The argument over which pitcher in US baseball is the “fastest of all time” is a fun one that never ends. Since the radar gun is a fairly recent invention, there is not an accurate way to compare the fastballs of early and mid-20th century pitchers like Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller with those thrown by today’s pitchers like Joel Zumaya and Billy Wagner. Throw in the fact (pun intended) that radar guns are not as accurate as we are led to believe and you have plenty of fodder for the informed and not-so-informed to make all the claims and suppositions they want.
None of this stops writer Tim Wendel from trying to determine who is the fastest pitcher in all of baseball. In his book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of all Time Wendel takes on this impossible job. As a wonderful writer and a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly, he’s well-equipped for the task.
Wendel takes us on a long winding trip, heading first to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, then across the USA and back and forth through history. Talking with current and former scouts, managers, and players he attempts to sort fact from legend. Many of the pitchers whose careers he explores, such as Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax, are well-known Hall of Fame legends, or they are current stars with Hall of Fame potential, such as Zumaya and Wagner.
There are very few people who have the ability to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour or more. Those who do have a shot at baseball glory. Even with that ability, there are no guarantees. As Wendel shows time and again, the great ones had great talent, but also the determination to harness and polish their talent. Sandy Koufax was a mediocre pitcher at the beginning of his career in the majors before gaining the control over his pitches he needed to become a Hall of Fame pitcher. Nolan Ryan almost quit baseball out of frustration before he mastered his talent.
One of the most intriguing and heartbreaking pitchers Wendel comes across is the man who served as the inspiration for the character of “Nuke” LaLoosh in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham. His name is Steve Dalkowski and he was in the Orioles’ minor league system from the late ‘50s through the early ‘60s. He had a blazing fastball that many of his former teammates and competitors swear was the fastest of all time. Unlike his big screen counterpart, Dalkowski never made it up to “The Show”. He never could master getting the ball over the plate on a consistent basis. He also had serious problems with alcohol, even ending up destitute for a number of years before finally regaining contact with his family and getting sober.
As for those highly-touted radar guns, whose speed readings are posted on stadium scoreboards and on TV broadcasts, Wendel finds their accuracy is not as sharp they are often claimed to be. Some guns take the speed as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand (when it’s at its fastest). Other types of radar guns take the speed of the ball as it’s closer to home plate (at its slowest). Plus, they often have a range. Because of the variability of the readings, Major League Baseball does not even keep an official record of pitch speeds.
A book like this, so breezy, so informative, so vivid, could only have been written by a true fan of the game. A fan who is also not blind to baseball’s warts including the Steroid Era. One notable pitcher who does not make Wendel’s list of the fastest: Roger Clemens, who according to the Mitchell report and other investigations used steroids in the latter half of his career.
Baseball fans will love this book. But it’s not just for insiders. Others will enjoy it for the stories told about men gifted (or cursed, it seems) with the inhuman ability to throw a baseball at such stupefying speeds. Wendel ends his book by identifying, based on his research, the 12 fastest pitchers in baseball. It’s a hard list to argue with. But that doesn’t mean some won’t. Let the fun continue.