How do you solve a problem like Dalkowski?

Sometimes even the greatest riddles have answers, if you know the right place to look

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One July 10, 1962, a minor miracle happened — though only a few people witnessed it. That was the day that Andy Warhol unveiled his odd Campbell Soup Cans work of art, though that wasn’t the miracle. A company called Telstar launched into space the first privately owned satellite. That wasn’t the miracle either.

No, that day, a somewhat clunky and generally unimposing young man with thick glasses took the mound  for a minor-league baseball game in Elmira, N.Y. There were, by official count, 494 people in the stands.

By this point, everyone in the stands knew about the young man on the mound. He had, as they say, a reputation. He was dangerous. But something about him that day was different. He seemed calmer somehow. Which it to say: He did not throw a pitch 20 feet over the catcher’s head. He did not knock out an umpire with some crazy rising fastball. He did not throw a pitch through a wall. He simply … pitched. Every now and again, if people listened closely, they could hear something coming out of the Elmira dugout where manager Earl Weaver sat. It was the sound of someone whistling.

The young man pitched a five-hit shutout and — more to the point — he did not walk a single batter. When the game ended a reporter asked what he had done differently. Steve Dalkowski shrugged.

“I wish I knew,” he said.

* * *

There are mythical figures in baseball. Then there’s Dalkowski. His talent, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote of his rival and friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. But talent is a fickle gift, one that can destroy as easily as it can inspire. Dalkowski’s talent was to throw a baseball harder than any man who ever lived.

Dalkowski did not train to throw a baseball hard. It just flowed from him, like a pleasant singing voice or an ability to run fast. Dalkowski could also run fast; he was better known for football at first. He played quarterback, halfback and defensive back for a New Britain, Conn. high school team that won back-to-back state titles. He was named an honorable mention high school All-American and, in another time and place, he might have followed that talent. But his father loved baseball. And by ninth grade, Steve Dalkowski already threw a fastball that his junior high coach would tell the Baltimore Sun, “made a loud buzzing sound.”

He never looked the part. Dalkowski stood 5-foot-11, and teammates thought there was something lumpy about the way he moved. Somehow, though, a baseball jumped from his hand. And unlike most hard fastballs, Dalkowski’s jerked and leaped and dived. There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 where James Lovell and the guys are trying to get their spacecraft back on course by firing up an engine and flying blind. The capsule twists and turns and is almost beyond control. That was Dalkowski’s fastball. No hitter could handle it. But Dalkowski could not handle it either.

As a senior in high school, he pitched a no-hitter where he did not allow a single run. That might not sound like much of an achievement — most no-hitters are also shutouts — but Dalkowski walked EIGHTEEN batters in the game. He also struck out 18. If that sounds familiar, well, here’s why:

Skip: He walked 18.

Larry: A new league record!

Skip: He struck out 18.

Larry: Another new league record. … In addition, he hit the sportswriters, the public address announcer, the Bull Mascot — twice. Also new league records. But Joe, this guy’s got some serious (bleep).

Yes, Steve Dalkowski was the inspiration for “Bull Durham” character Nuke Laloosh. And he did have some serious (bleep). That 18-strikeout, 18-walk classic was one of just two no-hitters he threw in high school. He struck out 24 in another game. He faced hitter after hitter who would stand outside the batter’s box out of sheer terror.

Dalkowski did this with one pitch — he did not even try throwing breaking balls then. In late 1956, Baltimore Orioles scout Beauty McGowan signed him for $4,000, the maximum signing bonus allowed by baseball at the time. Beauty quietly paid Dalkowski another $12,000 and bought him a new car, but that was a deal between gentlemen.

The Orioles then sent Dalkowski to Kingsport for what they expected to be a glorious baseball career. Yes, of course, they knew all about his control problems but they had no doubt that those could be conquered with a little training and work. Oh, that fastball.

* * *

At the same time that the Orioles were launching Steve Dalkowski’s baseball career, a young man from St. Louis named Earl Weaver was angrily coming to grips with the realization that his was dying. When Weaver was young, his father had a dry cleaning business and his customers included both St. Louis baseball teams. Young Earl was smitten by the game from the first time he entered a big league clubhouse. He knew he would become a Major League ballplayer. He could see no other future.

Trouble was, Earl Weaver just wasn’t a good enough baseball player. He played year after year of minor league ball on guile and smarts and a sort of baseball hunger that frightened people. But such things, no matter how piercing, cannot overcome a lack of talent. And Earl Weaver lacked talent. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t throw. He was too small.

And so Earl Weaver began to rage against talent. Why wasn’t he born with it? Why were so many knuckleheads who barely gave the game a second glance granted size and speed and strength and glorious arms? These were questions Earl Waver never answered. They lit an inextinguishable fire inside.

“I had to admit to myself,” Weaver would say later in life, “that I wasn’t good enough. It broke my heart.”

* * *

On Independence Day 1957, the great pitcher Hal Newhouser — then working for the Baltimore Orioles — settled into his seat in Kingsport, Tenn., to watch Dalkowski for the first time. Newhouser had been a spectacular left-handed power pitcher in the 1940s (he won back-to-back MVP awards) and he was looking forward to seeing the phenom he’d heard so much about. Only that day he saw something he’d never quite seen before.

Dalkowski gave up just three hits and struck out 15. The power of those pitches was otherworldly. Hitters barely stood a chance … that is, if they wanted to hit the ball. But they did not need to hit the ball. Twelve hitters walked that day and — this, like so many Dalkowski statistics, will look like a misprint — they stole 21 bases. TWENTY-ONE. Kingsport lost. And Newhouser was left wondering what the heck the Orioles had here.

You know the story of the cartoon frog, the one that can sing and dance. People find that frog in a box, see it sing and dance, and see fame and fortune in their future. What could possibly be more valuable than a singing and dancing frog? Trouble is, the frog only sings when it wants to sing.

That frog was Steve Dalkowski’s fastball. When it sang, there was never a pitch like it. But it so rarely sang. In an August game, Dalkowski struck out 11 and did not allow a hit for five innings. He then walked five straight batters, threw two wild pitches and Kingsport lost. Next time out, he walked 21 — blackjack — threw six wild pitches and his catcher had six passed balls. Kingsport lost. One game that year, Dalkowski struck out an astonishing 24 batters. He also walked 18. Kingsport lost.

When that first season ended, Dalkowski’s stat-line defied imagination. He had pitched 62 innings. He allowed just 22 hits, barely three per nine innings. He struck out 121 — almost two per inning. But he still went 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA. Why? Well, he walked 129 and threw 39 wild pitches. Remarkably, he only hit four batters, but he would tell friends that he almost killed a hitter with one of them and, for the rest of his life, he feared pitching inside. Later, in one of countless efforts to end Dalkowski’s wildness, a pitching coach named Clyde King would feed off Dalkowski’s fear by putting hitters on both sides of the plate.

There was a story from that time that has often been told many times though it has never been verified: Ted Williams supposedly saw Dalkowski pitch at spring training in Miami and he wanted to step in just to see what it was like. He dug into the batter’s box and watched Dalkowski wind up. Then, he said, he heard the ball pop into the catcher’s mitt behind him — he never actually saw the ball. Williams dropped his bat, stepped out, and said he never wanted to face that again.

But, with Dalkowski, you don’t need stories that can’t be verified. The verifiable ones are plenty impressive. In April 1958, Dalkowski pitched an exhibition game against Cincinnati. His first warmup pitch sailed 10 feet over the catcher’s head. Nobody wanted to step in. He faced three batters — Don Hoak, Dee Fondy and Alex Grammas. He struck them out on 12 pitches. Fondy tried to bunt three times and only made contact with the ball once, sending it careening backward at such speed Fondy would call it one of the hardest hit balls of his life.

“I told Grammas to stand back in the batters box and not take a chance on getting hurt,” Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts said after the game. Grammas happily obliged.

“I’ve been playing ball for 10 years,” Grammas himself said. “And nobody can throw a baseball harder than that.”

After that, everyone in baseball knew about Dalkowski. It was a golden age for hard-throwing young left-handed pitchers. In Cleveland, Herb Score had become a superstar — that was before he was hit in the face with a Gil McDougald line drive. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers were polishing a young Sandy Koufax. And now Baltimore had its own prodigy. “I honestly think I have never seen anyone throw harder,” gushed Paul Richards, the Orioles manager. He told friends and reporters that he could not wait to get Dalkowski on his pitching staff.

Dalkowski was sent to Class A Knoxville and in his first start struck out 10, walked 12, made an error, balked one run home and lost big. That wasn’t going to cut it. Manager George Staller came up with a solution; he had a piece of wood cut so that it was the exact height and width of a strike zone. He had Dalkowski throw at it. The wood was demolished into sand dust within an hour. In 36 innings, Dalkowski walked 83 batters and threw 10 wild pitches.

So Dalkowski was sent to Class B Wilson, N.C.. He lasted barely a month, pitching just 14 innings and walked 38 batters. “Should he ever find that strike zone, this fellow will be tough to hit,” Wilson general manager Clay Dennis said as Dalkowski was leaving town. “Dalkowski tosses moth balls.”

Dalkowski then took his moth balls to Class C Aberdeen, S.D. He walked 112 and threw 16 wild pitches in 62 innings, so it was more of the same. One interesting thing that did happen in Aberdeen was that the Orioles attempted to find out just how hard he threw. They sent Dalkowski to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility to have his fastball measured by an early radar machine. His pitch registered at 93.5 mph, which doesn’t sound all that impressive in an era of 100-plus mph fastball, but when you look at it in context it might be the most remarkable speed ever achieved.

What context? Dalkowski had pitched a game the night before — and a Dalkowski game usually meant throwing 200 or so pitches. He threw off flat ground — there was no pitcher’s mound — and he was wearing flat shoes. He threw for 40 minutes, throwing as hard as he could, before he could even get a pitch to register. Well, he was Dalkowski.

And, perhaps most of all, the U.S. Army measured the speed of a pitch after a certain distance; in this case it measured the speed 60 feet, 6 inches away. That was why it took so long for Dalkowski to have a pitch register. Modern radar guns measure the speed of the ball just as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. This is an enormous difference.

In the end, we’ll never know how fast Dalkowski could throw at his peak. Estimate range from 100 to 115 mph. Then, pure speed never quite captured Dalkowski’s power anyway. It was the uncontrollable nature of his pitches that left people awed and puzzled.

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* * *

Earl Weaver wasted no time letting people know just what he was about as he became player-manager of a team in Fitzgerald, Ga. — a town that had been built for Civil War veterans. A week into the season, Weaver was on base when a batter hit a routine double-play grounder. Weaver purposely barehanded the ball to prevent the double play. When the umpires ruled that they would grant the double play anyway, he went a little bit crazy and got tossed out. Two weeks later, he got suspended for 10 games after covering home plate with dirt during an argument with umpire Mike Galomb.

Three weeks after that, he was tossed from another game while standing in the on-deck circle. He had a bat in his hand, and he ran toward the umpire like he was going to clock him. Instead, he walked around the umpire, picked up a scoop of dirt with his hands and carefully placed it on the middle of the plate. Then he left quietly. A couple of weeks after that, he got into a fight with the players from Waycross and spent a night in the hospital.

His rage seemed without limit; Weaver was a baseball lover spurned. And, oddly, people started to love him for it. After a year in Fitzgerald, he moved to Dublin, Ga. — a town mentioned in the first paragraph of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” — and he was so cherished there that the team actually blocked the Orioles from promoting him as manager during the season.  At one point late in the year, Weaver tripped over first base and broke his arm. This only made him crankier, which only made him more admired by fans.

From there, Earl Weaver was sent to Aberdeen. It was 1959. There in South Dakota, Weaver would first come across the whirlwind that was Steve Dalkowski.

* * *

One of the first ideas the Orioles had for solving Steve Dalkowski’s control problems was to pitch him until he was so tired he simply could not be wild. This was the brainstorm of Harry Dalton, one of baseball’s shrewdest executives. The Orioles had Dalkowski throw for an hour straight, then another hour, then another. They found two things:

1. Dalkowski had a lot of stamina.

2. Dalkowski’s control never improved.

Another thing they tried was having pitching coach Harry Brecheen stand behind Dalkowski and talk to him between every pitch. Brecheen had been a superb left-handed pitcher himself — he won three games in the 1946 World Series — and he knew how to speak the language of pitching. With Brecheen standing there, Dalkowski’s control did improve some. His confidence rose.But the instant Brecheen went back to the dugout, Dalkowski’s wildness returned.

The wildness did not just return. Dalkowski grew wilder. And as his control deteriorated even more, Dalkowski’s life began to go off the rails. He’d always liked a drink — his father, a factory worker, was a drinker — but over time he became known among his teammates for his late night drinking and carousing. He showed up at ballparks drunk and hung over. “When I roomed with him,” a teammate named Herm Starrette would say, “I roomed with a suitcase.”

A Dalkowski fastball tore off a batter’s earlobe. Another hit a batter in the helmet and then soared toward second base, like a major league pop-up. One of his pitches flew high above the catcher’s head, crashed through the wooden backstop behind home plate and scattered the fans sitting in the stands. Another pitch glanced off the glove of catcher Cal Ripken Sr., hit umpire John Lipini in the mask and knocked him out cold. Steve Dalkowski wasn’t just wild. He was becoming a menace to society.

The Orioles created more drills. They gave him more mental exercises. The Orioles tried changing where Dalkowski stood on the mound, how long a stride he took, his arm slot, his elbow movement. Nothing made a dent.

Earl Weaver was mildly intrigued by Dalkowski. Here was a seemingly unsolvable riddle. The first time Weaver managed Dalkowski, the two fought quite a bit. Weaver told Dalkowski he would die by the time he was 33. He made Dalkowski simplify some things. He yelled at Dalkowski, “Just throw the ball over the plate.”

“You just got lesson No. 1: Don’t think,” Crash Davis told Nuke Laloosh in “Bull Durham.” “It can only hurt the ballclub.”

“Forget what everybody told you,” Weaver told Dalkowski. “Just throw the ball over the plate.”

Some of it seemed to get through. On May 17, 1959, with Weaver watching, Dalkowski threw a no-hitter against Grand Forks. He struck out 21. He walked only eight — “only” being defined on Dalkowski terms — and he did it all throwing nothing but fastballs. Dalkowski said he did try one breaking ball but “it almost hit a batter, so I quit using it.”

Think of this kind of supernatural talent — to throw a no-hitter and strike out 21 batters with only a baseball. But, alas, the frog sings and dances only when it feels like it. Next time out, Dalkowski walked 11 in five innings. Time after that, he walked 12.

In 59 innings in Aberdeen, he walked 110. Weaver had run out of answers, and Dalkowski was sent to Class D ball to play for a hopeless Pensacola, Fla., team that would promptly lose 13 straight games. One of those losses came when Dalkowski walked 14 batters in four innings. In another loss, he came in for two innings of relief, walked twelve batters, and a Pensacola outfielder had to come in just so the game would end.

* * *

Elmira was a good place for Earl Weaver. It was a bustling little New York town then, lots of manufacturing, tough blue-collar people like Weaver himself. They had been playing ball in Elmira since the 1880s; Don Zimmer had gotten married at Dunn Field there. Yes, it was a good match when Weaver became manager in Elmira in 1962. Weaver even sold cars in Elmira in the off-season. He was good at it — one month he sold 17 cars.

When Weaver came to Elmira, he was given some remarkably gifted players who would play a huge role in his future. He was given an 18-year-old named Mark Belanger, who couldn’t hit a lick but who could play shortstop the way Heifetz played violin. He was given a 19-year-old lefty pitcher named Dave McNally who did not throw hard but who, later in Baltimore, would win 20 games for Weaver four years in a row.

He was also given another left-handed pitcher, a personal favorite, named Pat Gillick. Weaver was interested not so much because of Gillick’s natural talent (which was marginal) but because Gillick loved baseball almost as much as Weaver did.

“I don’t think there’s a line in The Sporting News he doesn’t read and remember,” Weaver said in 1962. “His memory is fantastic. I would have to say he knows more about ballplayers all over the country, from Class D to the majors, than anybody I have ever met.”

Gillick, of course, had his own destiny — he would become a Hall of Fame general manager — but in those days he still had his dwindling illusions of becoming a Major League pitcher. In 1962, he found himself Earl Weaver’s sounding board for baseball’s greatest riddle: How do you solve a problem like Dalkowski?

Dalkowski arrived in Elmira in 1962 after his most baffling and frustrating season yet. He was so wild at spring training in ’61 that one scout was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to look when they take batting practice against Dalkowski. He is wild enough to miss the batting cage and fast enough to drill holes in concrete.”

The Orioles dumped him in the Tri-Cities, in Washington state, and Dalkowski lost his first eight decisions. He found a kindred spirit there, another left-handed pitcher named John Dewald, who had learned to pitch by throwing baseballs at a 50-gallon oil drum in his family’s backyard. By the year’s end, they had each set Northwest League records. Dewald had set his record by hitting 27 batters in a season, Dalkowski countered by throwing a league-record 28 wild pitches. Dalkowski also walked 196 batters in 103 innings. When the season ended, the Orioles dropped him from their Major League roster.

Weaver hated wasted talent, and that being the case it’s hard to imagine anyone more suitable for his fury than Steve Dalkowski. He’d also failed to get through to Dalkowski once before. But Weaver wondered if there was more to this. People knew Weaver for his most obvious trait, his fury, but his genius was in his ability to break things down.

What did he know of Dalkowski? He knew Dalkowski was a borderline alcoholic. He also knew Dalkowski was a hard worker. He knew the organization had tried countless things to fix Dalkowski’s control problems. When Weaver gave his team IQ tests, he found something that for him unlocked the mystery: Dalkowski scored the lowest IQ on the team.

“That meant we were going about it all wrong with him,” Weaver was quoted saying in Tim Wendel’s book “High Heat.” “We were telling him to hold runners close, teaching him a changeup, how to throw out of the stretch. The problem was he couldn’t process all that information. We were overloading him. Those tests showed that if you had something to teach 100 people, Steve would be the last to learn.”

Weaver began formulating a whole new plan. He told Dalkowski to lay off the road, and he had teammates watch him. He told Dalkowski to stop thinking about anything except throwing the ball over the plate. He had Dalkowski run constantly. And finally, he told Dalkowski that until he got the signal, he should take some speed off his fastball, throw it nice and easy and hit the catcher’s mitt. It was only when he heard the signal, that Dalkowski was allowed to unleash the hardest pitch he could throw.

What was the signal?

Right. It was Earl Weaver whistling.

* * *

The metamorphosis began in late June, in the second game of a doubleheader in Elmira. Pat Gillick pitched the first game and threw seven innings of shutout baseball. Then it was Dalkowski’s turn.

The fans knew what to expect. They called him “Walk Him or Whiff Him Dalkowski.” The first two months of the season, he was 0-4, he walked 31 batters in 21 innings. But Gillick was seeing how Weaver was nursing Dalkowski, taking him out at the first sign of trouble, talking to him all the time about clearing his mind. Something was changing.

That day, Dalkowski threw a four-hit shutout. Next time out, he threw another complete game, walking just two, striking out 11. On Independence Day, he shut out York, striking out 10 along the way.

“What happened to Steve Dalkowski to transform the wild left-hander into a winning pitcher with dependable control?” The Sporting News wondered. Everyone wondered.

Off the field, he was the same goofy Steve Dalkowski. Catcher Andy Etchebarren had bet that Dalkowski could not throw a baseball through the outfield fence. So, of course, Dalkowski threw a baseball through the outfield fence. He still sneaked away for drinks. He still partied like mad. But on the mound, this newfound calm had come over him.

On July 9, that miraculous day, Steve Dalkowski did what had seemed impossible. He threw his third shutout in four starts and struck out 11. For the first — and last — time in his career, he pitched a complete game without walking a single batter.

“It’s unbelievable,” Weaver gushed. “It’s simply amazing.”

Dalkowski told reporters he did not understand his own transformation. Maybe, he said, it was because he wasn’t pumping as hard. “I just don’t know,” he said. “I sure hope it continues.”

The Orioles didn’t care if Dalkowski understood — they just wanted him to keep pitching like that. Everything about Dalkowski was more refined.He had taken something off his fastball early in the count, but 90 percent of a Dalkowski fastball was still 110 percent of anyone else’s. And then, with two strikes, Weaver would whistle, and Dalkowski would smile and unleash that unfathomable pitch. “He loved to hear that whistle,” Weaver would say.

In August, Dalkowski threw back-to-back shutouts. “He’s the best in the league when he has control,” Binghamton’s Hawk Harrelson said. When the season ended, Dalkowski had by far the lowest ERA (3.04) of his career, and he had walked 6.4 batters per nine innings. Yes, that is still ridiculously poor control — Nolan Ryan walked 6.9 batters per game the year the Mets gave up on him — but for Dalkowski it was truly remarkable. Look at it this way:

1957: 18.7 walks per 9

1958: 18.7 walks per 9

1959: 16.8 walks per 9

1960: 13.9 walks per 9

1961: 17.1 walks per 9

1962: 6.4 walks per 9

The Orioles began to believe again in the singing frog. “You just can’t believe he’s the same pitcher,” Orioles scout Barney Lutz said. Harry Dalton said he thought he was seeing things. The Orioles announced they were bringing Steve Dalkowski to spring training in 1963. He would be given every chance to make the club.

“I’ll take Dalkowski,” pitching coach Harry Brecheen told reporters. “If he can get the ball over, he’ll win anywhere.”

* * *

That, sadly, is where our fairy tale ends. Steve Dalkowski did go to spring training in 1964 and he did pitch brilliantly. He not allow a single hit in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out 11. He made the club. On March 22, Dalkowski showed up to a game somewhat hungover from another wild night, and he was fitted for his Major League uniform.

In his final inning of work that very day, he threw one pitch way over the catcher’s head — old Dalkowski style. He heard something in his elbow pop. “It isn’t believed to be serious,” The Sporting News wrote. But when pitcher’s elbows pop, it is always serious. Steve Dalkowski would not make it to the Major Leagues. He was never the same again.

He kicked around for a couple more years. The Orioles released him, the Angels tried to get his career going again. Dalkowski’s control more or less held at the Elmira level, but his fastball wasn’t the same. Hitters, so fearful of him, began to dig in and knock his pitches all over the park. Then, they would tell Dalkowski stories.

Weaver, meanwhile, had begun his inexorable march to the Hall of Fame. He managed in the minors for a few more years, and he kept the crazy stunts going. In one Elmira game, he simply lied down next to the pitcher’s mound for 60 seconds after getting ejected. Soon he was in the big leagues, winning, fighting, getting thrown out of games … mostly winning. Many of his baseball principles like eschewing the bunt, keeping pitchers healthy, cherishing every out were decades ahead of his time.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was that, for a short time, he saved Steve Dalkowski.

In May, 1966, Steve Dalkowski was released for the last time. His life after baseball was strange and sad. He disappeared for a time. He became a full-fledged alcoholic. He was found by family and brought home. He now lives in an assisted living facility in Connecticut, not far from the field where he struck out 18, walked 18 and threw a no-hitter, back in the days when he had serious bleep.

Three months after Steve Dalkowski left the game, a hard-throwing pitcher named Bobby Darwin was moved from pitcher to outfield, where he would have a nine-year Major League career. Why was Darwin moved? “He’s got a major league arm, but he couldn’t get the ball over the plate,” his minor league manager Harry Maimberg said. Then Maimberg shrugged and said three words that will be repeated again and again as long as baseball is played.

“Another Steve Dalkowski,” he said.