There is no space left for mythmaking in baseball.
There are plenty of stories, more of them than ever, both spreading wider and digging deeper. And, of course, there are still mysteries—problems, loose theories, questions with no answers. But myths? The same wealth of information that allows for all those new stories closes off any new myths. It comes from cameras, databases, exhaustive records; Twitter, Statcast, Baseball-Reference; worldwide, all the time, saved forever. You can find so many stories in that information. But where can you find the little pocket of air necessary to make a myth?
Which is all to say: Baseball will never see another Steve Dalkowski. The pitcher who inspired Nuke LaLoosh from Bull Durham died last week in Connecticut due to complications from COVID-19 at age 80. He threw like no one else. He was said to be the fastest ever—maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, there’s no way to call it conclusively. But it leaves Dalkowski as one of the most notable what-ifs in baseball history and, more than that, as the source for one its most intriguing bouts of mythmaking.
It is hard to parse the facts from the energy that surrounded them. So here are the facts: Steve Dalkowski never played in the majors. He was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1957, right out of high school, and his first season in the Appalachian League established the tone for his career: 62 innings pitched with 121 strikeouts and 129 walks. Over the next few years, he’d set records across the minors with both his strikeouts and his walks; never mind what he did for strikeout-to-walk ratio. If it was true that no one could sit batters down like Dalkowski, well, it was just as true that no one could lose control like Dalkowski. In 1960, when he tied the California League mark for single-game strikeouts with 19, his manager had to console him—“Shake it off. You didn’t let us down, you’re finding the plate more each day”—because he had walked nine and hit one in a loss. Some promising tweaks to his delivery and mental preparation earned him an invite to big-league camp in 1963, but he suffered an injury, and that was as close as he ever was. When Dalkowski retired from baseball in 1966, he’d established himself as the minors’ finest strikeout artist, its wildest mess, and its grandest legend.
That is what we know for sure. And here is all the rest, the pieces of mythology that dotted newspaper stories in cities across the minors, each one as true as it needs to be: Steve Dalkowski tore the lobe off a hitter’s ear. He broke another’s arm. When he hit an ump with an errant pitch, the man went “18 feet, chest pad over whisk broom.” He once threw a ball 450 feet on a bet; he could throw so hard that the ball would shatter a wooden board or tear through a wire backstop. In some parks, fans wouldn’t sit behind the plate when he pitched. “His wildness was chronic and incurable,” wrote SI. He pitched like the radio—you could hear it, but you couldn’t see it, in the words of Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts. He was faster than Bob Feller. He was faster than everyone. When Ted Williams stepped into the batting cage to face Dalkowski in spring training, he took one pitch and stepped out. “Fastest I ever saw,” he said. (Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver said the same.) Cal Ripken Sr. guessed that he hit 115 mph. The Sporting News once asked Tom Seaver for the fastest pitcher who ever lived, years later: “Steve Dalkowski,” Seaver said, “But I never saw him pitch.”
There were no radar guns. There was no camera footage. There was no way to know just how hard he threw; Ripken’s guess of 115 mph is limited only by the laws of physics. In all those years of all those stories, Dalkowski pitched in front of a measurement device just once. In 1958, the Orioles took him to a Maryland military facility to try to find out how hard he actually threw. But there was no way to find an accurate number: Dalkowski had to throw off flat ground, rather than a pitching mound, and they required him to toss at a small target for a full 40 minutes to calibrate the system before it could even start to get a reading. When the machine did share a number (93.5 mph), it was measured from just in front of the “plate,” rather than the modern standard of ten feet from release. The Orioles’ question—how hard he could throw from a mound under typical conditions—remained unanswered.
Was Steve Dalkowski the fastest ever? You have the facts. But—more nuanced than that, impossible to replicate, pieced together from dozens of stories and memories and beliefs—you have the myth, too, and the choice is yours.