Coronavirus Claims Small Town Baseball Legend; Fastest Pitcher Never to Make It Dies at 80

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Hi all. With no baseball to report on, I’m just glad not to be writing an obituary for Vin Scully. The Dodgers’ legend was released from a hospital after falling on his head one day last week. There’s an obituary to be written just the same. It’s not a story about how so many people who die with the Coronavirus do it in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. It’s a story of a small town legend, confined to a nursing home decades ago who lost his life to the new disease this past weekend.

Steve Dalkowski was a living legend in the years I broadcast for AA New Britain. He was in his fifties then, but was already in a nursing home and in no condition to be interviewed. Local fans told my broadcast partner Jim Lucas and I about Dalkowski. The story of a high school hero who would later pick fruit in Bakersfield always seemed to end with some variation of “What a shame.” His sister, Patty Cain told the story to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News before the turn of the century. The story was retold for another generation of fans by that newspaper when they found out Dalkowski had passed away.

Dalkowski’s time was the late fifties. He was a high school hero when a Buddy Holly recordwas “a platter that matters.” After a day game, he might hurry home to catch “Leave it to Beaver” on a black-and-white TV if his family owned one. The cars were large American cars where the speedometer went past 120 MPH. While Dalkowski’s fastball wasn’t quite that fast, it was the fastest fastball anybody had ever seen. Before radar guns, people could only guess how hot a pitcher’s heater was. Dalkowski was a slim lefty with glasses, but somehow he was thought to be firing pellets faster than Aroldis Chapman does now. His sister Patty Cain told famed journalist Bill Madden of the “radio pitch–you could hear it but you couldn’t see it.” Ron Luciano would say something similar about Nolan Ryan a quarter century later.

After striking out 24 batters in a high school game, Dalkowski signed with the Orioles for the highest possible bonus at that time, $4,000. The Orioles sent the New Britain native to distant Kingsport, Tennessee. It would be a long, strange trip before he would see the Hardware city again.

Two things about baseball haven’t changed since the second Eisenhower administration. Minor league baseball players still make very little money and they still rattle around the country on buses. Dalkowski rode the buses through the mountains to the towns that made up the Appalachian League, a league now doomed under baseball’s plan to contract the minors. While he struck out 121 men in 62 innings and gave up just 22 hits, he led the Appy league in walks with 129 and found himself with a 1–8 record and an ERA north of 8 in the short Appy League season. With players starting in Class D ball then, as Dalkowski did, teams showed more patience than they would today. The Orioles stuck with the kid from New Britain though his numbers in 1958 and 1959 weren’t any more encouraging. Splitting time between Wilson, North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee and Aberdeen, North Dakota in 1958, he gave up just 46 hits in 104 innings, but walked 207 men against 203 strikeouts. His final record was 4–10. He was 4–7 a year later with stops in Aberdeen and class D Pensacola. He gave up 30 hits in 59 innings, but walked 110 against 99 strikeouts.

While the statistics told an unpleasant story, the word was getting around about the raw speed generated by a teenage lefty with glasses. His manager in Aberdeen was Billy DeMars who would later coach with the Phillies. One game with the Aberdeen Pheasants saw Dalkowski walk a modest 5 batters and strike out 20. The local reporter quoted DeMars as saying the kid was the fastest pitcher he’d ever seen. From there, year by year, tall story followed tall story. Cal Ripkin SR. was a catcher for the Pheasants. He called for a slider, Dalkowski threw a heater that knocked the home plate ump cold and shattered his mask. Hall of Famer and Yankee manager Bob Lemon called Dalkowski “the only guy I ever saw bean a guy in a concession stand.” That was when the Orioles trained in Miami. He was throwing batting practice there, let one rip, it cleared the backstop and hit a man buying a hot dog. Another Hall of Famer, Tony LaRussa faced him in 1962 and said of Dalkowski, “He acted like he couldn’t see and seemed to relish being wild.” The most famous story of them all was when the kid from Connecticut faced his idol, Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter had just retired and was a hitting instructor during spring training. With the Red Sox about to face the Orioles in a spring training game in Miami, Williams stepped into the cage to see what Dalkowski could do. More than his pitches during games, hit batting practice tosses were bullets that made early arrivals in the stand take a second look. The minor leaguer squinted at his idol, raised his right leg and unleashed one Teddy Ballgame never saw. Years later, he said he didn’t remember the incident, but those who did said the future Hall of Famer did a disappearing act after one Dalkowski delivery, declaring he would never face that man again.

It wasn’t just his pitching that was wild. He did what many a player before him did, and what many a player still does. Steve Dalkowski drank. He drank to excess, to the point where every manager he worked for had to bail him out of jail at some point. By 1962, the erstwhile teenager was 23. JFK had replaced Eisenhower. Color television was in the works. German and Japanese cars were being seen in increasing numbers on Eisenhower’s crowning achievement, the Interstate highway system. 1962 was as close as Dalkowski would get to the show. Under Earl Weaver in the Eastern League at Elmira, New York, he struck out 192 men in 160 innings against only 114 walks. Up to now, He hadn’t come close to walking fewer men than he struck out, and his 3.04 ERA was 2 full runs less than in any season before that.

What happened next happened because it was 1963, not the 1980’s, 1990’s or today. If a pitcher as early as the 1980’s heard a pop in his elbow, he would be taken to a specialist and scheduled for Tommy John surgery. In 1963, Dalkowski was told he had made the big league Orioles. He was called into a spring training game against the Yankees. He threw a slider to Phil Linz and felt what every pitcher learns to dread. when Dalkowski felt his elbow pop, there was nothing to do but try to pitch through the pain. Without his former raw speed, the results were predictable. The next 3 years were his last 3 in the minors, and again he walked more men than he struck out. When all was said and done, he had a career record of 46–80 with a 5.59 ERA. He had walked 1354 men against 1396 strikeouts in 995 innings.

After baseball, Dalkowski’s story was similar to that of Ira Hayes, one of the 6 Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima and was the subject of a recitation by Johnny Cash. To paraphrase from the song, Steve continued drinking hard, jail was often his home. Unlike Hayes, who lived only a decade after Iwo Jima, Dalkowski drank off and on, mostly on, from the Johnson years until Bill Clinton won the White House. Twice, former teammates tried to get him help. It didn’t work. He had married along the way, and his wife took him to her family in Oklahoma. On her sudden death in early 1995, he was brought back to his Connecticut birth place by his sister, Patty Cain. He was 56 then. It was my third season in New Britain. While we were told about him, we were told he was in no condition to be interviewed. A quarter century later, I’ve written his epitaph. What a shame.

R I P Steve Dalkowski.

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