Michelangelo’s gift but no finished paintings

Marvin Westwestwords

A small piece of Knoxville sports history has come and gone – but, believe me, it will not be forgotten.


Steve Dalkowski, a little left-hander who could throw a baseball faster than anybody before or since, died the other day after 26 years in a Connecticut assisted-living facility. He was 80.

Steve Dalkowski (Hall of Fame library)

Dalkowski pitched for the Knoxville Smokies in 1958. He was not very effective but he was entertaining in a weird way. He was the original “Wild Thing.”

Steve was supremely talented but severely tormented. Batters could not hit him but he couldn’t throw enough strikes. He was blessed with a great gift from the baseball gods but was eventually trapped and virtually destroyed by alcoholic demons.

As a young sportswriter, I saw some of the early part at Bill Meyer Stadium. John J. Duncan Jr., long before he became a congressman, was there. He was then called Jimmy. He was a bat boy. His father was John, former mayor of Knoxville, also a distinguished congressman. He helped bring South Atlantic League baseball to town.

Sixty-two years after the fact, Jimmy has vivid recall of a Dalkowski game where nothing happened except walks and strikeouts. Finally, somebody hit a fly ball to right. Angelo Dagres was sound asleep.

“Fans tried to help, they yelled, but the ball landed 10 or 15 yards away,” said Duncan.

The Smokies had other names you may have heard: Bo Belinsky, Ron Hansen, Dave Nicholson, Jerry Walker, Ed Burke …

Dalkowski was a bonus baby, class of ’57. All the major league teams offered the then maximum inducement, $4,000, to the 18-year-old. The ambitious Baltimore Orioles supposedly left an additional stack of unmarked $100 bills and a new car in the New Britain family driveway.

Kingsport was Steve’s first stop as a professional. He pitched only 62 innings but led the Appalachian League in walks (129), strikeouts (121) and wild pitches (39). There was one disaster. A very fast ball tore off part of Bob Beavers’ left ear.

Bob, also 18, played for Bluefield. He was a Dodgers prospect. That was his last at-bat. His career was seven games. He was told that the pitcher was deeply disturbed and came to the hospital to apologize. He didn’t get past the lobby.

Dalkowski had a 1-8 record and 8.13 earned run average in the rookie league. He was promoted to Knoxville based on potential instead of production.

Steve was intriguing. He was not a large young man, perhaps 5-11 and 175, but there was something about his smooth, powerful delivery that caused the ball to jump out of his hand.

What followed was unpredictable. He frequently missed the catcher. He sometimes hit the backstop. Because his wildness was more often high, the Orioles instructed him to aim low, at the dirt in front of home plate. That did not solve the problem.

Dalkowski pitched only 42 innings for the Smokies. He struck out 82. Some seemed relieved when they could go sit down.

Steve issued 95 walks. That’s 20.2 per nine innings. His won-lost record was 1-4. His ERA was 7.93.

Manager George Staller got a raise as a reward for patience.

There is an adage in storytelling that when confronted with legend and fact, go with the better tale. Through Dalkowski’s nine years in the minors, fact and fiction were difficult to distinguish.

Among the facts, great baseball writer Joe Posnanski said in The Athletic that Dalkowski once threw six wild pitches in a row, once walked the first nine batters he faced, once allowed 21 stolen bases in a single game, once broke a guy’s arm with a fastball.

Other yarns are far out.

This is verifiable: Dalkowski struck out more batters and walked more batters per nine innings than any professional pitcher in baseball history.

The bottom of ineffectiveness was in Elmira. Steve was yanked after 120 pitches. He threw very hard but failed to finish the second inning.

So, how fast was he? Before radar guns, Cal Ripken Sr., occasional catcher, estimated that Steve threw 110 miles per hour. Ted Williams got a look in spring training. He said he had never seen anything like it. Birdie Tebbetts, blessed with a lifetime as player and manager, said Dalkowski threw a radio ball – one you could hear but couldn’t see.

Old umpire Doug Harvey said “Nobody could bring it like he could.”

Steve was said to be faster than Bob Feller way back when, faster than Nolan Ryan, faster than today’s Aroldis Chapman, clocked at 105.

There was one major effort to authenticate Dalkowski. He went to Aberdeen Proving Ground. The military had a device for speed measurement. Steve had a little trouble hitting the target. His 41st pitch, spot on, produced a 94 reading.

He said that was believable. It was a change-up. He had adjusted for accuracy. It was almost lunch time.

There are stories of Dalkowski throwing a baseball through a wooden fence, just to see if he could. One pitch broke through a steel mesh screen and went into the crowd. He said he was throwing at a heckler. One ball skipped off a catcher’s mitt, broke the umpire’s mask in three places and knocked him out.

Steve once threw a ball almost 500 feet to win a $10 bet.

The disintegration of his life was sad. With baseball money, he too often ventured close to the edge. He was once reassigned from Daytona Beach to Thomasville, Ga., 247 miles apart. The trip took seven days. He made some stops along the way.

There came a time when he really lost control. He came to games hung over or just plain drunk.

After his baseball career, he tried other ways to earn a living. He signed on with migrant workers to harvest fruit and veggies. He got fired.

A family encountered Dalkowski wandering aimlessly along a Los Angeles sidewalk on a Christmas Eve. They didn’t have any idea who he was but invited him home for dinner. He was rescued.

His second wife had heard he was dead. They were reunited. When she died, Steve’s sister brought him back to Connecticut – 26 years ago. Doctors said alcohol had caused some form of dementia.

Ron Shelton, writer-director who gave us “White Men Can’t Jump”, was another Oriole minor leaguer. He used what he knew about Dalkowski to shape pitcher Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham.”

Shelton also gave us a memorable summation: “Steve had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

 

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