The Orioles’ farm system produced many All-Stars and important contributors in the early years, but the most phenomenal talent never played in a major league game. Steve Dalkowski, a left-handed pitcher from New Britain, Connecticut, was truly a legend in his own time. “He was unbelievable, that’s the only word,” said Ron Hansen, a shortstop who came through the system at the same time.
Dalkowski signed with the Orioles in ’57 and spent eight years in the farm system. He was average-sized at best—only 5-feet-11 inches and 170 pounds—but he was one of the hardest throwers in history. There were no radar guns then, but observers believe he routinely surpassed 100 miles per hour, sometimes by quite a bit. Cal Ripken Sr., a man not given to exaggeration, caught Dalkowski in the late ’50s and told a reporter years later that Dalkowski threw harder than Nolan Ryan, baseball’s all-time strikeout leader.
If he’d had control of his fastball, according to Earl Weaver, who managed him in the minors, he could have become another Sandy Koufax. But he was as wild as any pitcher in the game. In his first pro season, at the Class-D level, he walked 129 and struck out 121 in 62 innings. Three years later, pitching in the California League, he walked 262 and struck out 262.
Walter Youse: “Physically, he wasn’t that big. But he was real strong. Had long arms. Frank McGowan was the scout who signed him up in Connecticut. They didn’t give him a lot of bonus money, something like eight thousand dollars or ten thousand dollars. No one knew too much about him. Frank had seen him playing football—throwing passes left-handed—and tried to keep it quiet. They got him for a pretty reasonable price. And right away, instantly, he became a phenomenon.”
Barry Shetrone: “You had to see it to believe it. You know those fast-pitch softball pitchers whose balls rise going toward the plate? Steve did that throwing overhand. I took batting practice against him in spring training in ’58, and he threw a ball to me, and his reputation had preceded him, and I see it coming, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well he’s not so fast.’ Then, before I could think, the ball, which was about belt high, just zoomed up and over my head. I stood back and said, ‘I don’t believe I saw what I just saw.’”
Ron Hansen: “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.”
Walter Youse: “Richards said he’d never seen anyone else throw a ball that started down at the shins and moved up into the strike zone. They brought him up to Baltimore and let him throw batting practice before a game against the Red Sox, and everything just stopped. All those big-leaguers came over to watch, Ted Williams included. No one had ever seen anything like it.
“I was the manager when he won his first ball game as a pro in ’57. They sent me to Kingsport to manage the team there because the manager got sick. The first night, Steve pitched for me in Pulaski, Virginia. The dugout was real close to the field. You could sit there and hear Dalkowski’s pitches buzzing to the plate. They made a noise like you never heard. I told him, ‘Steve, don’t throw your curveball so hard. Let up a little bit, throw like maybe a half-speed curveball, and try to get it over a little bit.’
“So Pulaski had a guy who was leading the league in hitting. Batting third. And the first time up Dalkowski throws one of those easy-up curveballs, and the guy hits the hell out of it for a double. And he’s out there on second base and you can hear him shouting, ‘Dalkowski, you ain’t so hot,’ and all that. The next time up, Jesus, Dalkowski throws three fastballs like bullets, and you could sit in the dugout and hear them buzzing to the plate. The poor guy never had a chance. I think the catcher dropped the third one, and the guy ran to first, and you could hear his manager saying, ‘That ought to teach you, you big-mouthed son of a bitch.’
“He won that game, and the next time out he struck out 24 of 26 outs. In the eighth, with two outs, he loaded the bases, and I took him out and put him out in right field, and brought in a right-handed pitcher to get a guy out. The pitcher got the guy out, and I brought Steve back in the ninth, and he struck out the side. Struck out 24, walked 18, gave up two hits, and won 7–4. When we went to play in Salem, Virginia, this Latin American boy came up when we got to the park and said, ‘Hey, Skip, Lefty gonna pitch tonight? If he pitch, I no play.’”
Herm Starrette: “I pitched with a lot of guys and worked with oodles of them as a coach, but as far as raw ability, there was no one better. He could have pitched in the big leagues for years. He could have set records. He had three quality pitches—fastball, curveball, and slider. I never saw him when he didn’t have good stuff. And as hard as he threw, his ball was feathery light.
“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. I couldn’t wait for the nights he pitched. One night he was pitching for Earl [Weaver] in Aberdeen [South Dakota] and walked 18, struck out 20, and pitched a no-hitter. He must have thrown 400 pitches. Another night 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.’”
Boog Powell: “I walked into the cage one day and I said, ‘OK, man, give me your best stuff. I’m taking you to the bridge, brother.’ And he wound up and threw, and the next time I saw the ball, it was rolling out of the cage. It hit the back of the cage, and it was rolling out. I never saw it. You couldn’t pick him up. It was totally unhittable.”
Steve Barber: “Ripken always said, ‘If the ball left his hand belt high, you just turn and run for the screen.’ It was going to sail, in other words. And if it left his hand looking like it was going to hit the ground, it was going to come in as a strike. But all his balls were so light, that was the amazing thing. As hard as he threw, Cal said he could catch the ball bare-handed.”
Barry Shetrone: “They worked so hard trying to give him control. They would get the catcher to sit on the ground, giving him a target as low as possible, figuring if he threw at that target, by the time it got to the plate it would be in the strike zone. And Paul would try to wear him down so that he would slow down and throw strikes. Steve threw every day in spring training. Can you imagine that? He’d throw in the bullpen for an hour, then go out and pitch in a game. And he’d throw fairly decently in the bullpen, but when he got on the mound he couldn’t throw strikes. They’d do that day after day after day. It never wore him down.”
Boog Powell: “They’d get him to hold the ball across the seams, you know, to keep the ball down. If you throw a cross-seamer with the seams, it’ll sink. They had him doing that and everything else, but it was still taking off. It was something to see. They tried and tried to figure out ways to get him together. I think his problem was he was afraid he was going to kill somebody. I really do think he thought that. He hit a bunch of guys when he was young and tore one kid’s earlobe off. That scared him.”
Harry Dalton: “He hit a kid, a first baseman named Beavers. Dalkowski nailed him in the head so hard that the ball flew back and landed on the grass between the mound and second base. Everybody froze when it happened, and the ball just dropped there very softly and innocently halfway between the mound and second. They took the kid to the hospital, and the kid only played one more season and quit.
“One night later that season in Johnson City, Tennessee, Dalkowski was pitching, fifth inning, and a hitter fouled a pitch up in the air and to the third baseman for the third out. Dalkowski came in and said, ‘Skip, you’d better get somebody up. I’m starting to lose it.’ That was the only ball that had gone forward in five innings, fair or foul. Everything else was either a strikeout or a walk.”
Milt Pappas: “He was such a phenomenon that they took him outside Baltimore to the Aberdeen Proving Ground and clocked him through the facilities there. Everyone wanted to know what he was throwing. They clocked him at 104 miles per hour. If that guy could have thrown strikes, I just wonder what type of career he would have had. It was just unbelievable. Paul was just so frustrated with him.”
From From 33rd Street to Camden Yards by John Eisenberg.
Copyright © 2001 by John Eisenberg. Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies. All rights reserved.