Former players swear he was the hardest thrower they had ever seen. He never stepped foot on a Major League mound and was out of the sport well before his 30th birthday. His name doesn't conjure many, if any, memories for casual fans.
It's not a stretch to say most baseball followers have never heard of Steve Dalkowski. But they probably know his cinematic alter ego: Nuke LaLoosh.
'Haven't seen anyone like him'
From the time he was growing up in New Britain, Connecticut, through the end of his nine-year professional career with Class A San Jose in 1965, Dalkowski was the pitcher no one wanted to face. Such was the reputation with which he found himself as an Orioles prospect making his debut in 1957.
In that era, radar guns were used by the police, not baseball scouts. There is no official record of how hard the 5-foot-11, 175-pound left-hander threw. However, everyone agreed on one thing: his fastball was fast
. Unlike today, pitchers who threw in excess of 95 mph were rarities. But even that shortchanges Dalkowski. Anyone who saw him pitch swears he cracked triple digits ... and then some.
A few claim his heater was as fast as 115, which hardly seems possible. The fastest pitch ever recorded was thrown by current Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. The southpaw was clocked at 105.1 mph while pitching for the Reds in 2011. So 115 mph is probably out of the realm of possibility, but then again ...
A 24-year-old pitching prospect entering the final two years of his playing career, Pat Gillick was Dalkowski's teammate with Class A/Double-A Elmira and Triple-A Rochester in 1962-63. He vividly recalls the ungodly velocity from the bespectacled hurler.
"I've seen a lot of pitchers over the course of time," said Gillick, who engineered three World Series championships as the general manager of the Blue Jays and Phillies. "When you see them, you want to compare them to others, and if you take Steve, he was right up there with the likes of [Nolan] Ryan, [Sandy] Koufax, [Bob] Feller and [Herb] Score. I've never really seen anyone like him."
Cal Ripken Sr. was a 22-year-old catcher who played with Dalkowski in 1958 for Class B Wilson of the Carolina League. The former Major League skipper and father of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken was equally awed by his velocity.
"Steve Dalkowski was the hardest thrower I ever, ever saw," Ripken, who died in 1999, reportedly once said. "In 1958, Dalkowski threw a pitch through the backstop of the [Wilson] 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."
Gillick explained one of the reasons why Dalkowski was able to generate such velocity.
"He suffered from hypermobility [double-jointedness] in his shoulder and wrists. It made his arm like a whip," the Hall of Fame executive said. "Steve had the loosest arm I've ever seen in all my years in baseball. The truly hard throwers need that looseness to generate such extreme velocity, and he had it."
As an 18-year-old in the Appalachian League, Dalkowski struck out 121 batters in 62 innings, an average of 17.6 strikeouts per nine. He surrendered 22 hits, only one of which left the yard, yet finished 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA in 15 appearances. Why? He issued 129 walks and uncorked 39 wild pitches.
Being nervous about possibly getting embarrassed at the plate wasn't the only reason hitters thought twice about stepping in against him: they feared for their safety.
Although he only hit four batters that season, one had a lasting impact.
Bob Beavers, an 18-year-old playing his seventh professional game, dug in against Dalkowski as a member of the Bluefield Dodgers on June 30, 1957. He doesn't recall how the at-bat ended, but when he came to, part of his left ear lobe was missing.
"[Dalkowski] had a reputation for being very wild, so they told us to take a strike," Beavers told the Hartford Courant last year. "The first pitch was over the backstop, the second pitch was called a strike. ... The third pitch hit me and knocked me out. I couldn't get in the sun for a while, and I never did play baseball again."
Beavers made a full recovery and his story was the exception rather than the rule. But the strikeouts -- and walks -- kept coming fast and furious. In another start against Bluefield on Aug. 31, 1957, Dalkowski fanned 24, walked 18 and threw six wild pitches in an 8-4 loss.
Outings like that were regular occurrences for Dalkowski. He threw a one-hitter for the Class C Aberdeen Pheasants in 1958 during which he struck out 15 but lost, 9-8, because he walked 17.
Beavers' unfortunate beaning notwithstanding, Dalkowski's pitches were more likely to stray up or down rather than running toward either side of the batter's box. He plunked 37 batters in nearly 1,000 innings during his nine seasons, a remarkably low total considering he averaged close to 12 walks per nine.
"Ryan threw a lot of pitches early on and his control was an issue until he finally harnessed his velocity," Gillick said. "But he was wild up and down, not in and out. I wouldn't say he was 'dangerously wild.'"
As someone who caught Dalkowski, the elder Ripken had a first-person view. He echoed Gillick's comments -- with a caveat.
"Dalko was the easiest pitcher I ever caught," the one-time Orioles manager was quoted as saying in a 2009 Los Angeles Times
piece by filmmaker Ron Shelton. "He was only wild high and low, rarely inside or out -- but the batters didn't know that."
Shelton's piece includes another famous Dalkowski tale, the one involving Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Taking batting practice at Miami Stadium prior to an Orioles-Red Sox Spring Training game in the early 1960s, the retired Williams reportedly ambled by the cage to watch Dalkowski. He decided to step in himself and, as the story goes, one pitch -- which Williams later told reporters he didn't even see -- was all it took to force him back out.
"Anyone that came in contact with him in the Minors or if you talk to folks who saw him, you'll hear some crazy stuff," Gillick said. "As time goes on, stories can get fluffed up or inflated, but he was the hardest thrower I ever saw in the Minor Leagues. His fastball would rank right up there with the fastest in the game right now."
The strikeouts, walks and legend continued to grow throughout Dalkowski's career. He fanned 374 batters across 202 frames in 1958-59 and allowed barely four hits per nine innings. Conversely, he issued 435 free passes. Whether he was hitting the zone or not, Dalkowski embodied the archetype of the unhittable pitcher.
Then he literally became one.
On May 17, 1959, three weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Dalkowski took the mound for Aberdeen against Grand Forks and, save for one breaking pitch, threw exclusively fastballs. Nine innings, 21 strikeouts and eight walks later, he notched a 6-0 win and the first and only no-hitter of his professional career.
"You could tell Steve to get on the rubber and throw the ball 58 feet," Gillick recalled. "And by the time the ball got [to that point], it was over the catcher's head. He had one of the greatest rises on a fastball that I've seen in my 60 years in baseball. If Steve could have harnessed that, I'm sure he would have had a great Major League career."
But he couldn't, which played a large part in his undoing but also granted him a sort of cult hero status.
In keeping with the emerging Dalkowski phenomenon, there would be no Johnny Vander Meer moment after the no-no. He walked 11 in his next outing, including the first eight batters, and 12 more the following start. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
Dalkowski racked up a career-high 262 strikeouts -- and 262 walks -- with Class A Stockton in 1960 but saw tangible progress two years later with Class A Elmira under Earl Weaver. Six years before he embarked on a Hall of Fame career as Orioles skipper, Weaver encouraged Dalkowski to use his slider more while easing back on the fastball ... unless there were two strikes.
"Earl had managed me in Venezuela in winter ball. We got along," Dalkowski told the Baltimore Sun
in 2003. "He handled me with tough love."
Whatever Weaver preached had a positive effect. Dalkowski still racked up the K's (192) but reduced his walks to 114 over 160 frames. For a pitcher who came into the season averaging more than a walk per inning for his career, it was a giant step forward. Sadly, it turned out to be the apex of his career.
Dalkowski entered 1963 with a legitimate shot at cracking the Orioles' roster, but fate intervened late in Spring Training. Facing a Yankees lineup that featured Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Elston Howard -- he struck out the latter two -- Dalkowski felt something pop in his left elbow and exited an inning later. He told reporters after the game he lost feeling in his left hand.
"I don't know how I knew it," Dalkowski told the Hartford Courant in 1996. "But I knew my career was over right there."
Technically, he pitched three more seasons and just 24 innings at Triple-A. He could still strike out hitters -- and walk them -- but the sizzling fastball that tantalized everyone was gone and, with it, his best shot as becoming a Major Leaguer.
Because Minor League statistics were tracked very loosely and sometimes not at all, Dalkowski's numbers are incomplete. According to BaseballReference.com, he ended his career with a 46-80 record, an ERA well over 5.00, 145 wild pitches, 1,324 strikeouts and 1,236 walks over 956 innings. He was 26 years old when he threw his final pitch.
If Dalkowski's on-field performance rings a bell, it should. Shelton, the O's Minor Leaguer-turned-film director, used Dalkowski as the inspiration for the talented but oh-so-wild hurler Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh in his 1988 hit "Bull Durham." Starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who played the seemingly uncontrollable right-hander, the movie chronicles LaLoosh's time with the Durham Bulls while being mentored by veteran catcher Crash Davis (Costner).
LaLoosh racks up plenty of hit batters, wild pitches, walks and strikeouts. Sound familiar?
Shelton heard the tales of the small-in-stature pitcher with the 100-mph fastball from longtime Minor and Major League manager Joe Altobelli. A former teammate of Dalkowski, "Alto" regaled his players with tales of the pitcher who seemed to have it all ... except control.
"It's the gift from the gods ... that this little guy could throw it through a wall, literally, or back Ted Williams out of there," Shelton wrote in his 2009 Los Angeles Times piece. "That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn't know it. That's why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo's gift but could never finish a painting."
Sadly for Dalkowski, there would be no Hollywood ending like LaLoosh enjoyed in "Bull Durham." A heavy drinker even during his playing days, he drifted from job to job and place to place for more than two decades. His sister, Pat Cain, brought him back to a New Britain assisted-living facility in the mid-90s, and he reportedly kicked drinking.
He made appearances, signed autographs and was elected to the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Eternals in 2009.
Unfortunately, decades of drinking left him with alcohol-related dementia and myriad other issues in his later years. Already in failing health, Dalkowski tested positive for COVID-19 last month and died on April 19. He was 80 years old.
Several years after he found sobriety, the one-time phenom summed up his baseball career succinctly.
"I made it," he told The Courant. "But I didn't really make it."
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.