Ron Shelton. “But he could never finish the painting.”
Although he pitched just 12 innings for the Wings, going 0-2 with a 6.00 earned run average, eight strikeouts and 14 walks in 1963, Dalkowski has strong Rochester connections, thanks to former Wings infielder Shelton and former Wings manager Joe Altobelli, who was a teammate of Dalko’s.
“I played in the Orioles farm system about five years after Dalkowski, and everywhere I went I heard stories about this pitcher who was the hardest and wildest thrower in baseball history,’’ Shelton told me several years ago. “Dalko was a big drinker, and in an effort to keep him under control, the Orioles decided to room him with Alto, a stable, veteran minor-leaguer who was nearing the end of his playing career. Alto said he wound up rooming with Dalkowski’s suitcase because the pitcher was out drinking the whole season. So, when I began toying with an idea for a movie about life in the minors, I thought about building a plot around a mature, aging minor-leaguer (named Crash Davis) and a wild-throwing immature pitcher (LaLoosh).”
Bull Durham would become a box office smash and a classic. Sports Illustrated called it the greatest sports movie of all time. Not surprisingly, most of last week’s obituaries about Dalkowski led with the fact he was the prototype for the LaLoosh character, played by Tim Robbins.
In the movie, though, LaLoosh makes it to the majors. Dalkowski never did, instead becoming one of the great “what-if” sports stories of all time. The Orioles out-bid 14 other clubs for his services, signing the slightly built 5-foot-10 pitcher in late June 1957, not long after he struck out 24 batters in a game for New Britain High School. Dalkowski’s blazing fastball became known as a “radio pitch.” You could hear it, but you couldn’t see it.
In his first professional season with Kingsport, Tenn., in the Appalachian League, he struggled, going 1-8 with 121 strikeouts, 129 walks and 39 wild pitches in just 62 innings. The wildness of his rookie campaign would be a harbinger. In 1960, at Stockton in the California League, Dalkowski recorded 262 strikeouts and 262 walks in 170 innings. He finally seemed to be getting a handle on things under Elmira manager Earl Weaver in 1962, and was ready to make the big club two spring trainings later, but damaged the ulna nerve in his left elbow in an exhibition game. In those pre-Tommy John surgery days, such an injury was a career killer. Dalkowski’s velocity never returned.
The Sporting News called him a “living legend,” in its story about his release in 1965, and listed his double-take career stats: a 46-80 won-loss record, a 5.59 earned run average and 1,324 strikeouts, 1,236 walks, 145 wild pitches and 37 hit batsmen in just 956 innings.
Dalkowski’s inability to tame his wildness can be traced to an incident during his rookie season, when he fired a pitch that knocked unconscious a highly touted 18-year-old Dodgers prospect. The young player recovered, but never played baseball again. The near-death experience shook up Dalkowski. Frank McGowan, the scout who signed the Orioles phenom, believed the fear of killing a man in the batter’s box prevented Dalkowski from fulfilling his enormous potential. “After that, Steve was always terrified of hitting someone,’’ McGowan told Sports Illustrated.
So, we are left to ponder what might have been. Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey worked several of Dalkowski’s games before being promoted to the National League, where he experienced numerous behind-the-plate views of flamethrowers Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Don Drysdale and Doc Gooden in action. “They all could bring it,’’ Harvey said. “But nobody could bring it like Dalkowski.”
After a failed stint in the Mexican League in 1966, Dalkowski returned to California where he worked as a migrant farm worker, picking cotton and fruit in the towns where he once pitched. During the next three decades, he would drink himself into oblivion, spending many a night in jail on drunk and disorderly conduct charges. In the mid-1990s, his sister, Patty Cain, finally tracked him down and with the help of a former teammate brought him home to New Britain, where he spent the remainder of his life in senior homes not far from the high school diamond where his legend began.
Despite being diagnosed with alcohol-related dementia, Dalkowski was able to autograph the steady stream of cards, photos, balls and bats mailed to the center, and occasionally attended some local minor-league games. He also was invited to throw out ceremonial first pitches before games at Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. In 2009, he was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Eternals, which honors those who have made a unique imprint on the culture of the game.
It’s an honor well-deserved. Although Dalkowski never threw a single pitch in the big leagues, his legend will endure, fueled by tall tales, mind-blowing stats, and a classic film he helped inspire.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.