The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Run-In With Baseball Folklore

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a brief run-in with baseball folklore in the 1960s with Steve Dalkowski.
Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates
Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin Berl/GettyImages

Steve Dalkowski is almost like a baseball folk hero, and the Pittsburgh Pirates had a brief run-in with the hurler in the late-1960s

Pitch velocities have gone up year after year. The league average four-seam fastball, tracked by Statcast, was 94.1 MPH and 93.8 MPH per Sport Info Solutions. A decade ago, two years prior to Statcast’s creation, SIS clocked the average fastball out to 91.7 MPH. The furthest back SIS tracks pitch data on is 2002, when the average fastball velocity was 89 MPH, on the dot.

The days of when Nolan Ryan was the only guy throwing 98+ MPH are gone. Jhoan Duran’s splitter averaged 98.4 MPH. In 2002, the hardest-throwing pitcher was Billy Wagner, whose fastball averaged out at 95.9 MPH. The hardest-throwing starting pitcher was Pittsburgh Pirates’ legend, A.J. Burnett when he was still on the Marlins.

The fastest-ever estimated velocity on any four-seam fastball comes from Ryan, who may have hit 108 MPH. While radar technology then tracked the pitch velocity as it crossed home plate, it now tracks it out of the pitcher’s hand. Once you account for distance traveled and air resistance, it’s estimated he hit 108 MPH. But the fastest-ever pitch recorded comes from the arm of Aroldis Chapman, and it was funnily enough against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Andrew McCutchen. Chapman was clocked at 106 MPH.

But what if I told you there was a guy who could blow all these records out of the water? He would have even made today’s guys’ fastballs look slow. I’m not talking about the legend of Sidd Finch, one of the greatest April Fools jokes ever. I am talking about the folklore legend Steve Dalkowski and his brief run-in with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Steve Dalkowski was born out of New Britain, Connecticut. A 5’11”, 175 pound left-hander he’s not what you’d picture when you think of a flamethrower. Dalkowski signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957 out of high school for just $4,000, and his minor league numbers are something to behold.

Through his first four minor league seasons, Dalkowski pitched 498 innings and struck out a whopping 835 batters. That comes out to a strikeout-per-nine innings rate of 15.1. The average K/9 rate in the majors in 1960 was 5.2. But here’s the very interesting part: along with a boatload of strikeouts, Dalkowski walked even more batters, dishing out an astounding 889 free passes. This was in less than 500 innings. It took Greg Maddux nearly 4000 innings to reach even 800 walks and well over 4000 innings to even reach what Dalkowski allowed in 498 frames.

Dalkowski was rumored to have thrown 110 MPH regularly. Yes. You heard that right. He didn’t top out at 110; he averaged 110 by some accounts. One of these accounts comes from maybe the greatest pure hitter of all time, Ted Williams. Cal Ripken Sr., who signed with the Orioles as a player the same year Dalkowski did, thought he could have hit 115 MPH.

Dalkowski’s best minor league season was in 1964 when he had a 3.04 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. He struck out 192 batters in 162 innings and allowed two home runs. But thanks to Earl Weaver, who was the manager of the O’s Double-A team at the time, Dalkowski was able to harness his power, well, sort of. He cut his BB/9 rate down to 6.4. Of course, that’s still bad, but given that he was walking over 17 batters per nine innings on average the season prior, I think there were some improvements made.

But in 1963, something absolutely fatal to Dalkowski’s career happened. In a preseason game against the NY Yankees, Dalkowski’s left elbow gave out, and he suffered a severe muscle strain. What’s unfortunate is that Dalkowski was expected to get called up early into the Orioles’ season. He even earned a Topps rookie card in their 1963 set.

Dalkowski was about a decade away from Tommy John undergoing the first of its procedure performed by Dr. Frank Jobe. Would Dr. Jobe have been able to save Dalkowski? We’ll never know, but Dalkoski came into 1964, estimated at just 90 MPH. This was when his brief run-in with the Pirates occurred. After getting released by the Orioles, the Pirates picked him up and pitched 12 innings, allowing 11 earned runs and walking 11 batters. That was all the Pirates needed to see before letting him go once again. Dalkowski would have a short stint with the California Angels before finishing out his career with the Orioles once again.

But Dalkowski would fight demons throughout his life. Uber-talent wasn’t able to keep him away from the bottle. Dalkowski suffered from alcoholism during his career and post-career. Dalkoski suffered from memory loss because of his alcoholism. Tragically, at the age of 80, Dalkowski lost his life in April of 2020 due to a bout with COVID-19.

Steve Dalkowski is a baseball folklore legend. His legend is still told today through larger-than-life characters like Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham” and Brendan Fraser’s Steve Nebraska in “The Scout.” Plenty of documentaries log Steve Dalkoski, the man, the myth, and the legend.

Like every baseball fan who hears of Steve Dalkowski, part of me wants to believe there was a human being who was able to throw 115 MPH off the mound in a real professional game. But the other part of me knows how the human body has physical limits and would be extremely physically strenuous to throw 110 MPH once, let alone average 110, and top out at 115, for nearly 500 innings. Unless time travel becomes possible, we will never know how hard Dalowski actually threw, but he’s definitely a memorable name in baseball history.

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