NEW BRITAIN – Steve Dalkowski, often referred to as the fastest pitcher in baseball history, was at his best when life slowed down.
Dalkowski, a New Britain native who pitched for nine years in the minor leagues and referred to by Ted Williams as the fastest hurler he ever saw, struggled to find his command in his post-playing career, much like he did on the mound during his time in the Orioles’ organization. Blessed with an immeasurable fastball but burdened by a lack of control (in more ways than one), Dalkowski never reached the major leagues, then descended into alcoholism while living in California. By the time Dalkowski’s sister Patricia Cain arranged to bring Dalkowski back home in 1994, nearly three decades after the conclusion of his baseball career, Dalkowski was struggling with dementia as a result of alcohol abuse, but when he returned to the Hardware City at Walnut Hill Convalescent Home, Dalkowski finally seemed to ease into himself, despite his struggle to remember certain parts of his complicated life.
“Once he got into the home and relaxed, and knew that he had a regular place for him to live, which wasn't always the case with him, he just became calmer,” Cain said. “When he first got there, he helped them with the residents and helped people downstairs for rec. He was kind of very active in the home with the other residents until a few years ago when he became too ill.”
Dalkowski’s condition worsened over the 26 years he was back in New Britain, and on April 19, he passed away at the age of 80 due to complications brought on by COVID-19. Cain was unable to visit during the final days of his life due to visitor restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but made sure to keep him company throughout his stay at Walnut Hill and Grandview Rehab. Despite going years without knowing Dalkowski’s whereabouts, and only learning about the trajectory of his baseball career through the pages of the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, Cain embraced her time reunited with Dalkowski.
“He's my brother, and he was a great guy,” Cain said. “He was complicated, but he was a great guy. Everyone who came in contact with him loved him. Even at the nursing home, everybody loved Steve. He had that kind of personality. Anyone I talk to who knew him, from any part of his life, just adored him. But he did have some struggles, and they were difficult.”
Dalkowski recounted little of his early baseball days with Cain during his time in the nursing home, but those around him have those memories stashed away forever. One of the greatest baseball players to emerge from New Britain, Dalkowski still holds the record at New Britain High School with 13 consecutive strikeouts, and his 24 strikeouts in one game is still a program record (and likely will remain that way since high school games were reduced from nine to seven innings). Dalkowski’s talent was immeasurable, which only added to his myth. With radar guns absent from the game in the 1950s, when Dalkowski was dropping jaws in New Britain, spectators were left to wonder just how hard he was throwing. Later in his career, Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr. estimated Dalkowski’s fastball to be 115 mph, a superhuman measurement.
“He was good,” said Joe Lombardo, chairman of the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame and a close friend of Dalkowski. “Well, he was better than good.”
With every strikeout on the diamond and every spectacular play on the football field, where Dalkowski also excelled, was Cain.
“When he got to high school...they had some spectacular teams,” Cain said. “I was at every game. My father, my mother and I went to every single game. We even traveled to games out of town. I remember everything.”
Cain also remembers the night her brother signed with the Orioles, which came on Dalkowski’s graduation night from New Britain in 1957.
“We knew it was going to happen,” Cain said. “The scouts were around all the time.”
Much like his overall life and persona, Dalkowski’s baseball career at the pro level was complicated. His fastball was universally feared, both due to its freakish velocity and his inability to control where the pitch went. He struck out a remarkable 121 batters in his first season in the minors, but walked 129. After nine years in the minor leagues, Dalkowski’s career came to an end, just when his control seemed to be surfacing. With the help of legendary Orioles pitcher Earl Weaver, Dalkowski’s command improved, but an arm injury derailed an invite to major league camp. By 1966, Dalkowski’s career was over, having struck out 1,396 batters and walked 1,354 in 995 innings.
Still, the legend of Dalkowksi’s fastball remained, thanks to the stories shared by other local legends like Andy Baylock, a close friend of Dalkowski’s who coached at UConn after catching Dalkowski with the Hurricanes. Baylock would pad his glove with raw steak to ease the pain of being on the receiving end of what many consider to be the fastest pitch in baseball history.
Dalkowski’s descent appeared to be just as fast as his dementia surfaced, but after Cain brought him back to his hometown, Dalkowski began to find a sense of peace where his stardom originated, though he wasn’t able to take much time to remember his early days as a local legend.
“I used to take him out all the time before the last few years when he wasn't able to,” Cain remembered. “I would take him to family gatherings and Rock Cats games. I would take him everywhere. But he didn't talk that much about high school. When he first came home, he remembered more about the players he played with in the minors. Their names, positions, where they came from, things like that.”
Those minor leaguers likely remember Dalkowski as well. How could they forget the time they stepped in the box and faced the inspiration behind “Bull Durham,” the man from New Britain with the fastest pitch anyone ever saw?
The people of his hometown certainly never will.