RIP to Steve Dalkowski, a flame-throwing pitcher who is one of the more famous players to never actually play in the major leagues. He died on April 19 in New Britain, Conn., at the age of 80 from COVID-19. Reported to be baseball’s fastest pitcher, Dalkowski pitched in the minor leagues from 1957-65. The legend of his fastball — and his lack of control — was the inspiration for the character of Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham.”
According to the Hartford Courant, Dalkowski’s sister Patty Cain brought Dalkowski back to Connecticut 26 years ago. He was suffering from alcohol-related dementia and moved into a care facility in his hometown of New Britain. Though his overall heath had improved since returning home, Dalkowski was confined to a wheelchair due to multiple medical issues. He tested positive for the Coronovirus earlier in April. He was transferred to a nearby hospital when his health declined.
“He’s in a better place now,” Cain told the Courant. “He is resting. He had a rough couple of months.”
Steve Dalkowski was born in New Britain on June 3, 1939. The legend that would follow him for the rest of his life started in New Britain High School. He was a good quarterback/halfback on the school football team, but he could do things with a baseball that few people have ever done. In his sophomore year of 1955, he struck out 18 batters in a game — and walked 18. A week later he walked 13 and fanned 14 batters. He recorded 20 strikeouts (7 walks) in a game in 1956 and was a base hit away from back-to-back no-hitters while pitching for the Caval Tool Bobcats, a Jaycee team, in August.
The part that nobody knew at the time was that Dalkowski’s father was an alcoholic, and the young pitcher took to drinking at a very early age. It was a lifelong addiction that haunted him throughout his playing career, making his difficult road to the majors even harder.
In his senior year of 1957, Dalkowski struck out 24 hitters in a single game, threw two no-hitters (back-to-back), two 1-hitters and one two-hitters. All total, he had 150 strikeouts in 69-2/3 innings. In June, the Baltimore Orioles signed the 5’11”, 170-pound lefty to a contract and sent him to the Kingsport Orioles in the Class-D Appalachian League.
The cost for Baltimore, officially, was $4,000, the maximum amount allowed at the time. Unofficially, Orioles scout Frank “Beauty” McGowan also gave him a $12,000 bonus, $1,000 a month and a new car.
In one of his first starts, Dalkowski clipped Dodgers prospect Bob Beavers on the side of the head with a fastball, removing a chunk of his ear and ending his career.
“The first pitch was over the backstop, and the second pitch was called a strike, I didn’t think it was,” Beavers told the Courant in 2019. “The third pitch hit me and knocked me out, so I don’t remember much after that. I couldn’t get in the sun for a while, and I never did play baseball again. I did hear that he was very upset about it and tried to see me in the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him in.”
Dalkowski had a 1-9 record and 8.13 ERA for Kingsport in 15 appearances. In 62 innings, he struck out 121 batters — and walked 129. He actually threw more wild pitches (39) than he gave up hits (22). He fanned 19 Salem hitters in a 5-4 loss on August 2. He only gave up 2 hits but walked 7. On August 23, he registered 15 strikeouts and 18 walks against Johnson City. The Baltimore Sun began to let its readers know about this prospect who may have the worst control in organized baseball.
“The catch is this: if Dalkowski doesn’t walk a man, chances are he’ll strike him out,” the paper reported. After the Appy League’s season was over, Dalkowski traveled to Baltimore to work out with the Orioles. He gave manager Paul Richards a look at what he could do… provided he could get his control figured out.
“I honestly think I have never seen anyone throw harder than Steve Dalkowski,” Richards said.
The next season saw Dalkowski throw for three different teams — Knoxville, Wilson, N.C., and Aberdeen. He averaged about 2 walks and 2 strikeouts per inning. In an exhibition game against the Reds, Dalkowski threw the first warm-up pitch over the head of catcher Joe Ginsberg. He then struck out Don Hoak, Dee Fondy and Alex Grammas on 12 pitches. Grammas managed to foul off a couple pitches and said afterwards, “I’ve been playing ball for 10 years, and nobody can throw a baseball harder than that.”
How fast could the teenage phenom throw? Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbets called it a “radio pitch” — you could hear it, but you couldn’t see it.
“I’ve batted against the fastest from Feller on down,” added Orioles coach Eddie Robinson. “I believe this boy is faster. I didn’t overpower those fastballers, but I got a pop fly or two. I can’t even get the ball out of the batting cage against Steve.”
Cal Ripken Sr., who saw quite a few pitchers in his day and who caught him in the minors, estimated Dalkowski threw between 110 and 115 miles per hour. In other words, imagine the fastest pitcher that Aroldis Chapman ever threw, and then add 10 miles an hour to it.
The U.S. Army attempted to measure Dalkowski’s fastball at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1958. Technicians set up a couple of timing devices and had Dalkowski throw his fastball over them. They came up with a top speed of 85.8 miles per hour. Either Dalkowski was experimenting with a knuckleball that day or — just maybe — the Army was a little off.
Dalkowski, pitching for the Aberdeen Pheasants, threw a no-hitter against Grand Forks on May 18, 1959. He struck out 21 batters, including 6 of the last 7 hitters. It was all done with strictly fastballs. “I threw just one curve ball and almost hit a batter, so I quit using it,” he explained.
That July, he knocked a home plate umpire out of the game when a fastball bounced off Ripken’s mitt and hit ump Joe Lupini in the mask. The legend is that Lupini’s mask shattered into pieces, but the recap of that game just mentioned that he left the game with a slight dent in his forehead and a severe headache.
After bouncing around the low minors for a couple of seasons, the Orioles kept Dalkowski with the Class-C Stockton Ports of the California League in 1960. He threw a career-high 170 innings, earned a 7-15 record and 5.14 ERA. He struck out 262 batters and walked exactly the same amount, 262. He broke the league’s strikeout record in June. In one game, he struck out 19 hitters and still lost to Reno, 8-3. His managers tried everything they could to improve his control. One set up a wooden target over the plate and told him to hit it. On the first pitch that actually hit the target, Dalkowski smashed it to pieces. End of experiment.
Along with his fastball, Dalkowski was also starting to develop a reputation for his after-hours escapades. Dalkoswki, still only 21 years old, claimed that his attitude had changed in the spring of 1961. “I’m thinking less about outside life and more about baseball. I always seemed to get with the wrong guys. Now I’m thinking for myself.
“It doesn’t take long for word to get around that you’re a bad guy, that you go around drinking. Now I hardly drink at all. Believe me, I’m serious this year.”
Dalkowski had an awful year in 1961 with the Tri-City Atoms of Pasco, Wash., in 1961. He had a 3-12 record, an 8.39 ERA and a WHIP of 2.631 in 103 innings. Even though he allowed just 75 hits, he walked 196 batters and threw 28 wild pitches, too.
The off-the-field incidents increased as well. He was pulled over by the police for drunk driving and put his car in reverse, plowing into the patrol car. Another time, he was playing at a stadium with a tractor that was used to drag the infield. He lost control of the tractor and jumped off right before it drove into the clubhouse, narrowly missing manager Billy DeMars.
In 1962, Dalkowski pitched for the Elmira Pioneers, and for the first time in his career, he looked like a pitcher who had a legitimate chance to succeed in the majors. He had a 7-10 record, but 6 of those 7 wins were shutouts. His ERA for the season was 3.04, which was the first time he’d ever finished a season with an ERA under 5. At one point, he put together a streak of 37 scoreless innings. The walks were still high, but his 114 bases on balls in 160 innings were far and away the best control he’d ever shown. He averaged 6.4 walks per 9 innings; before ’62, his previous best number was 13.9 walks/9 innings in 1960. For the first time in his career, he threw a 9-inning complete game and didn’t walk anyone.
Weaver was ecstatic. Dalkowski was thrilled, but a little confused, as he couldn’t pinpoint what the turnaround was. “I think I’m throwing the same but I’m not pumping as hard as I used to. Maybe that’s the answer. I just don’t know… I wish I did,” he said.
Years later, Dalkowski told the Baltimore Sun how Weaver helped him harness his power. He told his pitcher to ease up on his fastball and use his slider for strikes. When he got two strikes on the batter, Weaver whistled, signalling him to bring the heat. Oh, and he also told Dalkowski to not drink on the night he pitched.
“You couldn’t get him to stop drinking at night, and you couldn’t get him to stop running during the day,” Weaver said later.
Whatever habit worked, the Steve Dalkowski that showed up at the Orioles training camp in 1963 was not just a wild sideshow attraction. He was a frighteningly fast pitcher who had a legitimate chance to make the major-league team.
“He gets it around the plate now,” said manager Billy Hitchcock, who added that Dalkowski had walked 5 in 9 innings of work in the spring. “We’ve always known how hard he can throw. All Steve has to do is get the ball over. In the past, he hasn’t been able to do it. This spring, he drops the ball right in there around the plate.”
Dalkowski held the Tigers hitless for 3 innings in one stint and did the same to the Dodgers a few days later. He made a believer out of the Dodgers’ coach Leo Durocher. “All that guy’s got to do is get it over. My, he makes that ball look small. If he gets that fastball over consistently, look out. Oh, my.”
Dalkowski left an exhibition game on March 22 with a “pinched nerve” after shutting out the Yankees for 1-2/3 innings. That injury prevented him from making the Orioles Opening Day roster. He was never quite the same pitcher afterward, either. He threw a total of 41 innings in the minor leagues that season, with 40 walks and 36 strikeouts. In 1964, his struggles on the mound sent him all the way back down to Class-A Stockton. Come the following year, he couldn’t even pitch well at the lowest levels of the minors, and his career came to an end at the age of 26 after failed tryouts with the Pirates and Angels.
In nine minor-league seasons, Dalkowski had a 46-80 record. His Baseball Reference stats are missing some data, but he had 1,324 strikeouts and 1,236 walks in 956 innings. He had a career 5.28 ERA.
Steve Dalkowski is perhaps the greatest “what could have been” story in baseball, at least in the post-integration era. Ron Shelton, who was an Orioles minor-leaguer for a few years, heard some of the stories and myths about Dalkowski’s career and used some of them as the basis the for his wild prospect, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, in his screenplay for “Bull Durham.”
“It’s the gift from the gods — the arm, the power,” Shelton wrote in a 2009 essay for The Los Angeles Times. “That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. He had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”
Dalkowski’s life after baseball was a series of tragedies. Shelton, when he played in California, occasionally saw a man, paper bag in hand, come to the clubhouse to beg for money. “Our manager, Joe Altobelli, would talk to him, give him some change, then come back and report, ‘That was Steve Dalkowski.’ And a clubhouse of cocky, young, testosterone-driven baseball players sat in awe — of the unimaginable gift, the legend, the fall.”
Dalkowski ended up in Bakersfield, where he was a migrant worker, picking grapes, oranges, potatoes or cotton. He drank away whatever money he made, and his first marriage fell apart in the process. He was profiled in The Bakersfield Californian in 1974 and included his phone number in the article, since he was looking for work — “Something better than working in the fields,” he said.
Some former teammates got Dalkowski into rehab, but it didn’t last. He remarried and was checked into a hospital in Los Angeles in the 1990s. He was released to a halfway house but disappeared, living on the streets in LA for years. His second wife moved to Oklahoma, and he followed her there. When she died, his sister brought him home to Connecticut in 1994.
Dalkowski was diagnosed with dementia, and doctors gave him less than a year to live. However, in a stable and sober environment, Dalkowski began to recover. He was able to attend minor-leage baseball games and once threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium. He gave a speech when he was inducted into the New Britain High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. He also spoke to the players on the University of Connecticut baseball team at the invitation of coach Andy Blaylock, a former teammate, in 2002.
“Please don’t be like me,” he told the players. “Listen to your coach. Do what he says.”