Philadelphia — On its website, the Shaker Funeral Home, where Steve Dalkowski’s private funeral service took place days after the coronavirus claimed him April 19, describes itself as a “creator of meaningful memories.”
If that’s true, then the mortuary in his hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, was the perfect setting for Dalkowski’s goodbye.
Though he never threw a pitch in the big leagues and lost nearly twice as many games as he won in nine minor league seasons, few in baseball history created more memories than the Orioles’ left-handed pitching prospect of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
“The stories,” said Hank King, an ex-Philadelphia Phillies scout who played a Single-A season with him 55 years ago, “there are so many stories.”
Ron Shelton, the screenwriter/director, played in the Orioles system after Dalkowski and heard the stories. He used Dalkowski as the basis for Nuke LaLoosh, the flaky, wild pitcher played by Tim Robbins in his 1988 film “Bull Durham.”
Because of limitations imposed by the coronavirus outbreak, most of those stories couldn’t be shared at funeral services limited to family members. But that didn’t stop King and Phillies senior adviser Pat Gillick, a former Orioles general manager, from remembering a onetime teammate who was one of the game’s all-time characters.
Born with a supernatural arm, Dalkowski could throw a ball through a wall, literally. But, as with all tragic heroes, the gods who gifted him also cursed him with a fatal flaw. He never learned to control his pitches or himself, drank as hard as he threw, and destroyed both his career and himself.
“Ability-wise, he was a freak,” recalled Gillick, a fellow pitcher with the Orioles’ Elmira, New York, affiliate in 1962 (Single-A) and 1963 (Double-A). “You don’t run into many guys with that kind of arm and talent. … But Steve easily went the wrong way. He had a big heart, but he went off the trail.”
Just 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds, Dalkowski had a fastball that Cal Ripken Sr., who both caught and managed him, estimated at 110 mph. Davey Johnson, a baseball lifer who played with him in the Orioles system and who saw every flamethrower from Sandy Koufax to Aroldis Chapman, said no one ever threw harder.
“Steve was double-jointed in his wrist,” Gillick said. “He got so much backspin on the ball that you could almost tell him, ‘Don’t throw the ball in the catcher’s mitt, throw it 2 feet in front of the plate.’ And by the time the ball got to the catcher, it was over the hitter’s head. He had super arm speed and he threw effortlessly. The ball came out very naturally at a very high velocity.”
That magic arm provoked wonder and terror, and quickly a mythology arose around it. His feats, real or imagined, embedded themselves into baseball’s oral tradition. Passed from player to player, generation to generation, they have endured.
The bespectacled pitcher’s statistics are mind-blowing. In 956 innings from 1957 to 1965, he struck out 1,324 hitters — and walked 1,236. He averaged 17.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his first season — and 18.7 walks. One night in Tennessee, he had 24 strikeouts and 18 walks.
“Steve was double-jointed in his wrist. He got so much backspin on the ball that you could almost tell him, ‘Don’t throw the ball in the catcher’s mitt, throw it 2 feet in front of the plate.’ And by the time the ball got to the catcher, it was over the hitter’s head.”— Pat Gillick, ex-Orioles general manager, on former teammate Steve Dalkowski
Everybody in baseball, it seemed, had a Dalkowski story.
In Sports Illustrated, the pitcher/writer Pat Jordan described the spring training moment when a curious Ted Williams got into the box against him. He took one pitch, which he claimed he never saw, and walked away.
“[He said] Steve Dalkowski was the fastest pitcher he ever faced and that he would be damned if he would ever face him again if he could help it,” Jordan wrote.
Gillick remembered a practice session at Elmira when something upset his normally unflappable teammate. Dalkowski picked up a ball at home plate and angrily flung it over the center-field fence.
King, who now operates a Limerick baseball academy, saw him make a throw from deepest center field that cleared a press box behind the plate.
“When we played together at Tri-Cities in Washington, he’d been around eight or nine years already and he’d been hurt,” King said. “I can’t imagine how hard he must have thrown before because he was still unbelievable.”
Stuff of legend
According to legend, Dalkowski threw a ball through a wooden outfield fence. His pitches shattered one umpire’s mask, fractured another’s skull, and tore open a wire-mesh backstop 50 feet behind home plate and 25 feet in the air.
Fortunately for hitters, Gillick said, he tended to miss up and down, not in and out. For all his wildness, he hit only 37 batters. One was Brooklyn Dodgers minor leaguer Bob Beavers. That happened in a 1957 short-season D-level Appalachian League game when for the first and last time he faced the then-18-year-old Kingsport fireballer.
“The first pitch was over the backstop,” Beavers recently told the Hartford Courant. “The second pitch was called a strike. The third pitch hit me and knocked me out … and I never did play baseball again.”
Baltimore stuck with him for obvious reasons. And in 1962, when Elmira manager Earl Weaver persuaded Dalkowski to throttle back — “maybe 2 or 3 miles an hour,” Gillick said — his control briefly improved. His strikeout-walk average per nine innings, 13.1-17.1 the previous year — fell to 10.8-6.4.
“I thought he was over the hump,” Gillick said.
He went to camp in 1963 with the Orioles, who hoped he’d be part of that year’s rotation. In his first exhibition appearance, against the world-champion New York Yankees, he struck out Roger Maris on three pitches. Against the next hitter, Phil Linz, a Calvert Hall alumnus, he felt something pop. “Today they could have fixed that easily,” King said. “But this was the early 1960s.”
He lost a little velocity and the wildness returned. The drinking never stopped.
“He was such a nice guy when he was sober,” King said. “But when he drank — wow.”
Why Dalkowski never harnessed his stuff or himself remains an open question. Some believe the ex-high school quarterback had a learning disability or behavioral disorder. Paul Richards, then an Orioles executive, told reporters that Dalkowski scored extremely low on a team-administered intelligence test.
“Steve wasn’t particularly smart,” Gillick said. “He was also a bit naive.”
He drank every night and most days. He once lined up 24 shots and downed them in quick succession. It led to bar brawls, messy accidents, 4 a.m. calls from police lockups.
No single day can encapsulate a legend like his, but one late in the 1965 season, when his Tri-City (Wash.) Atoms traveled to Lewiston, Idaho, for a short-season Single-A Northwest League game with a Kansas City Athletics affiliate, might come close.
According to King, the Atoms traveled in five station wagons. Manager Ripken had a red 1958 Buick. King and Dalkowski rode in a Pontiac. On the morning they were scheduled to drive to Lewiston, Dalkowski was missing.
“We decided we’d stop at his apartment,” King recalled. “We get there and he’s drunk, passed out underneath the bathroom sink in his underwear.”
They woke him, packed a suitcase, and helped him to the car. A few miles into the trip, they heard a “PFFFFT! PFFFFFT” from the back seat. Dalkowski had opened two beers.
“We told him, ‘No, you’ve got to sober up. You’re pitching tonight,’” King said. “He said he needed air. We opened the wagon’s tailgate and he sat there. We got going and as we’re passing through this little town, the driver says, ‘Did you hear that bang?’ Steve fell off the tailgate. He scuffed his knees up pretty bad, ripped his pants.”
By the time the Atoms reached their Lewiston motel, Dalkowski still wasn’t sober. Grabbing a fire extinguisher, he knocked at teammates’ rooms. If they opened, he sprayed them. If they didn’t, he tried to kick down their door.
“Our catcher, Dave Mazzarelli, finally settled him down and he slept for a few hours,” King remembered. “At the ballpark he’s still not completely sober and we’re playing this real good A’s team with Blue Moon Odom, Chuck Dobson, Mike Andrews, Rick Monday.”
Sober, Dalkowski was a hitter’s nightmare. Drunk, he was something worse, squinting in from behind Coke-bottle glasses, his face red, his mood sour. And Monday, an A’s bonus baby who had signed for a then-astounding $104,000 in June, particularly irritated the pitcher, who’d gotten just $4,000 from Baltimore in 1957.
“Steve looks in at Monday and says, ‘Hit this, you son of a bitch.’ Boom, strikes him out. Comes up again. Strikes him out again. Struck him out three straight times,” King recalled.
Later in the game, an A’s batter hit a comebacker. Dalkowski knocked it down, but instead of the ball, he picked up the rosin bag and threw it to first.
“At that point,” King said, “Rip says, ‘I think I’ve seen enough’ and takes him out.”
Afterward, even though it was off-limits to the Atoms, Dalkowski headed for a local dive bar, the Golden Spur.
“I got a call real late,” King said. “Steve had been there and he’d punched out the window. We needed to take up a collection to get him out of jail. That was it. He got released.”
Dalkowski surfaced briefly later that season in Single-A San Jose. After just 38 innings, his career was over. He won 46 games, lost 80, and had an ERA of 5.28.
He was 26.
“Pretty soon he was living in a park there,” King said. “A guy I know put Steve in rehab and it worked. But after a while he left and was drinking again. Nobody could get through to him.”
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Somehow he survived to 80.
After leaving baseball, Dalkowski spent almost 30 years drifting in and out of menial jobs, rehab centers, marriages and jail cells. He was already suffering from alcohol-induced dementia in 1994 when his sister tracked him down in California. Patty Cain brought him back to Connecticut where he was admitted to New Britain’s Grandview Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center.
In 1998, Gillick, then the Orioles’ GM, had him throw out a first pitch at Camden Yards. And in 2009, Dalkowski — obese, disheveled, missing teeth, and immobile — was wheeled out to Dodger Stadium’s mound for another. It was his last public appearance.
Sometime in late March, he contracted the coronavirus. Moved to The Hospital of Central Connecticut, he died there three weeks later. He was buried in a family plot at New Britain’s Sacred Heart Cemetery.
When Dalkowski’s obituary appeared on the Shaker website, only three visitors left written condolences. For weeks, no one purchased a $39.99 memorial tree in his honor.
It was only on sports pages all around America, and in the minds of the aging men who saw him, where Dalkowski was remembered.
“It’s the gift from the gods,” Shelton wrote in 2009. “The arm, the power — that this little guy could throw it through a wall, literally, or back Ted Williams out of there. That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds.”