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Celebrating the Worst in Athletics

booyah Steve "White Lightning" Dalkowski

Steve "White Lightnin'" Dalkowski
   He was born in 1938, at New Britain General Hospital in Connecticut, with the arm of a god: He threw baseballs like Zeus threw lightning bolts. People even called him "White Lightning," because there was such a resemblance.
   He grew to 5'11", weighed 170 pounds, and wore thick glasses... Not your standard looking god—but when people saw him throw they believed. Teammates dared him to throw balls through wooden fences... and he did it—twice, for teams in Stockton and Elmira. He once shattered an umpire's mask with an errant pitch.
   He is revered by baseball aficionados as the fastest pitcher who ever lived. Most experts believe that he must have thrown at least 110 mph in his prime, which would be the fastest, deadliest, fastball in professional baseball history... yet he never played in the majors.
   Steve Dalkowski's life has been as wild and unpredictable as his pitching. Everybody who saw Dalkowski play has a story about him—and they all end badly:
   He had a lifetime won-loss record of 46-80 and an ERA of 5.59 in nine minor league seasons, striking out 1396... and walking 1354... in 995 innings. (Almost one and a half strikeouts and one and a half walks every inning.)
   He wasn't wild hurling pitches inside and outside. He'd get the ball over the plate, but it'd be twenty feet over it. It would rise spectacularly, and he couldn't control it. Teammate Ron Hansen said: "His fastball would rise, on average, a foot to two feet between the pitcher's mound and home plate. It looked like an airplane taking off. And most of the time he never threw it anywhere close to the plate. Sometimes he missed the [batting] cage entirely."
   "Steve Dalkowski was the hardest thrower I ever, ever saw," said Cal Ripken Sr. "In 1958, Dalkowski threw a pitch through the backstop of the Wilson, N.C., grandstand. I was back in Wilson in 1975 scouting for the Orioles. First thing I did was check to see if the hole was still there. It was."
   A batter in Knoxville had to return to the clubhouse and change his pants after a fastball sailed past his head. "I threw so hard I scared the whole town that night," recalled Dalkowski.
   Pitching coach Herm Starrette said: "A normal game for him was seven innings, 18 strikeouts, 15 walks. He couldn't go nine because he threw so many pitches. And he set a record with every pitch. Either a strikeout or walk record... One night he was pitching for Earl [Weaver] in Aberdeen [South Dakota] and walked 18, struck out 20, and pitched a no-hitter."
   Former Yankees manager Bob Lemon said the best Dalkowski exploit he saw was in Miami's Bobby Maduro Stadium when Steve hit a guy in the back—and the guy was standing in line to buy a hot dog! "The guy came up to me after and asked if I'd autograph the ball," Dalkowski said.
   But was there a method to the madness? Herm Starrette recalled: "He was warming up in Reno [Nevada] and told me, 'The first [warm-up] pitch I'm throwing over the press box.' He threw it clean out of the stadium. Over the press box and everything. The sportswriters were ducking. Billy DeMars was managing, and he turned to me and said, 'Did he do that on purpose?' I said, 'I don't think so; that's just Steve."

The fictional version: "Nuke" in Bull Durham.
   One of his wilder pitches hit an announcer—up in the announcer's booth! He finished one season at Stockton with 262 strikeouts and 262 walks. Sound familiar? Writer/director Ron Shelton was played on the same team with Dalkowski in 1960, and he used both the announcer incident and those exact statistics in his screenplay for Bull Durham. He used Dalkowski as the model for the film's character of Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins).
   Here are some more incidents in the remarkable career of Steve 'White Lighting' Dalkowski:

  • In a high school game, Dalkowski threw a no-hit, no-run game with 18 strikeouts and 18 walks.
  • At Kingsport on August 31, 1957, he struck out 24 Bluefield hitters in a single minor league game—and lost, 8-4! He also issued 18 walks in that game, hit four very unlucky guys, threw six wild pitches, and allowed 9 runs.
  • He pitched a total of 62 innings in 1957, fanned 121 (averaging 18 strikeouts per game) but won only once, because he walked 129 (eight more than he struck out) and threw 39 wild pitches.
  • One night at Kingsport, Dalkowski threw a pitch that tore off part of a batter's ear. "It made me so scared, I didn't even want to look at it," said Dalkowski.
  • Dalkowski won a $5 bet with teammate Herman Starrette, who said Dalkowski couldn't throw a baseball through a wall. Dalkowski warmed up and then moved 15 feet away from the wooden outfield fence. His first pitch went right through the boards.
  • In one minor league game, Dalkowski threw three pitches that penetrated the backstop and sent fans scattering.
  • At Aberdeen in the Northern League, Dalkowski threw a one-hitter and lost 9-8.
  • In 1959, Dalkowski set a Northern League record with 21 strikeouts in a game.
  • In 1960 at Class A Stockton, Dalkowski threw a pitch that broke an umpire's mask in three places, knocking him 18 feet back and sending him to a hospital for three days with a concussion.
  • In 1960, pitching a game for Stockton in the California League, Dalkowski struck out 19 and limited Reno to four hits but walked nine and lost 8-3.
  • In 1965 with Kennewick, Wash., Dalkowski fanned Rick Monday -- who had signed a then-record bonus of $104,000 -- four times. Each time Monday fanned, Dalkowski was heard to mutter, "$104,000, my ass."

Steve's only pro baseball card.
   Dalkowski spent every spring in the Orioles' major league camp; Paul Richards worked with him constantly. But Dalkowski's only appearance at Memorial Stadium was in an exhibition game against the Reds in '59.
   He struck out the side.
   Pitcher Steve Barber remembers the bad side of spring training with Steve: " Had real bad habits. He never had his underwear clean or anything. He had his sweatshirts and stuff in the locker by mine, and they smelled so bad I told him, 'If you don't wash those things by tomorrow, I'm going to cut them up.'"
   It gets worse: In an article in The Sporting News from June 30, 1979, Cal Ripken Sr. said, "Dalkowski could do some drinking. He just couldn't stop. He liked to stay out, drink and have some fun. He'd always be borrowing money to but booze and was broke from payday to payday."
   Steve Barber said, "I remember one night, Bo (Belinski, Steve's roommate) and I were together, and we went into this place, and Steve's there, and he says, 'Hey, guys, come over and look at this beautiful sight—'twenty-four scotch and waters lined up in front of him. And he was pitching the next day. Then he stopped on the way home and bought a gallon of wine and killed that, too. The next night they just carried him off the mound in the fourth inning."
   Herm Starrette said: "One night in Elmira he got pretty lit after a game, and he was driving around in Ray Youngdahl's Cadillac-brand new, a real beauty with fins and everything. Then the cops stopped him right near the stadium. He'd been drinking, and they were going to take him in, and then Steve threw the thing in reverse and just slammed it into the cop's car. He really rammed that cop car. It was smoking. Tore up the Cadillac. I don't know if he did it on purpose or not. But they took him down to jail and called Earl [Weaver], who was managing, and they said, 'We got Steve down here,' and Earl said, 'Goddamnit, let him stay there tonight.'"
   Earl Weaver was the manager at the Orioles' Double-A affiliate in Elmira, New York, in the early '60s, and helped build Dalkowski's confidence. Weaver gave all the players IQ tests, and discovered that Dalkowski's IQ was about 60. When he saw that, Weaver realized immediately that Dalkowski simply could not process the information that he was given. The Orioles had coaches out there trying to teach him to throw a change, trying to teach him pick-off plays, trying to teach him how to hold runners, how to pitch off a stretch. "The more your talked to Dalkowski," Weaver said, "the more confused he became."
   So an understanding Weaver kept things simple for Steve, and didn't ask for too much—just fastballs and strikeouts. Under Weaver, Dalkowski was 7-10 with 114 walks and 192 strikeouts in 160 innings. His ERA was 3.04, two runs per game lower than his previous best season. In fact, Dalkowski had a 52-inning stretch where he struck out 104, walked only 11 and allowed one earned run.
   The next March, Dalkowski worked as a reliever during spring training, and threw six straight hitless innings. The Orioles informed him that he had finally made the team. Dalkowski seemed poised for greatness.
   On the afternoon of March 23—the last game of the Orioles' spring season, he was fitted for his Orioles uniform, finally on the verge of becoming a major leaguer. That night, he was called in to pitch in relief against the Yankees in the sixth inning. He fanned Roger Maris and Elston Howard. Then Hector Lopez singled. Facing Phil Linz, Dalkowski felt something pop in his elbow. He had severely strained a tendon in his left elbow.
   He was out for most of the season, and then the Orioles assigned him to Rochester for rehab. But when he returned his fastball had leveled off to 90 mph. Still fast, but not fast enough to compensate for his other problems. He never made it to the majors again.
   He was released by the Orioles organization in 1965, and drifted from team to team until San Jose released him in 1966. He was out of organized baseball for good after that.
   Dalkowski was totally unprepared for an early retirement, and his drinking continued to escalate. With no skills for anything but baseball, he picked apricots, oranges, lemons and cotton as a farm laborer for nearly three decades in Oildale, California. The million dollar arm went from tossing baseballs over a backstop to tossing oranges into a crate. And with that came depression—and more drinking.
   The Association of Professional Ballplayers in America, an organization formed in the early 1920s to take care of former baseball people who became ill or indigent, tried to help Dalkowski. Chuck Stevens, director of the APBA, said, "Dalkowski had a 14-foot medical sheet. They tell me he had a 35 common drunk arrests in every town in America. It's a very sad story. But, we had him absolutely dry for three months. We put him in an alcoholic rehabilitation center and found him a job. For three months, Steve Dalkowski was a productive citizen." But a few months later, Dalkowski was caught drinking again and the APBA stopped its assistance, because the money they gave Dalkowski was being used to buy liquor.
   Dalkowski's failing health finally prevented him from working altogether. By the late-1980s, he was living in a small apartment in southern California and almost broke and suffering from alcohol-induced dementia. Dalkowski's wife moved him to Oklahoma City in 1992, and when she died in 1994, his former catcher Frank Zupo—a teammate at Stockton in 1960—and Dalkowski's sister, Pat Cain, brought him back home to New Britain, Connecticut, and placed him in the Walnut Hill Health Centre. It's across the street from the New Britain General Hospital, where he was born. It wasn't the homecoming that everyone had expected him to make.

Hopefully Nuke had a happier ending.
   So there you have it—the complete Steve Dalkowski story—and like all Dalkowski stories, it turned out bad.
   He wasn't "Nuke" LaLoosh. Nuke had Annie Savoy. She believed in the "Church of Baseball" and took Nuke under her wing because he owned "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head." She said, "It's my job to give him life and wisdom and help him get to the big leagues."
   But this isn't some feel-good summer movie. There was no Annie Savoy to send Steve Dalkowski on his way to fulfill his destiny in the majors. There's no Church of Baseball, and Steve Dalkowski isn't a god. The fictional Nuke left for the majors and the story was over—so we never had to witness his fall. Your typical, happy Hollywood ending. But life doesn't just end on a moment of bliss -- there's always that next pitch, when you can tear your tendon. It doesn't follow a predetermined storyline. Life's adversities are hurled at us, as if from the arm of a God, wild and unpredictable—just like a pitch from Steve Dalkowski.


GUEST COLUMN: I Faced Steve Dalkowski
"I was awarded a Bronze Star for my actions in Vietnam, but I should have gotten a Silver Star for spending 20 minutes in a batting cage with Steve Dalkowski."

Poor Sports Archive

More Reading:

  • Dalk
    Dalk, by William A. Dembski, Alex Thomas, and Brian Vikander; Influence Publishers (October 27, 2020): 304 pages. "For the first time, Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball's Fastest Pitcher unites all of the eyewitness accounts from the coaches, analysts, teammates, and professionals who witnessed the game's fastest pitcher in action. In doing so, it puts readers on the fields and at the plate to hear the buzzing fastball of a pitcher fighting to achieve his major league ambitions... The late Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who saw baseball greats Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax pitch, said "Dalko threw harder than all of 'em." Cal Ripken Sr., Dalkowski's catcher for several years, said the same. Bull Durham screenwriter Ron Shelton, who played with Dalkowski in the minor leagues, said "They called him "Dalko" and guys liked to hang with him and women wanted to take care of him and if he walked in a room in those days he was probably drunk." This force on the field that could break chicken wire backstops and wooden fences with his heat but racked up almost as many walks as strikeouts in his career, spent years of drinking all night and showing up on the field the next day, just in time to show his wild heat again. What the Washington Post called "baseball's greatest what-If story" is one of a superhuman, once-in-a-generation gift, a near-mythical talent that refused to be tamed. Steve Dalkowski will forever be remembered for his remarkable arm. Said Shelton, "In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michaelangelo's gift but could never finish a painting." Dalko is the story of the fastest pitching that baseball has ever seen, an explosive but uncontrolled arm.

Jeffrey C. Hause has written professionally (in a very amateur fashion) for entertainers like Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Rodney Dangerfield, Gabe Kaplan, Rick Dees and people he'd rather not tell you about. He's also written screenplays at Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal, Columbia, Franchise Pictures, the Samuel Goldwyn Co., and Interscope. Here's his résumé. E-mail: jeff@sportshollywood.com.

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