I had missed this, but baseball has lost one of its most, for lack of a better term, mythological figures. A guy who is often cited as one of the greatest “what ifs?” in the game’s history. A guy who, at least for the past 30 years or so, has been best known as being at least the partial inspiration for Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh character in the movie “Bull Durham.”
I’m talking about Steve Dalkowski, the one-time Orioles farmhand who could reportedly throw a baseball through both walls of a barn, if only he could hit the barn. He died in a Connecticut assisted-living facility due to complications from COVID-19 on April 19. He was 80 years-old.
Dalkowski was born in New Britain, Connecticut. He was a multi-sport star in the mid-50s, leading his high school team to the state football championship and, in baseball, setting the state record by striking out 24 batters in a single game. Velocity was his calling card. He threw hard. Impossibly hard given that he was only 5’10” and about 175 pounds. He also had some pretty massive control problems, but so do a lot of high school kids. The Baltimore Orioles were willing to take on the project that was Steve Dalkowski and gave him a $4,000 bonus in 1957.
The tools to measure velocity were rudimentary when Dalkowski pitched but most observers pegged his fastball — powered by a unique buggy-whip delivery that caused the lefty Dalkowski’s throwing elbow to smack against his right knee on follow through — to be in excess of 100 m.p.h. Ted Williams, who once batted against Dalkowski in a spring training game, once said he was the hardest-thrower he’d ever faced.
You often hear tall-tales like that, often attributed to dead men whose stories can’t be scrutinized. But Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager of the Orioles, Phillies, Blue Jays, and Mariners, who is still very much alive, was once Dalkowski’s teammate. In 2003 he told Sports Illustrated that, “as 40 years go by, a lot of stories get embellished, but [Dalkowski] was legit. He had one of those arms that come once in a lifetime.” Another teammate, future Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr., was Dalkowski’s catcher for a time in the minor leagues. He said Dalkowski threw harder than Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Goose Gossage, all of whom Ripken got to see up close and personal as a coach and manager.
The problem was that Dalkowski had no idea where the ball was going. Perhaps the quintessential Steve Dalkowski start came on August 10, 1957, when he was 18 and was playing in his first season as a professional. That day he took the mound for Kingsport of the Appalachian League. He struck out 24. But he walked 18, hit four batters, threw six wild pitches in a row at one pooint and lost the game 9-8. In 1960, when he pitched in Stockton, California, Dalkowski struck out 262 batters in 170 innings. That’s fantastic. But he also walked 262 batters. Which, well, isn’t. In his first five seasons a a pro he’d post K/9IP rates of 17.6, 17.6, 15.1, 13.9, and 13.1. Again, amazing. He’d post BB/9IP rates of 18.7, 20.4, 16.3, 16.8, and 17.1.
Five years into his professional career, however, Dalkowski looked like he was finally ready to turn a corner.
In 1962, at class-A Elmira, Dalkowski was managed by a young up-and-comer named Earl Weaver. Weaver counseled Dalkowski to ratchet-back the heat a bit, use his slider to get strikes and to attempt to pitch to contact a bit more than he had. The dividends came in the form of Dalkowski’s best season: a 3.04 ERA — more than two full runs better than his previous low mark — and a walk rate of 6.4 per nine innings pitched. Which is, objectively speaking, still pretty terrible, but given what had come before, in 1962 he practically looked like Greg Maddux. Dalkowski still struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings that year and, while lower than his usual strikeout rate, it was still astoundingly good for the era.
The progress he made in 1962 carried over to spring training in 1963. Dalkowski pitched excellently and, according to then-Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock, he was a surefire bet to make the Orioles to begin the season.
Then, on March 22, 1963, while facing the New York Yankees in what would’ve been one of his last spring training tuneups, something in his elbow snapped. While these days it would likely be diagnosed as a torn UCL and would’ve been addressed by Tommy John surgery, back then it was just a “blown elbow.” He would gut out a partial season as a minor league relief pitcher that year before scuffling through the 1964 and 1965 seasons with diminished velocity and poor results. He’d then retire. His career pitching line: 46 wins and 80 losses. He pitched 956 innings, striking out 1,324 batters and walking 1,236.
As a player, alcohol was a big problem for Dalkowski — part of his 1962 success was due to Weaver convincing him not to drink on the days he pitched — but after his pitching career ended drinking basically derailed the rest of his life. He’d take jobs as a migrant farmworker and landscaper and rely on family and friends to get him through and between benders. An Orioles farmhand who played a few years after Dalkowski once recalled what he became in his later days:
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.
The man who told that story was a young infielder named Ron Shelton. The same Ron Shelton who would go on to write and direct the movie “Bull Durham.”
Tim Robbins’ character in that film, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh — the hard-throwing phenom who had no idea where the ball was going — was based on Dalkowski. The games Nuke pitched early in the movie where he’d struck out as many as he walked? That happened all the time with Dalkowski. The part where Nuke hits the Durham Bulls’ mascot with a pitch? Dalkowski once did that too. The part where a sage mentor convinced Nuke to ease off the fastball some and induce some more ground balls could just as easily have been Weaver to Dalkowski was it was Crash Davis to Nuke.
Of course Dalkowski didn’t get the Hollywood ending that Nuke got with his late season callup. He’d drift from the 1960s through the 1980s, sometimes going to rehab but always washing out or leaving it before the work could be done to get better. In 1994 his sister Patricia brought him back to New Britain and placed him in an assisted-living facility where, as the years went on, he’d increasingly suffer from alcohol-induced dementia. At times he’d be lucid and he’d give interviews about his baseball days in which he remembered all the important details, but he’d never live on his own again. The same facility he entered in 1994 was where he passed last weekend.
Ron Shelton, writing of Dalkowski and his gift in 2009:
“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.”