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Mudville: May 23, 2024 4:46 pm PDT

Myth And Legend

There is myth. There is legend.

Then there is Steve Dalkowski, the Thor hammer and lightning throwing pitcher who never made the majors. The New Britain, Connecticut native had a left arm touched by God.

No one knows the Dalkowski story better than Tom Chiappetta, executive producer of a new film you must see called Far From Home: The Steve Dalkowski Story from Connecticut Public Television and available on YouTube.

To say he was the executive producer of this film does not do Chiappetta justice.

Dalkowski was Chiappetta’s white whale. He had to tell his story. No matter how long it took to make.

This was a film 30 years in the making, essentially one minute of film per year, and it is a remarkable work of baseball history with interviews from those who grew up with Dalkowski and those who saw him from 60 feet, six inches. Dalkowski lived a hard life, much of it in California after his final baseball stop with San Jose in 1965, but eventually he came home.

“We all know a good story when we see it,’’ Chiappetta told BallNine this week.

“And this was as good a story as I’ve heard. I knew about it a long time, growing up in Connecticut and being pretty much a lifetime Orioles fan.”

Steve was the most unique of the unique. People are still fascinated with his story.

“Over the years, the one thing that kept me going was that pretty much every decade some major media outlet was writing something about Steve,’’ Chiappetta said. “People were still fascinated with him.

Even though the story was being told in so many different ways, I felt he was never given his full just due in terms of what his story meant from a baseball standpoint, from a cultural character standpoint and from a personal standpoint from me because I then became very good friends with his sister Pat (Cain) and some other family and friends.’’

In July of 2013 I wrote about Dalkowski. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Dalkowski, Pat, Chiappetta and Steve’s former New Britain High School baseball coach Bill Huber at the Walnut Hill Care Center, just up the road from where Dalkowski once struck out 24 batters in a high school game for the New Britain High Hurricanes.

We also visited that field and Dalkowski’s impish eyes brightened when the memory of that day came back to him after living such a hurricane of a life.

Tom Chiappetta. Photo: Erik Trautmann – Hearst Connecticut Media

Dalkowski passed away earlier this year at the age of 80. He had hit hard times because of his battles with alcohol and fought alcoholic dementia for decades, but the last 26 years of his life he lived at the care center and was loved and appreciated. He got the chance to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the Orioles in 2003, 46 years after he was signed and where he was at his best in their minor league system before he tore a ligament in his elbow in 1963. He went into the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and threw out the first pitch at a New Britain Rock Cats game.

He was honored by the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in 2009 when he entered the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Eternals.

Chiappetta received inspiring words from filmmaker Gary Cohen (of 30 for 30 fame, not the Mets announcer) that kept him going. “He’s one of top documentarians in the country and one of his associate producers called after your story ran and that was the trigger at the end of this which led to a relationship between Gary and myself that came out of nowhere,’’ Chiappetta told me of my 2013 column on Dalkowski.

The myth and legend were created by Dalkowski’s ability to throw the baseball faster than anyone had ever thrown a baseball. In the first amazing minute of this film Cal Ripken Sr., a former minor league teammate in 1959 with Dalkowski for the Pensacola Dons, proclaims Dalkowski threw the baseball 110 mph. This was before radar guns, but those who saw Dalkowski pitch in his prime all said the same thing, no one ever threw harder.

Dalko lets one rip.

In fact, Dalko threw his four-seam fastball so hard it was called the radio pitch. You couldn’t see it, you could only hear it.

The problem was that he never really knew where the pitch would go. There is no video of Dalkowski pitching, somehow he slipped through the cracks of time in the home movie department in such baseball outposts like Stockton, Elmira and Wilson, but in a way that makes the Dalkowski story even more the stuff of myth and legend.

“Lots of people have been searching for film of Steve pitching from a high school game, a minor league game, but there is not a piece of video of him throwing a baseball in a game or even warming up in a uniform on the sidelines,’’ Chiappetta said.

There is no film but there is the mind’s eye. And the memory and fear of facing Dalkowski.

Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who also died earlier this year, offered this frightening account in the film.

“Dalkowski cocked his arm, released the ball, the ball hit the peak of the cap and spun it around my head. My brains could have been scrambled eggs right there at home plate. I never saw the pitch.’’

I’ve been fascinated with Steve Dalkowski ever since his head popped up on a Topps baseball card from one of the thousands of cards I owned when I lived on 7th Street in Kenilworth, NJ. This was one of those strange cards that featured four heads of players cropped under the heading 1963 Rookie Stars. I was nine.

“Lou Brock: “Grab your helmet, run behind buildings because this guy throws unguided missiles and he doesn’t know where they are going.’’’

Dalkowski was the first head. His head was placed in the left-hand corner, followed by Fred Newman of the Angels. Carl Bouldin from the Senators and Jack Smith from the Dodgers – all pitchers of promise – but none like Dalkowski.

All three made it to the majors. Dalkowski never arrived.

As I held the card in my hands I wondered who the heck is this Steve Dalkowski. This was long before Google and well before the Nerds took over baseball, but the back of this baseball card did not lie. The back listed the statistics of all four pitchers, and somehow in 158 minor league games Dalkowski had struck out 1099 batters and walked another 1136.

Tom Chiappetta with some of his research materials on Dalko. Photo: Erik Trautmann - Hearst Connecticut Media

The closest to him in strikeouts of the other three pitchers was Jack Smith with 686 Ks accumulated in 137 more games than Dalkowski pitched.

At that moment Steve Dalkowski had me hooked and I kept waiting for him to show up in the majors with the likes of Dave McNally, a minor league teammate, to pitch for the Orioles against the Yankees, perhaps making his debut in the second game of a doubleheader.

It never happened.

Little did my nine-year-old self know that Dalkowski’s elbow would pop that spring in an exhibition game against my beloved Yankees, and the hard life he would come to live working the fields of California, sleeping in a garbage bin and making just enough money to drink his way into oblivion, before one day being rescued by his sister along with the help of former catcher Frank Zupo.

I never dreamed in that moment that I would come to sit down with him 50 years later and when I asked him what it was like to throw a baseball that fast, that hard, that fearsome, Dalkowski smiled and told me, “It was very demanding. You’re in demand. The Polish Rifle was in demand.’’

You know of course that Ron Shelton, the famed director and screenwriter of “Bull Durham’’ and a former Orioles farmhand, based his character Nuke LaLoosh on Dalkowski, except LaLoosh made it to the majors. Dalkowski never got the call.

“The statistics cannot be argued with,’’ Shelton says in Far From Home. “They are so overwhelming that I had to modify them for Bull Durham for LaLoosh because nobody would believe the real ones. It’s the old thing from the John Ford movie, when the legend is better than the truth, print the legend. Well, in his case he’s got the facts to back up the legend.’’

Go to his Baseballreference.com page if you want to have some Dalkowski fun with numbers like his 1324 strikeouts and 1236 walks. How about his 39 wild pitches in 62 innings for Kingsport, in 1957 the year he signed. My favorite is 1960 in Class C pitching for the Stockton Ports. That season Dalkowski struck out a stunning 262 batters in 170 innings and walked another 262 batters. Consistency.

In all, Dalkowski pitched nine seasons in the minors before his career ended in 1965 in San Jose with the Angels organization.

But this is not just numbers. The stories witnessed by baseball greats were the stuff of myths and legends. Hall of Fame baseball executive Pat Gillick, a lefty pitcher and teammate of Dalko’s, once told me:“The ball looked like a rocket leaving his hand. One day we were in Elmira just screwing around and Steve picked up the ball at home plate and threw it 400 feet over the centerfield fence.’’

Former Mets manager Davey Johnson was a minor league teammate as well. He told me this story. One day in the outfield in Elmira, which had a wooden fence, Johnson asked Dalkowski if he could throw the ball through one of the 1 by 6 planks.

“Steve picked up the ball and ‘fffttt’ he threw it through the fence,’’ Johnson said, amazed all these years later by such a feat.

Johnson was also present at that exhibition game in 1963 in Miami, sitting in the stands behind home plate because he had just been sent out to the minors. Dalkowski was striking out Yankee legends and putting on a show. Then, Johnson recalled, “He threw a ball that hit the screen out near me and grabbed his arm.’’

That was essentially the end. Dalkowski was never the same on the mound after that and remember, this was 11 years before Tommy John surgery became a thing.

When Dalkowski finally returned home to New Britain after a lifetime of pain, he started going to church every Sunday with his old high school coach, Bill Huber. Steve’s sister Pat was there whenever needed and the community looked out for Steve Dalkowski. The Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) played a role in helping him out earlier as well.

“Steve getting back to New Britain for the last 26 years of his life and getting back with his sister is so important,’’ Chiappetta said. “I had a small part in that. In helping find where we found him and helping him to get some help. That reconnected him to Pat and his friends. They knew what he needed. Look, he only pitched baseball for a short time. He was 26 years old when he got released. He  pitched for 10 years. He got 26 years of his life back after losing 30 of it to drinking and alcoholism, being homeless and living on the streets.’’

This film has opened eyes again to Steve Dalkowski’s greatness – and his pain.

There also is a heavily researched new book out too: Dalko The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher written by Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander.

It’s wonderful that Dalko’s story is being told in depth.

Chiappetta came down the home stretch with the project the last year with the help of one his former FOX colleagues Kevin Mardesich, who put him in touch with Josh Butler to help get it finished. Two other people who figured prominently in getting the project completed were (writer) Paul Devlin and (editor) Spencer Sabo.

Dalko throws out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium.

“Paul grew up in New Canaan next to me in Fairfield County,’’ Chiappetta told me. “A good baseball player, he ended up playing baseball at the University of North Carolina and had a little bit of a career,’’

Devlin appeared in Bull Durham.

Chiappetta explained: “Remember the left-handed batter who hit the home run off Nuke LaLoosh when Crash told him what was coming, that’s him. I knew him growing up in town, but he worked at Fox Sports when I was there. We reconnected and when I needed an editor he put me in touch with Spencer Sabo.”

That ball got out of here in a hurry.

“How did this project all come together? The Good Lord works in strange ways,’’ Chiappetta said, who has his own consulting firm called Good Sports Solutions. “There were a lot of amazing things that happened.’’

For Chiappetta, this is a story in three parts; Dalkowski’s baseball career, a man who lost his way and finally, Dalkowski finding his way home for 26 years before passing away in April.

“Once Steve passed it was a signal to get it done,’’ Chiappetta said. “All Steve got were snippets.’’

With this film, which has received tremendous reviews, Steve Dalkowski got his life story told.

Chiappetta is hopeful that maybe someday someone may come across a dusty canister of film that shows Dalko on the mound. But Chiappetta has filmed those who saw and played with Dalkowski, talking about the myth and the legend.

Earl Weaver, who managed Dalkowski in the minors and got the most out of him by simplifying his approach, said of Dalkowski: “The most God given ability of any one pitcher I’ve ever had.’’

Brooks Robinson: “He threw harder than anyone I’ve ever seen and and he was wilder than anyone I’ve ever seen.’’

Cal Ripken Sr.: “If you would take that and put it on a radar gun today you would see that Dalkowski threw the ball 110, maybe 115 miles per hour.’’

Frank Zupo: “He was probably blessed with the greatest left arm anybody in the world ever had.’’

Lou Brock: “Grab your helmet, run behind buildings because this guy throws unguided missiles and he doesn’t know where they are going.’’

As I write this I look over at a baseball Steve Dalkowski signed for me. The autograph is beginning to fade and that’s okay. It seems kind of fitting.

Dalkowski never made it to the majors but his story 63 years after he first signed with the Orioles is worth telling, a baseball comet that burned through the night sky, and in the end, found his way home.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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