High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time
By Tim Wendel
Da Capo Press, 2010
List Price: $25
Greg Maddux retired in 2008 with 355 wins in the bank, eighth best in major league history. From 1998 through 2004 he won at least 15 games a season, notching 19 or more victories seven times. He’s a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, who won four consecutive Cy Young Awards. But he never captured America’s fancy the way rookie Stephen Strasburg has done this year.
Maddux may have recorded 3,371 strikeouts over his 23-year career, but none of them came on a 100-mph fastball. Sure Strasburg’s curve and changeup make veteran hitters look silly, but it’s his fastball that elicits the oohs and ahhs from those who pack the stadium to see Washington’s phenom. Today’s fans are obsessed with radar gun readings, which are posted on the scoreboard in every big league park.
Baseball’s love for speed is nothing new. It dates back into the 1800s, when fireballers James Creighton, Pud Galvin, and Amos Rusie blew pitches past helpless batsmen. In the early 20th century, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller set the standard for their eras, though many who saw him would rank Satchel Paige right up there with them.
For nearly 150 years, the debate has raged: Who is the fastest pitcher the game has ever known? Tim Wendel tackles the question in “High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time.”
Wendel embarked on his crusade following a conversation with mighty Frank Howard, in which he inquired of the slugger who was the fastest pitcher he’d ever seen. The mammoth Hall of Famer, who made his living launching fastballs over the fence, rattled off a series of names, then challenged Wendel to pursue the answer.
“It’s one of those riddles where the chase becomes what’s important, if you catch my drift,” Howard mused. “You’re going to have to hit the road some to really tease this out.”
So Wendel did. His chase led him to Cooperstown, where he shook off a December ice storm and dug into the Hall of Fame’s extensive library; to the Green-Wood Cemetery in New York, where many of the game’s pioneers, including Creighton, are buried; to Durham, N.C., where Hollywood’s Nuke LaLoosh learned to throw his heater over the plate. He even ventured to the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, where his own not-so-speedy delivery was broken down and analyzed.
Wendel’s nearly 100 interviews included conversations with Feller and Nolan Ryan as well as other worthy candidates for the crown, like Roger Clemens, Tim Lincecum, David Price, and Billy Wagner. Not all of the pitchers considered were major league stars, however. One of the game’s hardest throwers in the 1950s and 60s never made it out of the minors. Steve Dalkowski, who later became something of a model for Bull Durham’s LaLoosh, struck out 262 batters for Class C Stockton in the Orioles organization in 1960. Unfortunately, he also walked 262 batters that year.
Just when he was on the brink of making the jump to Baltimore, he blew his elbow out in a game against the Yankees late in spring training in 1963. It would be more than a decade until Dr. Frank Jobe successfully repaired a similar injury, on Dodgers lefthander Tommy John. For Dalkowski, there was no cure. He bounced around the minors for a couple more years before retiring in 1965 without ever regaining his amazing fastball.
In addition to seeing the first elbow ligament transfer surgery, the 1970s also welcomed the sport’s first radar gun. Earl Weaver, who had coached Dalkowski earlier in his career, was so smitten with the invention he spent $1,200 of his own money to buy a gun when the Orioles refused to pick up the tab. The game, at long last, had a subjective tool to clock pitches.
The radar gun was hardly the first attempt to measure a fastball. Walter Johnson was timed at the Remington Arms Company’s bullet-testing range in 1912. The test was faulty, however, and the Big Train was clocked at a mere 86.6 mph. Thirty-four years later Feller was timed at 107.9 mph by a photoelectric cell device set up at a Washington Senators game. Several years earlier Rapid Robert had been timed against a speeding motorcycle. His fastball that day was calculated to have traveled at 104.5 mph. In 1960, several of the game’s top pitchers, including Sandy Koufax, were timed by a high-speed camera in spring training.
Radar guns, while more consistent than all of the creative methods that came before them, have hardly ended the debate. For one thing, different guns measure pitches differently, with some clocking the pitch as it leaves a pitcher’s hand and others as it crosses the plate. The guns will also never settle the historic argument, leaving advocates for Johnson, Paige, Feller, Rusie, and others to state their cases for generations who never got to see them pitch.
So who was the fastest of all-time? Wendel does conclude by choosing one, but you’ll have to read “High Heat” to find out who he favors. It’s not his call that provides the payoff in this book, however. The journey really is more enjoyable than the destination.
Another writer could come to the same conclusion yet write a wildly different book. Wendel chose to take a personal approach, inviting the reader to join him in his quest with prose that reads at times almost like a blog. He makes this more than a story about fastballs, bringing us into contact with the men who threw them. It’s their stories, not the gun readings or stats, that make this an enjoyable read.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.