Steve Dalkowski, a left-handed pitcher with an unimposing physique, spent nine seasons in the minor leagues without getting into a major league game. But just about everyone in the baseball world of the 1950s and early ’60s seemed to have heard stories of his extraordinary gift.
Since radar guns had yet to arrive on the baseball scene, nobody could measure Dalkowski’s fastball under game conditions with precision. But it became gospel that he could throw well in excess of 100 miles an hour.
The Sporting News ran the headline “Living Legend Released” when his career, spent mostly in the Baltimore Orioles’ system, came to an end in 1966.
Ron Shelton, the director and screenwriter for the 1988 baseball movie “Bull Durham,” had been an infielder in the Orioles’ organization for several seasons after Dalkowski’s departure and heard tales of his pitching days. Shelton kept his legend alive when he loosely drew on Dalkowski’s exploits in creating the Bulls’ hard-throwing pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, portrayed by Tim Robbins.
But for all of the attention he received, Dalkowski’s flaws on the ball field and his troubles off it ruined what might have been a brilliant career. He walked batters almost as often as he struck them out, and he struggled with alcoholism.
He died on April 19 at 80 at a hospital in New Britain, Conn., after spending his last 26 years at a nursing home in the city with alcohol-induced dementia.
The cause was complications of the coronavirus, his sister, Patti Cain, said.
Stephen Louis Dalkowski Jr. was born on June 3, 1939, in New Britain. His father was a tool and die maker and his mother, Adele Zaleski Dalkowski, worked in a ball bearing factory.
He became a star pitcher in high school and signed with the Orioles after graduating in 1957, receiving a $4,000 bonus.
Pitching for the Kingsport, Tenn., team of the Appalachian League in his rookie season, Dalkowski hit a batter in the head, leaving him unconscious. He struck out 121 batters and walked 129 in 62 innings with a 1-8 record.
The following season, pitching for three teams, he struck out 203 batters and walked 207 in 104 innings. And so it went, though he showed some improvement in his control while pitching for Baltimore’s farm club in Elmira, N.Y., for Earl Weaver, the future Hall of Fame manager of the Orioles. Weaver tried to keep things simple for Dalkowski, telling him to concentrate on taking something off his fastball in order to find home plate.
Dalkowski’s pitches, thrown from a 5-foot-11-inch, 175-pound frame, were likely to arrive high or low rather than bearing in on a hitter or straying wide of the plate. But the Yankees were taking no chances when they faced him in a March 1963 exhibition night game with the Orioles when Dalkowski was being considered for a call to the majors.
George Vecsey, who covered the game for Newsday and later became a sports columnist for The New York Times, interviewed Dalkowski before his induction in 2009 into the Shrine of the Eternals, an alternate hall of fame in Pasadena, Calif. His account recalled the moment when Roger Maris came to the plate.
“Maris was a legend for having hit a record 61 homers in 1961; Dalkowski was a legend for being perhaps the fastest pitcher ever,” he wrote. “When they met, Maris was theoretically standing near home plate in Miami, but his fanny was more or less in the Bahamas.”
“Three straight pitches,” Dalkowski remarked in that interview, recalling his easy strikeout.
“After the game, the Yankees stars all yukked it up in the clubhouse, imitating each other’s bailout moves,” Vecsey remembered.
But Dalkowski injured his elbow later in the game and never regained the speed on his fastball. He also pitched briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the California Angels organizations in his last years in the minors.
He struck out 1,324 batters and walked 1,236 in 956 innings with a career record of 46-80, according to Baseball Reference.
After leaving baseball, Dalkowski picked vegetables alongside migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley in California. But he never found a steady job. His drinking continued, and he lost touch with his family. When his sister learned of his whereabouts in 1994, she brought him back to New Britain and placed him in the nursing home.
Dalkowski’s first marriage, to Linda Moore, ended in divorce. His second wife, Virginia Billingsley, died in 1994. He had no children, and his sister was his only immediate survivor.
Shelton reflected on Dalkowski’s life in an article for The Los Angeles Times in 2009.
“It’s the gift from the gods — the arm, the power,” he wrote. “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.”