Tom Chiappetta first met New Britain legend Steve Dalkowski back in 1991, when he took a trek across the country from Connecticut to California to meet the former fireball pitcher at his small home in Oildale.
Nearly three decades after that memorable encounter, Chiappetta is preparing to tell the story of his conversation with Dalkowski, and his story as a whole, in a documentary that has been in construction since that sit-down in 1991.
“There’s nobody like him,” Chiappetta said of Dalkowski, who passed away last month at 80 years old due to complications of the coronavirus. “He’s the most unique of the unique. That's why capturing this entire story and giving more of who he was is so important. He wasn't just an incredible baseball player.”
Chiappetta, a long-time sports writer in Bridgeport and the executive director of the Fairfield Sports Commission and Hall of Fame for the past 15 years, got in touch with Dalkowski’s former minor league catcher and friend Frank Zupo, who arranged to meet Chiappetta. Chiappetta’s film partner and a cameraman met Zupo in Los Angeles to go and meet Dalkowski, who had long since descended into alcoholism after his baseball career fizzled out due to an inability to control a fastball that many considered to be the fastest ever. Dalkowski’s heater was one of baseball’s great myths, and Chiappetta wanted to uncover that, and much more. He felt good about his chances when he caught a glimpse of Dalkowski’s reaction to seeing his old friend Zupo.
“When he saw Frank, his eyes lit up,” Chiappetta said. “He immediately knew he was with an old friend. The other three guys he wasn't so sure about, but we were able to spend some time speaking to him. We ended up doing some interviews with Steve and his wife and shot some footage.”
Zupo’s presence seemed to soften Dalkowski’s tough exterior, and Chiappetta was able to talk with him and his wife Virginia for roughly 40 minutes of what is still exclusive footage seen by only a few, and will be a crucial part of Chiappetta’s upcoming documentary.
“Steve really opened up,” Chiappetta said. “He went to a place where he talked about all the people he disappointed and how he threw a lot away because of his drinking. Sometimes timing is everything, and I think him seeing Frank took him back to one of the greatest times of his life. He loved playing ball and all the guys and that experience, and Frank was bringing up all of these old names and you could see it in his eyes.”
At the time, Dalkowski was waking up to a quart of Budweiser on his nightstand to help him out of bed in the morning, and Chiappetta quickly noticed Dalkowski’s deteriorating physical and mental condition. He never lost sight on telling Dalkowski’s story, which continued after he was brought back to New Britain and lived out the rest of his years in a convalescent home due to dementia brought on by alcoholism. While Dalkowski’s memory deteriorated, Chiappetta’s recollection of his sit-down with Dalkowski only enhanced his want to tell the local hero’s story like nobody else ever had.
“Over these last 30 years, the story has been with me almost every day,” Chiappetta said. “We made some real progress at the start with those interviews, and interviewed about 25 other people. They originally sat on VHS tapes after we made copies from the data tapes...and we transferred everything digitally. There were a lot of steps along the way...finding old photos and newspaper clips, it was a long journey. That's how 29 to 30 years mounts up.”
Armed with an exclusive interview with Dalkowski and other notable discussions with friends and coaches from New Britain High School to baseball legends like Brooks Robinson and Tom Seaver, Chiappetta brought the documentary back to life last November, when a former colleague helped him get in touch with a man working in the story development business, who put Chiappetta in touch with a director and a writer. Chiappetta, with more free time on his hands after undergoing surgery the month before, sent over everything he had accumulated over the last 30 years, and soon after, a five-minute trailer was born.
“The three of us revived the film,” Chiappetta said. “Sometimes out of the clear blue sky, things happen.”
The trailer was well received, and Chiappetta and his team have begun sending the documentary to multiple outlets to gauge interest in airing the film. The group has constructed a 10-minute segment of the documentary, and believe they have enough footage to create a 30 or 60-munute documentary, depending on who picks it up. But with the help of John William Greenbaum, who is developing a book on Dalkowski, and Josh Butler, who has helped with the editing process, Chiappetta believes the documentary will bring new insight into the life of a man who has always drawn tremendous interest.
Chiappetta hopes that insight will be shared soon, marking the completion of a 30-year journey.
“No one has ever really told his full story,” Chiappetta said. “His baseball life died and ended when he was 26 years old. He died when he was 80. That's 54 years of his life that people have touched on...but we'll be touching on his bouts with alcoholism and how it affected his life and his family. There are a lot of other things that transpired.”
Chiappetta’s documentary is still under construction, and is still looking for any photos or videos featuring Dalkowski. Anyone who would like to contribute can contact Chiappetta at 203-984-4806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.