The book: “High Heat: The Secret History of The Fastball And The Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time”
The author: Tim Wendel
The vital stats: Da Capo publishing, 268 pages with index, $25.
Find it: We found it at Powells.com (linked here)
The pitch: Our recent fascination with the career, recovery and legend of Steve Dalkowski (linked here and linked here), who we met during his visit to Dodger Stadium before his induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, drew us to this project quicker than a quick pitch.
Wendel, whose eight previous books includes one of our ’08 favorites, “Far From Home” (linked here), gives all the logistically sound reasoning why and how someone can throw a fastball better than others — from windup to pivot to stride to release to follow through. He even went to an aerodynamic testing lab outside of Birmingham, Alabama, to understand the mechanics that make throwing heat possible in the first place.
He concludes by offering up his Top 12 fastest pitchers: Dalkowski made it, along with some who you’d guess (Nolan Ryan, at No. 1, with Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage and Walter Johnson), a couple of modern-day additions (Joel Zumaya and Billy Wagner), and a few others you may have overlooked (J.R. Richard, Amos Rusie and Satchel Paige). Dalkowski is No. 2 on this list.
But no Randy Johnson? Look again at the cover of the book, top photo. That’s a cropped shot of The Big Unit winging a heater toward home plate.
See, the debates on this can be intriguing. Depends on not just who you talk to, but what hitters faced what pitchers. Ask former Dodger shortstop Bill Russell about the time Richard threw one over his head and it splintered a piece of wood 30 feet behind him against the backstop. Russell wanted no part of it his next time up, prompting manager Tommy Lasorda to send up Pepe Frias to hit for him. “Why do I have to bat?” Frias replied.
The big throwers today — Zumaya (sidelined a lot lately with injury), Wagner (ditto), David Price, Neftali Feliz, Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg — should be given copies of this book as a cautionary tale.
After all the analysis, maybe Wendel’s best observation is this paragraph on page 232: “Ironically few of the pitchers features in these pages asked for the largesse of high heat. Due to the expectations and pressure of possessing such rare talent, arguably more have suffered and even failed than have succeeded. If what binds them all together is the gift they’ve been provided with, then what truly separates them is the ability to harness and to honor it. (So) who persevered the most with what was bestowed upon them?”
Who’s the fastest of all time? Seattle Mariners scout Phil Pote says it best in these pages: “(It’s) the game’s ultimate can of worms.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A called third strike. A fastball down the middle, of course. Maybe one as fast as Dalkowski’s — in the 109 range. Simply unhittable.
Also: Wendel recently wrote a book on the 1980 U.S. hockey team called “Going for the Gold” (linked here) worth sniffing out.