RIP Steve Dalkowski, a Ghost in the Field of Dreams

If you hurry to eBay with seven dollars and 55 cents, you may still be able to snag a 1955 United Press photograph of Connecticut’s New Britain High School football team kneeling around coach John Toner.

While it’s not a great photo, it’s a team worth remembering. New Britain went 9–1 that year and won the state Class L championship.

One reason for that success was junior quarterback Steve Dalkowski, who tripled as a halfback and defensive back.

Dalkowski may be in the photograph. Or he may not. It’s hard to tell, because the players are wearing helmets and most have their backs to the camera.

So in a way it’s a perfect image of Steve Dalkowski, whose death this week at the age of 80 uncorked a torrent of stories for a whole separate reason involving a whole different sport.

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Immediately after Steve Dalkowski graduated from New Britain High in 1957, he signed a contract to play professional baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization. For the next nine years he bounced around the minor leagues and today, 55 years after he retired, he remains perhaps the most famous pitcher never to throw a single inning in the Majors.

On the diamond or on the gridiron, you could say Steve Dalkowski is the man you’re not sure is there.

You could call him a cult figure, perhaps, well known to serious baseball fans and historians. His story long ago escalated to myth, nourished by a thousand anecdotes whose aim is true, but whose roots are often slender.

Essentially, the legend says this: Steve Dalkowski may have thrown a baseball as hard or harder than anyone who ever lived. But he never was able to control it well enough to make the Big Leagues and show it to a world that would have watched with awe.

Hitters up to the level of Ted Williams and Roger Maris, it is said, saw Steve Dalkowski’s fastball briefly in exhibition or spring training games and never wanted to face it again.

That was partly because of its speed and motion. It was partly because no one, including Dalkowski, seemed to know where it was going. In the summer of 1960, pitching for the Stockton Ports in the Class C California League, he struck out 262 batters in 170 innings. That’s amazing. He also walked 262. That’s appalling.

Dalkowski eventually did make his fastball marginally more accurate. At the suggestion of Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager who was then running one of the Orioles’s minor league teams, Dalkowski did what Sandy Koufax was doing at the same time with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He took a little speed off his fastball, which still left plenty, and that enabled him to better direct it.

In 1962, playing for the Class-A Elmira Pioneers, Dalkowski struck out 192 and only walked 114. That’s still stunning, but the Orioles liked the direction in which he was heading, and on March 22, 1963, toward the end of spring training, he was measured for a Major League uniform.

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In case you’re wondering, the other three made it to the Majors. None had a very long career.

An eyeblink later, he injured his elbow. Exactly how is another part of the story lost in the mist. One account has him fielding a Jim Bouton bunt and throwing awkwardly to first. Another says something popped while he was pitching to Phil Linz. The elbow may have already been weakened from throwing too many pitches too hard for too many years.

Whatever the reason, he never got the Major League uniform. Dalkowski rehabbed in 1963 and kept trying for two more years, but the magic fastball had become ordinary. The Orioles traded him. He became another underpaid minor leaguer who was never getting out. At 26, he was released and walked away with his legacy already sealed: He was one of the best that never was.

The next 30 years featured failed marriages, disappearances and jobs like picking fruits and vegetables in California.

When they say field of dreams, that’s not what they have in mind.

Oh, and there was one other piece to the story: alcohol.

Dalkowski’s father, Steve Sr., was a tool-and-die worker who played shortstop on an industrial league baseball team. He was also an alcoholic.

Like father, like son. By the time Steve Jr. got to high school, he was the local sports hero who loved percs like parties and drinking with the older kids, who were undoubtedly thrilled to hang out with the quarterback and star pitcher.

New Britain is a blue-collar, shot-and-a-beer kind of town. It’s also an immigrant town, long a destination for Eastern Europeans. There have been lots of Steve Dalkowskis in New Britain over the years, hard-working folks who sweated in the factories that once gave New Britain the nickname The Hardware City. The big difference was, none of the others could throw a fastball like Steve Dalkowski Jr.

In 1994, when he had resurfaced out West after another disappearance, his sister Patti brought him back to New Britain.

She got him a place in assisted living, where the doctors told her he had maybe a year to live. He fooled them. He sobered up and lived another 26 — though the alcohol had done its damage and he was slipping toward dementia before Covid-19 finally closed out his scorecard.

Over those last decades he got to see and reportedly enjoy his singular sort of celebrity. He periodically threw out first pitches for the New Britain Rock Cats, a AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, and he signed pictures at baseball shows. On Sept. 7, 2003, he threw out the first pitch for an Orioles game at Camden Yards in Baltimore, meaning maybe he finally did make it to the Big Leagues after all.

There’s no record whether the pitch was a strike.

Sports lore includes a modest but fond niche for athletes who seemed to have transcendent skills, but for one reason or another never were able to showcase them on the big stage in the pros.

The most prominent members of this niche are playground basketball legends, like Raymond Lewis, Earl “The Goat” Manigault or Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond.

Baseball has a smaller group, none more poignant than Steve Dalkowski. He didn’t fall short for lack of effort. He spent nine years in the minor leagues, which is a long time in a lot of small towns. It didn’t help, of course, that in all those towns he was closing down the bars.

In many of Steve Dalkowski’s obituaries, the lead sentence was that he inspired the character of Tim Robbins’s Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham.

Nuke was a wild kid with an ocean of talent who needed taming. Thanks largely to Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, he got it.

Earl Weaver, among others, tried to do that for Steve Dalkowski. It didn’t take. Sometimes life doesn’t imitate art. Or, in this case, foreshadow art.

Late in his life, Steve Dalkowski was inducted into the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame. It’s not Cooperstown, but it was something he earned. Two state football championships, combined 17–2 record. Back-to-back no-hitters. The game where he struck out 24 batters.

Those aren’t legends. Those are real numbers, and they’re refreshing because they tell us what Steve Dalkowski did, not what he didn’t do.

Any kid who ever picked up a ball and had a catch would love to have had what Steve Dalkowski seemed to have. We know the field, we know the dream.

Still, his legacy is less Nuke LaLoosh than that picture of the 1955 New Britain Golden Hurricanes football team. He may be in it. We just may never be sure exactly where.

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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