Editor's note: Writer-director Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump," "Tin Cup") spent five years playing infield in the Baltimore...
Editor’s note: Writer-director Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Tin Cup”) spent five years playing infield in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league system. Here he writes about an obscure, but memorable, pitcher.
He was a little guy, which was shocking at first, with short arms, thick glasses and an easy smile. 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.
He had a record 14 feet long inside the Bakersfield, Calif., police station, all barroom brawls, nothing serious, the cops said. He rode the trucks out at dawn to pick grapes with the migrant farm workers of Kern County — and finally couldn’t even hold that job.
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This was the legend; this was Steve Dalkowski, the hardest thrower who ever lived.
Many years ago, playing professional baseball in the bush leagues for the Baltimore Orioles, in the wake of the great players who preceded me — Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and the rest — the stories passed on by bus drivers and groundskeepers and minor-league players and managers were not about the exploits of those Hall of Famers, they were about an obscure pitcher named Dalkowski.
Orioles manager Earl Weaver saw Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax and “Sudden” Sam McDowell and Dick Radatz and said, “Dalko threw harder than all of ’em.”
Ted Williams stepped in for one pitch during a spring-training game and walked away. “Fastest I ever saw,” he said. Teddy Ballgame, who regularly faced Bob Feller and Herb Score and Ryne Duren, wanted no part of Dalko.
In Wilson, N.C., Dalkowski threw a pitch so high and hard that it broke through the narrow welded wire backstop, 50 feet behind home plate and 30 feet up. On a $5 bet he threw a baseball through a wooden fence. On a $10 bet he threw a baseball from the center-field fence toward home plate, over the 40-foot-high backstop screen.
Look at the numbers and weep. In 1957 and 1958, his first two seasons of pro baseball in the Appalachian and South Atlantic Leagues, he averaged 18 strikeouts and 19 walks per nine innings. Playing for the Aberdeen Pheasants in a low Class A league in South Dakota in 1959, he averaged 17 walks and 15 strikeouts for nine innings. In an Eastern League game, he once struck out 27, walked 16 and threw an astounding 283 pitches.
Though he terrified hitters, he rarely hit a batter. Cal Ripken Sr., his catcher through much of the minor leagues (and one of my managers), said, “Dalko was the easiest pitcher I ever caught. He was only wild high and low, rarely inside or out — but the batters didn’t know that.”
At spring training in 1963, Dalkowski had made the Orioles’ roster at the age of 23, his six-year journey in the minor-league wilderness finally over, it seemed. That’s where the retired Williams stepped in — and out — of the box against him. That’s where scouts and reporters gathered to buzz about the phenomenon, only to see this explosive arm die in a whimper, fielding a bunt by Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, of all people — the same Bouton who would later write the classic “Ball Four.”
Dalko picked up the bunt, flipped the toss to first … and his arm went dead.
Or, he injured his elbow in that game on a pitch to Phil Linz, depending on which version of the story you believe. With Dalko, you never really know.
From his earliest days as a baseball and football star in New Britain, Conn., Dalkowski’s real problem wasn’t controlling a baseball, but controlling the bottle.
Playing baseball in Stockton and Bakersfield several years behind Dalko, but increasingly aware of the legend, I would see a figure standing in the dark down the right-field line at old Sam Lynn Park in Oildale, a paper bag in hand. Sometimes he’d come to the clubhouse to beg for money.
Our manager, Joe Altobelli, would talk to him, give him some change, then come back and report, “That was Steve Dalkowski.” And a clubhouse full of cocky, young, testosterone-driven baseball players sat in awe — of the unimaginable gift, the legend, the fall.
Altobelli, a career minor-leaguer with some big-league experience, was finishing out a career in Rochester when Dalko finally made it to Triple A. Dalko was assigned to him as a roommate with the mandate to “help mature the kid.”
This relationship — the veteran who loved a game more than the game loved him, and the God-gifted rookie who was otherwise a lost soul — was the inspiration for “Bull Durham,” though nothing specific in Altobelli or Dalkowski’s character is applicable to the fictional characters Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh.
In 1961 and again in 1965, Dalkowski pitched for the Tri-City Atoms of the Northwest League, who played their games in Kennewick.
When Dalkowski’s career ended, after the 1965 season, after he’d bounced around trying for a comeback with his aching arm, he submitted completely to whatever solace the bottle held and began a lost journey that led him to the migrant farmworker fields of Bakersfield.
Wandering the streets of L.A. years later on Christmas Eve, he was rescued and reunited with his wife from Bakersfield who thought he’d been dead for years. She died shortly thereafter and finally his family from Connecticut discovered he was still breathing, barely, and brought him home.
Racked with alcoholic dementia, Dalko has been in a New Britain home for 15 years. He attends minor-league games, a celebrity now. He gets out of the home for family picnics. He is, if you can use the term, at peace, according to his family.
What lingers is not the drinking or the abuse or the desperation. We’ve seen that and know these same demons touch us at times.
It’s the gift from the gods — 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. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.