|The author chronicles Nolan Ryan’s hard work, with coaches and on his own, to develop a devastating fastball. (Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press/File 1993)|
Pitch-perfect history of the fastball
When a gifted fireballer like
Pure velocity is no guarantee of success. Wendel highlights the promising career of 1950s phenom Steve Dalkowski, a New Britain, Conn., high school star who could throw 105 miles per hour, even faster than flamethrowing legend Nolan Ryan. Dalkowski would later become the model for the fictional pitcher in “Bull Durham,’’ “Nuke’’ LaLoosh. Like LaLoosh (played by actor Tim Robbins), Dalkowski was wild both on and off the field. Wendel describes how Dalkowski, as a minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles’ system, once threw a wild pitch completely through the metal screen behind home plate: the pitch was so wild and fast-moving that it also knocked down a hot dog vendor and terrified the fans sitting nearby.
Wendel relates many of the larger-than-life stories (some possibly exaggerated) about Dalkowski, including the time he threw a wild pitch into the announcer’s booth and later plunked a fan waiting at the concessions stand. What’s clear is that Dalkowski could bring the heat but couldn’t harness it. He never made the majors. Wendel sums up Dalkowski’s failed minor league career by citing a few outings: “In one minor-league game, he struck out 24, walked 18, hit four batters, and lost 8-4. In another . . . he finished with a one-hitter, striking out 15, but he also walked 17 and lost 9-8.’’
Wendel goes back in time to look at legendary fireballers like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, and Sandy Koufax. Wendel even describes a historic pitching match-up at Fenway Park in September 1912, when Johnson (and his Washington Senators) faced Red Sox flamethrower Smoky Joe Wood. On that day, Wood ended up beating Johnson 1-0 and would finish the season at 34-5, leading the Sox to a World Series championship. Wood also embodied another problem faced by flamethrowers: He developed severe arm problems mid-career, forcing a switch from pitcher to outfielder.
Who was the fastest pitcher? Dalkowski generally gets the nod for velocity, but he was far from the most effective fireballer. The best? Wendel cites Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who transformed himself from Dalkowski-esque “Wild Thing’’ early in his career to an effective hurler with good control, consistency, and endurance. As a minor leaguer, Ryan struggled to control his velocity, once throwing a wild pitch into the stands that fractured a woman’s arm. Yet Ryan worked with his coaches and on his own to ultimately control his fastball, harnessing it to become a legend.
What’s clear from Wendel’s entertaining and passionate history of the fastball is that it takes more than pure velocity to be effective. If a pitcher lacks control, can’t mix in an occasional breaking ball, or lacks the psychological maturity needed to compete, he simply won’t succeed. Wendel quotes a veteran major league scout: “I don’t care how hard you throw. Hitters can tune it up,’’ he says, “and they’re going to get to you. You need other weapons.’’ Wendel concludes his narrative with his list of the top 10 fastball pitchers of all time. Like all great baseball lists, it should trigger some strong debate. Bringing the heat isn’t easy, but Wendel makes reading about it fun: This one’s a delight for baseball fanatics.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.