When Steve Dalkowski passed away last week at the age of 80, in addition to the retelling of countless stories and a few myths, it reaffirmed the belief that he has been the most publicized baseball player who never played in the major leagues.
For that matter, you probably could include all the major sports. How many athletes without a big league resume had obituaries in Sports Illustrated, The New York and Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and countless newspapers and wire services across the country?
That’s the stuff of legends, which gives you an idea of the legendary stories about how hard, and how wild, Dalkowski threw a baseball. One year he walked and struck out the same number of batters, 262 — in 170 innings. There were no radar guns back in those days, but the consensus of those who saw all involved say he threw harder than either Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan.
Some, including Cal Ripken Sr., one of his minor league managers, estimated that Dalkowski might have registered as high as 115 on today’s radar gun — if in fact he could throw the ball close enough to be measured.
Dalkowski spent all but the last two years of his career in the Orioles’ minor league system. It isn’t widely known, or recorded, but even though he never pitched in a big league game, Dalkowski did pitch one inning at Memorial Stadium. It was in an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds, at the end of spring training and before opening day in 1958, and the only time I saw Dalkowski pitch.
Even though he’d played only one year, Dalkowski’s reputation had preceded him. The first batter was Dee Fondy, a veteran left-handed hitter who obviously wanted no part of the matchup took a stance as far from home plate and as deep as the batter’s box would allow. What happened next might’ve been as good an indication as possible about the speed of Dalkowski’s fastball. Attempting to bunt, Fondy fouled off the first pitch — and the ball landed in the upper deck.
That’s just one of many “believe it or not” tales, some of them no doubt taller than Dalkowski’s 5-foot-11 frame (thinking Ron Guidry size would be appropriate). Another one repeated so often it was included in many of the obituaries is that Dalkowski once threw six consecutive wild pitches.
That one is more likely to be myth than fact. In order for that to happen the bases would have to be loaded, the third would have to be ball four to the batter — and four runs would have to score in between non-wild pitches. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not likely, despite his reputation for living on the wild side, both on and off the field.
It has been generally accepted that reputation inspired the Nuke LaLoosh character in the movie “Bull Durham” — a belief that is most likely equal parts myth and fact. Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed the movie, played five years in the Orioles’ minor league system, making it a natural connection.
Although they both played under managers Joe Altobelli and Cal Ripken Sr., both of whom were obvious sources, Shelton and Dalkowski were never teammates, so the information was all second hand. Such was not the case with Greg Arnold, the Severna Park, Md., native and resident with a wild and eccentric reputation of his own — and who played in the Orioles’ system at the same time (1967-1971) and was a teammate of Shelton.
Arnold, a right-hander who also juggled a career as an Elvis-style singer, has always thought he fit the Nuke LaLoosh character more than the left-handed Dalkowski. He’s had some support throughout the years from former teammates, and when I interviewed Shelton shortly after “Bull Durham” was released, he said that all of the characters were a combination of those he’d encountered in his career and left the impression that there was a little bit of Arnold and Dalkowski in the LaLoosh chaaracter.
After having that conversation, I came away with the notion that a closer character association might be made between Cal Ripken Sr. and either Crash Davis, the veteran catcher charged with preparing LaLoosh for the big leagues, or Joe Riggins, the Durham Bulls’ manager. In our conversation, Shelton admitted that both Cal Sr. and Altobelli were part of his characters in the widely acclaimed movie.
But there wasn’t anything fictitious about Dalkowski. His life was even more tragic than his career. The cause of death was COVID-19, the disease that currently has us quarantined, just as he was for the last two decades of his life while suffering from alcohol-induced dementia.
He never played a game in the major leagues and spent most of his lifetime in isolation, yet his death drew national attention.
Steve Dalkowski was a legend long before Nuke LaLoosh’s time.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles