Nolan Ryan. Bob Feller. Smokey Joe Wood. What did all these onetime phenomenal pitchers have in common?
They could throw a baseball fast. Really fast...
Hall of Famer Ryan, baseball’s all-time strikeout king, was clocked officially with the fastest pitch of all time, at 100.9 miles per hour in a game played on Aug. 20, 1974 against the Chicago White Sox.
Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige said of fellow Hall of Famer Feller, “If anybody threw that ball any harder than Rapid Robert, then the human eye couldn't follow it."
Wood, a very good pitcher in the early 1910’s, got the endorsement of arguably the best pitcher of all-time, Walter Johnson, who remarked, “Mister, no man alive can throw a baseball harder than Smokey Joe Wood."
No one can dispute these men brought the heat in a huge way. However, no one in the history of the game could quite bring it like a career minor leaguer who was known simply as “White Lightning.”
Steve Dalkowki signed with the Baltimore Orioles during 1957, at the ripe age of 21. At 5’11" and weighing 170 pounds, he did not exactly fit the stereotype of a power pitcher, especially one who, in his prime, experts claimed could throw at least 105 mph.
He had the typical control issues like a lot of young power pitchers, but the Orioles believed this southpaw was young enough to fix them and fulfill his superstar potential.
Dalkowski never ended up making it to the majors and finished with a lifetime won-loss record of 46-80 and an ERA of 5.59 in nine minor league seasons, striking out 1,396... and walking 1,354... in 995 innings.
However, as is the case with a lot of the memorable characters throughout the history of the game, his stats only represent a small part of his legend.
Dalkowski’s unparelled velocity throughout history cannot be questioned, simply because so many back up the claim.
Cal Ripken Sr., recalling his favorite Dalkowki tale (and everyone had one), said, “Steve Dalkowski was the hardest thrower I ever, ever saw." In 1958, Dalkowski threw a pitch through the backstop of the Wilson, N.C., grandstand. I was back in Wilson in 1975 scouting for the Orioles. First thing I did was check to see if the hole was still there. It was."
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver reiterated the fact, saying that he threw faster than anyone he ever saw, even faster than Nolan Ryan.
If that does not convince you, this should. Boston Red Sox OF Ted Williams, who many experts consider one of the best hitters of all-time, was never one to back down from anyone, not even from the likes of Feller.
Yet during spring training, one season Williams once stood in a spring training batting cage and took one pitch from Dalkowski. Williams swore he never saw the ball and was quoted as saying, “Fastest ever. I never want to face him again."
The memorable stories go on and on. Here lies some of the more well-known ones (This list comes from a 1999 Sportings News Piece called "Minor League Legends: Steve Dalkkowski):
In a high school game, Dalkowski threw a no-hit, no-run game with 18 strikeouts and 18 walks.
At Kingsport on Aug. 31, 1957, he struck out 24 Bluefield hitters in a single minor league game—and lost, 8-4! He also issued 18 walks in that game, hit four very unlucky guys and threw six wild pitches.
He pitched a total of 62 innings in 1957, fanned 121 (averaging 18 strikeouts per game) but won only once, because he walked 129 (eight more than he struck out) and threw 39 wild pitches.
One night at Kingsport, Dalkowski threw a pitch that tore off part of a batter's ear. "It made me so scared, I didn't even want to look at it," said Dalkowski.
Dalkowski won a $5 bet with teammate Herman Starrette, who said Dalkowski couldn't throw a baseball through a wall. Dalkowski warmed up and then moved 15 feet away from the wooden outfield fence. His first pitch went right through the boards.
In one minor league game, Dalkowski threw three pitches that penetrated the backstop and sent fans scattering.
At Aberdeen in the Northern League, Dalkowski threw a one-hitter and lost 9-8.
In 1959, Dalkowski set a Northern League record with 21 strikeouts in a game.
In 1960 at Class A Stockton, Dalkowski threw a pitch that broke an umpire's mask in three places, knocking him 18 feet back and sending him to a hospital for three days with a concussion.
In 1960, pitching a game for Stockton in the California League, Dalkowski struck out 19 and limited Reno to four hits but walked nine and lost 8-3.
In 1965 with Kennewick, Wash., Dalkowski fanned Rick Monday—who had signed a then-record bonus of $104,000—four times. Each time Monday fanned, Dalkowski was heard to mutter, "$104,000, my ass."
Notice a common theme throughout the story? Yes, a few of them ended going Dalkowski’s way, but usually not.
Every spring, O’s manager Paul Richards would work countless hours with Dalkowski praying he would finally learn a way to learn how to throw strikes.
Right as Dalkowski just began to scratch the tip of his massive potential, it all ended in a flash.
On March 23, 1963, the date of the final spring training games for the O’s, he was fitted for his Orioles uniform, finally on the verge of becoming a major leaguer.
His manager at the time, Weaver, told him late in the previous season to simply "throw strikes," and that approach seemed to work. During one 52-inning stretch in 1962, Dalkowski struck out 110, walked 11 and gave up only one earned run. It appeared as though the Orioles were going to be rewarded for their patience.
That night, he was called in to pitch in relief against the Yankees in the sixth inning. He blew away all-stars Roger Maris and Elston Howard. Then Hector Lopez singled. Facing Phil Linz, Dalkowski felt something pop in his elbow. He had severely strained a tendon in his left elbow.
That was the beginning of the end for Dalkowski, who ended up missing the entire season. He returned in 1964, but had lost his trademark velocity and retained his infamous control. Dalkowski was out of baseball for good by 1966.
For someone who did not throw one pitch in the big leagues, Dalkowski left quite a mark on the sport and on his peers. His legend even made it to Hollywood, where he was the inspiration for the character Nuke in the movie Bull Durham.
Dalkowski is not remembered as one of the greats like the others I mentioned earlier and rightfully so. Yet as the game’s ultimate flamethrower, this career minor leaguer will always be remembered, deservedly or not.
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