Poet Robert Frost said, “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.” That’s a fitting epitaph for Steve Dalkowski, who died last month from alcohol-related dementia at age 80 and was considered by many — including connoisseurs like Ted Williams, Eddie Robinson and Cal Ripkin Sr. — to be the hardest throwing pitcher ever. As his Washington Post obituary noted, Dalkowski “had the best arm in baseball, but he could not control his pitches.” Ripkin estimated that Dalkowski threw 110-115 miles per hour, but while he was unhittable, he was equally unpredictable, continually walking and hitting more batters than he struck out.
On dares he threw baseballs over fences 440 feet away, right through wooden fences and at team mascots and was the model for the “Wild Thing” pitcher in the movie “Bull Durham.” Once Ripkin was catching and called for a curve, but Dalkowski missed the sign and threw a high fastball that hit the umpire, breaking his mask in three places and rendering him unconscious. Beginning as a minor leaguer at age 18, he faced Bob Beavers, who recalled, “the first pitch was over the backstop. The second pitch was called a strike; I didn’t think it was.” The third pitch hit Beaver, knocking him out and a piece of his ear off. “I never did play baseball again.” In 1962 Dalkowski injured his arm, never made the big leagues, and soon was a confirmed alcoholic and migrant farm worker.
Dalkowski would have been a terror back in the Massachusetts League’s mid-1800s heyday. “The Massachusetts Game” rules differed from today, in several respects, like fielders being able to put out runners by hitting them with the ball, “an act known as ‘soaking’ or plugging’.” However, the rules also had batters stand midway between home and first, and they didn’t have to stay in the basepaths when going round the bases, running wherever necessary to evade soakings. Wikipedia reports that the longest baseball game on record was of the Massachusetts variety, since winning required 50 runs. It occurred in 1860 between Upton and Medway Sept. 25, 26, 27, 28, Oct. 1, 4, and 5, and lasted 21 hours. Upton finally prevailed 50-29, and while interesting to watch, one witnessing journalist wrote, “The time occupied in playing the game under such rules was, we think, rather too much of a good thing.”
Some consider baseball boring, but as the great Red Barber noted, “Baseball is dull only to dull minds.” A longtime sportswriter and Brooklyn Dodger radio and TV announcer, Barber’s Southern drawl was heard on KUAC’s All Things Considered Friday mornings. “Writing is easy,” he said. “Just sit down and open a vein.” Barber coined many baseball-related phrases, including “They’re sitting in the catbird seat” (meaning they are in control), and “This game’s tighter than new shoes on a rainy day.”
Another baseball redhead comes to mind when grieving the cancellation of this year’s Goldpanner season. Former Fairbanks Mayor and Lt. Governor Henry “Red” Boucher was an active, colorful Alaskan who, according to his ADN.com 2009 obituary, “coached baseball in Panama and knew the baseball coach at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, as well as Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers. They came up with a plan to bring college ball to Fairbanks. The Goldpanners were created in 1960, as was the beginnings of the Alaska Baseball League.”
Although an early adopter of Apple computers, Boucher wrote to me shortly before he passed about a powerful communication tool that required no electricity or backups, and can’t be superseded by future software updates; he called it “The Pencil.” Reading about PRINT (“Private Russia-Proof Information News Transmitter”) in Funny Times reminded me of Red’s pencil. Readers can access PRINT without fear of data collection by computer bots, and PRINT stories usually aren’t viral, infectious misrepresentations. Now there’s the threat of the “deepfake,” “a photo or video created using artificial intelligence, that imposes the face of one person onto the body of someone else, in a realistic and convincing manner.”
When nearly everything can be faked, skepticism seems prudent, but where to go for reliable information? One place is your public library, an institution dedicated to providing reliable information from all points of view. As Nolan Ryan, another hard-throwing pitcher wrote, “One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.