Many years ago I attended a spring training game in Vero Beach, FL., between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I arrived early, and as Nolan Ryan was scheduled to be the starting pitcher that day, I walked down the right field line to the bullpen to watch the “Express” go through his warmup routine.
I was able to get close.
I stood just a few feet behind the catcher, about five feet to the right. Ryan threw for about 15 minutes, and I thought, “Boy, this guy is fast.”
Then he gave the catcher a signal, and the last ten pitches he really cut it loose. As the ball traveled through the air resistance it made a buzzing sound, a tearing sound, like when I caught my shirt on a rose bush the other day.
I will never forget that sound.
When the ball hit the catcher’s mitt it was like a gunshot. I wondered what it would be like to hit against that velocity.
The argument is as old as the game itself. Who was the fastest of all time?
Was it Walter Johnson, or my father’s favorite Lefty Grove.
Or Bob Feller, or Satchel Paige, Randy Johnson, or Mr. Ryan.
No, none of the above.
The fastest pitcher of all time was Steve Dalkowski, who never threw a pitch in a major league game, although he came so close.
Thousands came to watch Stephen Louis Dalkowski when he pitched no-hitters in high school in New Britain, Conn. His games were adventures as he usually walked as many batters as he struck out.
Despite his wildness, every major league team wanted him, and the Baltimore Orioles won out, signing him in 1957, with a bonus of $4,000. which was the maximum at that time.
For the next nine years, Dalkowski cut a swath through the lower levels of the minor leagues, which covered 11 teams in nine different leagues. Everywhere he went he set records. He once walked 21 batters in a Northern League game, in another contest he struck out 21, both league records.
In 1960 he set a California league record by granting 262 walks in 170 innings. He fanned the same number.
He wasn’t a big man, about 5’ 9” and 170 lbs. He wore thick glasses to correct 20/80 vision. He had a quiet, limited motion, raising his right leg only a few inches, and released the ball from his left hand with an audible “snap” to his wrist as his arm came forward.
In 1958 the Orioles sent Dalkowski to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a military installation where Bob Feller had been clocked at 98.6 mph.
Dalkowski was clocked at only 93.5, but there were mitigating factors. Dalkowski had pitched a game the day before, so he could be expected to throw 5-10 mph slower than usual. Feller pitched from the raised mound, while Dalkowski pitched from a flat service, and this would drop his velocity from 5-8 mph. He had to pitch for 40 minutes, and was exhausted before the machine could provide a reading.
This was before the age of radar guns, and the measuring device was inside a tube, and it took him a long time to throw a pitch perfectly into the apparatus. In the end, it was estimated that Dalkowski regularly threw the ball at 105 mph.
Orioles managers Paul Richards, and Earl Weaver both said that Dalkowski was the fastest who ever lived.
Umpire Doug Harvey called his games in the minors before he started his 30 year National League career. Harvey said, “ I’ve umpired for Koufax, Gibson, Drysdale, Seaver, Maloney, Marichal, and Gooden; but nobody could bring it like Dalkowski.”
Perhaps the greatest testimony came from Ted Williams, who many regard as the greatest hitter of all time. Williams was a couple of years retired and working as a batting instructor in spring training. Ted had heard the stories about the young phenom, and wanted to see for himself.
He stepped into the box as reporters gathered to see the classic confrontation. Dalkowski went into his motion and delivered a pitch that the catcher caught and held for a few seconds. It was just a few inches under Williams’ chin. Ted dropped his bat and left the cage. Williams, who had 20/10 vision, said that he never saw the pitch, and that Steve Dalkowski was the fastest pitcher he had ever faced, and that “he would be damned if he would ever face him again.”
In 1962, Dalkowski finally had some success with his control under the intense coaching of Earl Weaver. He gained confidence, and then in the spring of 1963 his performance was so impressive that the Orioles felt he could be the short reliever that they needed.
Coming off two perfect innings against the Dodgers in which he had struck out five of six batters, Dalkowski was pitching against the Yankees. Coming off the mound to field a bunt, he threw off-balance to first, and he heard a pop in his elbow. He was never the same after that.
He tried to pitch after the injury, but the legendary speed was gone. He was out of baseball by 1966.
I hadn’t thought about Steve Dalkowski for a long time, and then a friend sent me his obituary.
Steve died from the coronavirus on April 19, 2020, in a nursing home in New Britain, Conn., not far from the high school field where he heard so many cheers.
Maybe he was the fastest ever, maybe not. But I know one thing for certain.
I would never have wanted to bat against him.
Mike Wood is a sports correspondent for The Daily Advance.