Baltimore minor league pitcher Steve Dalkowski is shown in 1959. His fastball might have reached 110 mph, but there were no radar guns in the minors, and he didn’t get to the majors. He had several pre-existing conditions that were complicated when he became infected with the novel coronavirus, and he died April 19 in Connecticut. Associated Press

Who was the hardest-throwing pitcher who ever lived? One man may have a more informed opinion than anyone else.

Of the 19 pitchers since 1900 who have struck out at least 300 men in a season, Davey Johnson batted against Steve Carlton, Mickey Lolich, Sam McDowell, Vida Blue, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. He also faced Don Drysdale, Tom Seaver, Goose Gossage, Dick “The Monster” Radatz and Bob Gibson, who aren’t in the 300 club but sure could throw.

Among those 300-strikeout men, Johnson managed in the majors during the careers of Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Chris Sale, Mike Scott, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, and he designed the all-right-handed-hitting Baltimore Orioles lineup that beat Randy Johnson twice in the 1997 playoffs. Davey managed Stephen Strasburg and Dwight Gooden, hard-throwing phenoms, and was around long enough to get his eyes on reliever Aroldis Chapman.

Of all the 300-K men, and others generally mentioned in the “fastest ever” conversation, the only ones Johnson doesn’t have a firsthand opinion on are Walter Johnson, Rube Waddell and Bob Feller. So who threw the hardest?

Davey Johnson, shown in 1986, was a teammate of Steve Dalkowski in 1963 with Class AA Elmira and said, “Steve Dalkowski threw harder than anybody I ever saw. He even threw his slider 95 miles per hour.” Paul Bemoit/Associated Press

“Steve Dalkowski threw harder than anybody I ever saw,” said Johnson, who was a teammate of the southpaw in 1963 with Class AA Elmira. “He even threw his slider 95 miles per hour.”

Dalkowski died at 80 from the novel coronavirus last week after decades of fighting alcoholism, poverty, unemployment and, for the past 26 years, dementia while living in a health-care facility after his sister took him in hand.

Obituaries pointed out Dalkowski was the wild-fastball inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham,” which included this bit of dialogue:

“He walked 18.”

“New league record!”

“Struck out 18.”

“Another new league record!”

That sequence, delivered by Nuke’s manager and his top assistant, was written and directed by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, who played in the same O’s system a few years after Dalkowski. In truth, Dalkowski once fanned 24 and walked 18 in a minor league game. But you couldn’t use that, even in a movie, because no one would believe it – just like almost everything about Dalkowski.

“One day in the outfield, I said, ‘You can throw a ball through that fence, can’t you?’ ” Johnson recalled. “So he did. Right through those 1-by-6 boards.”

Anything to add about Dalk’s speed?

“By (1963), they’d throttled Dalkowski back to 80 percent to throw more strikes,” Johnson said. “But he was still the fastest. He was just phenomenal.”

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Ted Williams took one pitch from Steve Dalkowski in a spring training game and hoped to never see him again. “I never saw it,” said the man with the most famous batting eye ever. Associated Press

In 1976, when I first broke onto the baseball beat, Earl Weaver, who managed Dalkowski in the minors, and ex-catcher Cal Ripken Sr., who caught him as a minor leaguer, still talked about the southpaw whose glasses were so thick he could barely see home plate, who was so wild that he really did hit the press box with a pitch and who, at 18 in a spring training game, faced Ted Williams. Ted took one pitch, up and in. The catcher held his glove there. Williams walked away, vowing that he would never stand at the plate against Dalkowski again if he could help it.

“I never saw it,” said the man with the most famous batting eye ever.

Weaver, Ripken and many others said Dalkowski was not only the fastest they ever saw – but by a significant, almost unbelievable margin. Ripken told me he thought Dalkowski threw 110 mph, but there were no radar guns in the minors to clock him. Ripken, Weaver and others sometimes added that they didn’t want to be quoted on how fast they thought he threw because they were afraid that, without evidence, they would sound like they were making up the whole thing.

Because Dalkowski blew out his arm just as he was on the verge of making the major leagues with the O’s in 1964, it seemed cruel to make him seem like a myth when his potential was so real and his life turned out so badly.

Dalkowski, well-liked by teammates, had two flaws from the earliest sightings: wildness and alcohol. At an age when young minor leaguers might drink beer, “Steve was always Crown Royal shots – at 23,” Johnson said. “Not good.”

Only one man made progress against either of Dalkowski’s issues: Weaver. In 1961, Dalkowski walked 196 in 103 innings with an 8.39 ERA. The next year at Elmira, Weaver asked Dalkowski to stop throwing so hard and also not to drink the night before he pitched – small steps toward two kinds of control. With Weaver in 1962 and 1963, Dalkowski’s ERA plummeted to 3.00 in 189 innings with “just” 140 walks. A man who once had fanned 262 and walked 262 in the same season (in 170 innings) was, by the spring of 1964, slated for Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Sometimes, Johnson seems like baseball’s Waldo – he is somewhere in every picture. He faced (an elderly) Satchel Paige in an exhibition game and hit cleanup for a season behind both Hank Aaron and (in Japan) Sadaharu Oh. If there were a picture of the first fictitious game of “ball” in Cooperstown, New York – the nonexistent one that Abner Doubleday never saw – Davey would probably be in it.

Unfortunately, he really was there the day Dalkowski’s arm blew out.

“We were all rooting for him. He was going north with the club,” Johnson said. “I was behind the screen. We faced the Yankees. I remember it like yesterday: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, seemed like he struck out all of ’em.”

Then, one throw, while fielding a bunt, it’s said, blew out his arm. Never the same. Never threw a pitch in the majors.

How could such a normal-sized man, listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, generate such velocity with a delivery below overhand but above sidearm, often called a “slingshot” motion?

“He had great extension (as he reached back), like all the great fastballers,” Johnson said. “His rotator cuff went way back.”

On the day Dalkowski died, the old stories were dug out, such as the one about the catcher who always put a slab of raw steak in his glove so his hand would survive. Ripken’s anecdote, about a pitch cross-up that resulted in a fastball that broke an umpire’s iron mask, knocked him out and sent him to the hospital, had another day of life.

But frame of reference and eyewitness testimony were in short supply. Who played behind him, challenged him to throw a ball through a fence, saw him head down the Crown Royal road toward disaster and even saw the heave that undid The Arm? Who hit against, managed against or studied almost everyone to whom he could be compared?

“We didn’t even want to face Dalkowski in batting practice,” said Johnson, 77, still living happily in Florida with his wife, Susan, and just back from walking their short-haired German shepherd and their Bernedoodle. “He had the thickest glasses you could buy – like a quarter-inch. You figured he could barely see you.”

Steve Dalkowski – for whom nothing else in life ever seemed to go right, who spent years as a migrant worker and at times showed up at a minor league park to accept a handout from a manager who might still remember him, who mowed down Yankees and was headed to The Show the day his arm broke – that guy was faster than Koufax?

“Steve Dalkowski,” Johnson said, “threw harder than anybody.”

It may not even be close. But, for Dalkowski, everything was always so far away.


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