Jeff Jacobs: Upcoming documentary will tell Steve Dalkowski’s ‘fastest, wildest’ story

Photo of Jeff Jacobs

Tom Chiappetta, Mike Macari and his cameraman Rocky Progano flew out to California in August 1992. They met up in LA with former catcher Frank Zupo, who played 16 games with Orioles during the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Zupo knew where Steve Dalkowski lived, and he called ahead. The four drove just outside Bakersfield, to a town called Oildale, on a Saturday afternoon.

“Steve, his wife, Virginia, and her daughter lived in a very, very small house,” said Chiappetta, executive director of the Fairfield County Sports Commission,who worked 11 years for the Connecticut Post. “Oil fields with the oil derricks, that kind of scenario. We were stupid enough to go in August when it was 100 degrees. We didn’t know what to expect. Steve’s health was failing a bit. Frank said he was still drinking.”

Dalkowski, the kid from New Britain, the man from nowhere, the lefty who threw a baseball harder and wilder than anyone who ever lived, already was a half-day into the booze. He slept with a quart of Budweiser on his nightstand. Still, he knew Zupo right away. The four took Dalkowski over to the minor league park in Bakersfield, sat him in the dugout, put him on the field, took some film.

“Virginia said if we really want to speak to him we need to come back at 8 in the morning and she’d make sure he hadn’t started drinking,” Chiappetta said.

The group arrived at breakfast. Dalkowski was coherent. Chiappetta did the interviewing. They got 40 minutes, video and audio of Dalkowski going through his entire life. Video and audio the public has never seen, but should when Chiappetta finishes a documentary 30 years in the making, “Far From Home.”

“Steve was compelling,” Chiappetta said. “It was emotional.”

“Then I wouldn’t call it an intervention. We weren’t family or medical people. But bringing Frank, one of his oldest and truest friends, Steve’s eyes lit up. You could tell the lights were on. My buddy Mike is a very spiritual guy. He was talking about the struggles of life and keeping faith.”

Chiappetta brought Dalko’s mind back to Connecticut, talking about former UConn athletic director John Toner, who had been his football coach at New Britain High, and former UConn baseball coach Andy Baylock, who grew up next door to Dalkowski.

“There was a lot of emotion in the room,” Chiappetta said. “Steve dug deep somewhere. His wife said he hadn’t talked much about his baseball career and his life.”

A man dies. A legend does not. Steve Dalkowski, who fought alcoholic dementia for decades, died of complications from COVID-19 on April 19 at the Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain. He was 80. Ron Shelton once wrote that Dalkowski’s arm and power was “a gift from the gods … he had it all and didn’t know it.”

Shelton, who wrote and directed “Bull Durham,” based Tim Robbins’ character “Nuke” LaLoosh on Dalko. He was 5-11, 175 pounds of fact, myth and legend.

“Every major media has been doing stuff on Steve since the day in 1966 that The Sporting News had a headline ‘Living Legend Released’ for a guy who never pitched in the majors,” Chiappetta said. “Time, New York Times, LA Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN — no minor leaguer had ever been treated like this.”

Pat Jordan, who went to Fairfield Prep and like Chiappetta got his start at the Bridgeport Post-Telegram, pitched in the minors for the Braves. In “The Suitors of Spring,” Jordan had a chapter on Dalkowski. George Plimpton’s “Curious Case of Sidd Finch” has part of a chapter on Dalko. Jonathan Hoch did a piece of his “Fastball” movie. Tim Wendel in “High Heat,” too. Kevin Nathan had a poignant segment on NBC 30 awhile back. Dom Amore in the Courant last year, too.

For a man whose story had been told in snippets, Chiappetta said he wanted to tell a story of his entire life.

When he left the Post, Chiappetta went to work in public relations for Capital Sports in Stamford. The company worked on the Equitable Old Timers Series tied with the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.). Money was raised for former players in need through games at each major league park.

“Our job,” Chiappetta said, “was to go out a few days ahead of time to work with all these great ballplayers as our spokespeople.”

Two were Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell. Chiappetta went to both games in Baltimore. After dinner, there was a suite for the players to enjoy a few drinks and exchange old stories. There, Chiappetta met Zupo, who caught Dalkowski at various stops in the minor leagues. A Connecticut guy, Chiappetta knew about Dalko. He also was a lifelong Orioles fan.

“Frank was one of Steve’s closest friends in the minors,” Chiappetta said. “He really was the only one who had stayed in contact with Steve, as tough as that was during the lost years.”

At first, Chiappetta thought Dalkowski would make for a great book. He was convinced otherwise. Still, he knew there was a great story. He approached Macari, a buddy from Stamford who had a television production company. He hadn’t done anything in sports previously and was itching to do so.

Which puts us back in Dalkowski’s house in 1992. For a time, he worked with migrant farm workers in Kern County, picking grapes, and lost that job. Zupo went into the kitchen with Dalkowski and told him if he wanted help they could get it. Zupo and Chiappetta knew people from B.A.T., including executive director Frank Slocum, who lived in Greenwich. Ralph Branca and Joe Garagiola were heavily involved, too.

Dalkowski went into a California hospital for three months.

“Not only for detox,” Chiappetta said, “but to nourish everything that was ailing him from the life he was leading.”

Another year or two, Dalkowski likely would have been gone. He went into a halfway house, got on medication to keep him balanced. Everything was going well. He was much better.

“Then he disappeared,” Chiappetta said. “He wasn’t found for another five months.”

A family in a Glendale laundromat found him on Christmas Eve and was able to glean enough information to connect with Virginia and his sister Patty Cain. He stayed with that family for a few weeks. Virginia had returned to her roots to Oklahoma. Steve went there in 1993. Virginia died in 1994. Patty helped bring him back to New Britain, get him into Walnut Hill Care Center, now known as Grandview Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, where he lived in declining health, yet with dignity, for 26 more years.

In his last corporate job, Chiappetta was director of media relations for Fox Sports Net. As he tried to sell his idea of a Dalko documentary, he ran into a barrier: “From high school to the Orioles organization, there’s not one piece of Steve throwing a baseball at any level.” He was told you can’t make a film or TV program nowadays that doesn’t have him throwing a baseball.

Other than windup, Chiappetta argues, pitching is one of the least visually appealing positions. This isn’t Bobby Orr flying through the air. This isn’t Michael Jordan flying for a slam dunk. You can’t tell on video if a pitcher is throwing 92 mph or 102.

“Besides,” Chiappetta said, “his career ended at 26, his life didn’t.”

Chiappetta met John-William Greenbaum about 15 years ago when he was a teenager and lived in Westchester County. He says Greenbaum, who lives in Indiana and is working on a book, is even more of a Dalko historian than he is. He has researched every minor league game Dalkowski pitched from box scores and spoken to as many players in those box scores as possible. Greenbaum has a chapter on separating Dalko fact from myth.

Struck out 24 batters for New Britain High in 1957 and struck out 24 more and walked 18 in a rookie league game two months later? Fact.

A pitch that broke an umpire’s mask, KO’d him and put him in the hospital with a concussion? Fact.

Won bets for throwing a ball over the center-field fence more than 400 feet away and throwing balls through wooden fences? Fact.

Threw a ball through the backstop and knocked the hot dog out of a scout’s hand at a concession stand? Myth.

Ted Williams once walked out of a batting cage in spring training after facing one pitch from Dalkowski? Myth. “Steve and a catcher kind of made it up,” Chiappetta said.

Bob Beavers, only 18, had his earlobe ripped off by a Dalkowski pitch that knocked him out, put him in the hospital, and Beavers never played again? The earlobe was bloodied, not fully torn off. Rest fact.

The numbers on how fast Dalkowski threw the ball are legendary: 110, 115, even 120 mph? It’s all anecdotal. Aroldis Chapman has been clocked at a record 105 mph.

“No accurate speed-assessment technology was available at the time,” Chiappetta said. “Although they tried at Aberdeen Proving Ground with military stuff. Frank Cashen, who went on to be Orioles and Mets GM, wrote the story for the Baltimore News-American. (Dalko) topped out at 85.8. There was this mechanical device he had to throw it through. He threw like 30 pitches first. It was primitive.”

Among his 22 interviews over the years, Chiappetta talked to Robinson, Earl Weaver, Lou Brock, umpire Doug Harvey, Tom Seaver, Dick Williams, Powell, Cal Ripken Sr. They all said Dalkowski was the fastest they ever saw.

“If they all said it, you’ve got to trust it,” Chiappetta said. “With regularity, I don’t think there’s a question he was the fastest. The fastest and wildest?”

The numbers are proof. He struck out 1,324 and walked 1,236 with 145 wild pitches in 956 innings.

Powell, a first baseman, was there in 1963 and said he heard Dalko’s elbow snap while pitching to the Yankees in an exhibition game in Miami only hours after he had been fitted for a big league Orioles uniform. No Tommy John surgery in those days. Dalko was never the same. He was out of the game by 1966.

There are snippets of Dalkowski talking, including one on ESPN Reel Classics about “Bull Durham.”

“There’s no audio I know of where he talked about his deepest feelings and darkest places,” Chiappetta said.

Still, the project went idle. Chiappetta would stay in touch with Patty Cain and periodically an event would spark interest. Dalkowski threw out the first pitch at Camden Yards in 2003. Dalkowski entered the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Eternals in 2009 and threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium.

Beta had to be turned into VHS, and the late Mike Raub helped Chiappetta turn the VHS to digital. Chiappetta would have surgery last October. He had time to catch up some on the project. Out of nowhere, he got a LinkedIn from former colleague Kevin Mardesich who had worked at Fox in LA. He was looking for story ideas to shape. He pointed Chiappetta to Josh Butler, director, producer, screenwriter. The three have been working on the project since December. Paul Devlin, former North Carolina player and one of the opposition players in “Bull Durham,” has helped Chiappetta, too.

I saw the trailer. It’s really good.

Chiappetta said the documentary would run from 30 to 60 minutes depending on the platform. He’d love to have it ready when major league baseball returns. There still are questions regarding where it would run and about money.

“There are three parts to it,” Chiappetta said. “His baseball story, someone who lost their way and then someone who found his way home. Who went to church with his high school baseball coach Bill Huber, football games with his friends, able to be part of his family.

“With Steve’s death, I think it will become more a tribute.”; @jeffjacobs