RIP Steve Dalkowski, the FOAT (fastest of all time)
Steve Dalkowski, a man who threw baseballs fast enough to scare Ted Williams and wildly enough to never make it to the majors, has passed away at the age of 80. He wasn't a stud athlete or a Hall of Famer, but the myth of his laser-like fastball made him a cult figure to people like me, people who are enamoured with the mythopoetic aura of baseball. And for my money, Dalko is the most mythopoetic figure in a sport teeming with them. The raw talent, the demons, the tall tales that may very well be true. Hell, I even wrote a poem about him back in October.
His stat lines boggle the mind: over nine seasons bouncing around the minors, we went 46-80, struck out 1,324 batters (that's an absurd 12.5 K/9 for those playing the home game) and walked 1,236 (an even more absurd 11.6 BB/9). He would routinely throw 200-plus pitches in a game and, people swear, still threw harder than Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, anybody. Writer/director Ron Shelton, who wrote about Dalko in 2009 for the Los Angeles Times, partially modelled Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh on the legendarily wild lefty.
He was a tragic figure. The magical arm that got him the nickname “White Lightning” went limp as he was about to make the jump to the Baltimore Orioles in 1963. Tommy John surgery was still a decade away at this point, so he never got his form back, hit the bottle, and more or less drifted for 30 years after he hung up his cleats in 1966. He couldn't remember most of that time because of alcohol-induced dementia.
The tale of Steve Dalkowski is mighty and sad, and I suggest you read every word written on him. There's a 1970 Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan that I recommend you start with, and this part near the end cuts right to why Dalko is an enduring figure in baseball lore:
Steve Dalkowski's real fame lies not in any list of statistics or legends but in all those low minor league towns like Wellsville and Leesburgand Yakima and Stockton, where young players still struggle toward the major leagues. To these minor-leaguers Dalkowski always symbolized every frustration and elation they had ever felt. His successes and failures were theirs and, though he failed, they looked with pride on that, too. Because 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. In a way, Dalkowski's failure softened the grimness of their own possible failure. [x]