“Steve Dalkowski threw harder than anybody I ever saw,” said Johnson, who was a teammate of the southpaw in 1963 with Class AA Elmira. “He even threw his slider 95 miles per hour.”
“One day in the outfield, I said, ‘You can throw a ball through that fence, can’t you?’ ” Johnson recalled. “So he did. Right through those 1-by-6 boards.”
“By , they’d throttled Dalkowski back to 80 percent to throw more strikes,” Johnson said. “But he was still the fastest. He was just phenomenal.”
In 1976, when I first broke onto the baseball beat, Earl Weaver, who managed Dalkowski in the minors, and ex-catcher Cal Ripken Sr., who caught him as a minor leaguer, still talked about the southpaw whose glasses were so thick he could barely see home plate, who was so wild that he really did hit the press box with a pitch and who, at 18 in a spring training game, faced Ted Williams. Ted took one pitch, up and in. The catcher held his glove there. Williams walked away, vowing that he would never stand at the plate against Dalkowski again if he could help it.
“I never saw it,” said the man with the most famous batting eye ever.
Weaver, Ripken and many others said Dalkowski was not only the fastest they ever saw — but by a significant, almost unbelievable margin. Ripken told me he thought Dalkowski threw 110 mph, but there were no radar guns in the minors to clock him. Ripken, Weaver and others sometimes added that they didn’t want to be quoted on how fast they thought he threw because they were afraid that, without evidence, they would sound like they were making up the whole thing.
Because Dalkowski blew out his arm just as he was on the verge of making the major leagues with the O’s in 1964, it seemed cruel to make him seem like a myth when his potential was so real and his life turned out so badly.
Dalkowski, well liked by teammates, had two flaws from the earliest sightings: wildness and alcohol. At an age when young minor leaguers might drink beer, “Steve was always Crown Royal shots — at 23,” Johnson said. “Not good.”
Only one man made progress against either of Dalkowski’s issues: Weaver. In 1961, Dalkowski walked 196 in 103 innings with an 8.39 ERA. The next year at Elmira, Weaver asked Dalkowski to stop throwing so hard and also not to drink the night before he pitched — small steps toward two kinds of control. With Weaver in 1962 and 1963, Dalkowski’s ERA plummeted to 3.00 in 189 innings with “just” 140 walks. A man who once had fanned 262 and walked 262 in the same season (in 170 innings) was, by the spring of 1964, slated for Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
“We were all rooting for him. He was going north with the club,” Johnson said. “I was behind the screen. We faced the Yankees. I remember it like yesterday: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, seemed like he struck out all of ‘em.”
Then, one throw, while fielding a bunt, it’s said, blew out his arm. Never the same. Never threw a pitch in the majors.
How could such a normal-sized man, listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, generate such velocity with a delivery below overhand but above sidearm, often called a “slingshot” motion?
“He had great extension [as he reached back], like all the great fastballers,” Johnson said. “His rotator cuff went way back.
“We didn’t even want to face Dalkowski in batting practice,” said Johnson, 77, still living happily in Florida with his wife, Susan, and just back from walking their short-haired German shepherd and their Bernedoodle. “He had the thickest glasses you could buy — like a quarter-inch. You figured he could barely see you.”
Steve Dalkowski — for whom nothing else in life ever seemed to go right,who spent years as a migrant worker and at times showed up at a minor league park to accept a handout from a manager who might still remember him, who mowed down Yankees and was headed to The Show the day his arm broke — that guy was faster than Koufax?
“Steve Dalkowski,” Johnson said, “threw harder than anybody.”
It may not even be close. But, for Dalkowski, everything was always so far away.