The All-Star Break is, among other things, a break, and a break is a good time for stories, and baseball stories are as good as any and better than most.
Ted Williams was as good a hitter as any and better than most, and, by his own loud and consistent estimation, the best of them all. This is the story of the day upon which the best hitter of them all — by his own estimation — saw a pitch he never wanted to see again, and said so.
Pat Jordan wrote the story some years ago and put it in a book titled "The Suitors of Spring," and it is OK that it was some years ago, because it is the kind of story that sticks with you and then comes up on breaks. Or at least it does with me.
One day at a spring training site that’s probably been abandoned and reoccupied several times since this story happened 50 or more years ago, Ted Williams was induced to step into the batter’s box while a man named Steve Dalkowski was on the mound. Steve Dalkowski might have been the Ted Williams of pitching if he’d been able to find home plate more than occasionally, but he couldn’t, which is another story that may or may not creep into this one as it rolls along, because some of the ways people tried to help Steve Dalkowski harness his fastball are amusing.
Ah, what the heck. Some coach had Dalkowski try throwing strikes from halfway between the mound and the plate, which, as it turned out, he could no more do than he could throwing from the mound.
Anyway, Steve Dalkowski, who bounced around in the minor leagues for the Orioles for a while, is said to have been able to throw a baseball well over 100 miles an hour. The measurement of fastballs during those days were perhaps not entirely reliable, which could also be said of the people who have passed down the stories of Steve Dalkowski, and also of storytellers in general.
Somebody convinced Ted Williams that he should step up to the plate and examine briefly a pitch thrown by Dalkowski.
The convincing part probably wasn’t difficult. How could Ted Williams not have been curious about this fellow who was alleged to have the fastest of fastballs?
As Pat Jordan tells the story, Williams watched one Dalkowski fastball cross the plate at his knees: a rare strike. Then he stepped out of the box and dropped his bat. That’s when he said, “That’s the fastest pitch I’ve ever seen, and I don’t want to see it again.”
Williams probably didn’t like the story.
“That’s the fastest pitch I’ve ever seen, and I don’t want to see it again.”Ted Williams
I think Pat Jordan did like it, because he, like Steve Dalkowski, had a terrific fastball and never made it to the Major Leagues. I don’t know if any coach ever had Jordan throw baseballs against a wooden fence until he’d broken it into pieces, but Dalkowski is alleged to have done that.
Pat Jordan became a writer whose success has far exceeded his success on the mound.
Steve Dalkowski became an alcoholic and is currently suffering from dementia, or so says Wikipedia.
Ted Williams became frozen and his head was separated from his body, though I don’t know if it was in that order.
And I host Only A Game, and none of that story would apply to me unless I had once stood at a plate to look at a fastball that may have been as fast as any Steve Dalkowski ever threw. It was thrown by a pitcher who was about 30 feet closer to me than Steve Dalkowski had been to the plate when he discouraged Ted Williams. The pitcher’s name was Owen “Fog” Walford. He dominated fast-pitch softball, which is a misnomer, because the ball is hard, and it hurts if it hits you, especially if it is traveling at 100 miles an hour.
When I encountered Fog Walford about 35 years ago, he was warming up before an exhibition game that might have been about to be rained out on a muddy field north of Boston. Very few people were there. For the hell of it, I asked Walford’s catcher if I could stand at the plate with an imaginary bat. The catcher shrugged and said, “it won’t bother him.”
For one pitch, Fog Walford would be Steve Dalkowski, and I would be Ted Williams.
I was playing fast-pitch softball at least once a week at the time, so in a vague sort of way, I knew what to expect. Until I didn’t. The one pitch looked like a knee-high fastball as it began to arrive. The next thing I knew, it was a couple of inches under my chin. I’d misjudged it by two and a half feet. I never wanted to see it again.
And that is the story of everything I have in common with Ted Williams.
This segment aired on July 9, 2016.