He was probably blessed with the greatest left arm anybody in the world ever had. That is the proclamation made by former Baltimore Orioles catcher Frank Zupo in the opening seconds of a new documentary about New Britain’s Steve Dalkowski. Far From Home: The Steve Dalkowski Story tells the tale of one of the most famous baseball players to never reach the big leagues, and the inspiration for Tim Robbins’ character Nuke LaLoosh in 1988’s Bull Durham.
Legend has it Dalkowski could throw a fastball anywhere from 110 to 115 mph — the key word being “anywhere.” As Hall of Famer Lou Brock puts it in the film, “Grab your helmets, run behind buildings, because this guy throws unguided missiles, and he doesn’t know where they’re going.” The documentary is the first for Norwalk’s Tom Chiappetta, and it will premiere on CPTV on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. It’s a project 30 years in the making for Chiappetta, a former sports writer and current executive director of the Fairfield County Sports Commission and Hall of Fame.
The 27-minute film is loaded with interviews of teammates, family, coaches and baseball royalty — including Brock, Brooks Robinson and Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey — mostly conducted around 1991-92. Bill Huber, Dalkowski’s coach at New Britain High School, says the lefty struck out 15 batters and walked 13 in his first game. After 154 innings over three seasons for the Hurricanes, Dalkowski had amassed 313 strikeouts and 180 walks. When he graduated in 1957, professional scouts in limousines were lined up outside his home. He signed with the Orioles.
His first stop in the Orioles’ minor league organization was in Kingsport, Tennessee, and his wildness would follow him there. Less than a week into his career, an 18-year-old Dalkowski hit batter Bob Beavers in the head. Beavers never played baseball again. But by 1962, with future Hall of Famer Earl Weaver as his manager at Double-A Elmira (New York), Dalkowski seemed to have finally turned a corner. In spring training of 1963 he was considered a lock to make Baltimore’s opening-day roster.
During a March exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Dalkowski was pitching to Roger Maris when something popped in his left elbow. His arm would never be the same. “He did get measured for the uniform,” says Chiappetta, a lifelong Orioles fan. “He was going to be on the roster. He would have finally been able to pitch in a major league game if that hadn’t happened. What would have happened afterward is anybody’s guess.” His career officially ended in 1966 at age 26. Dalkowski disappeared from the public eye.
Around 1990 Chiappetta was working for a sports marketing agency that was involved with Major League Baseball old-timers’ games. He was in Baltimore and mentioned Dalkowski’s name in a conversation with Zupo, one of his former catchers. Chiappetta had plans to write a book. Zupo had kept in touch with Dalkowski, and knew where he was. He had descended into alcoholism and settled in with migrant workers in California’s Central Valley.
Chiappetta and a small crew traveled to California and met up with Dalkowski in Bakersfield. They filmed early in the day to try to capture him at his most lucid. He spoke about learning how to survive living on the street. “Obviously he went somewhere into his heart and soul,” Chiappetta says. “He had never talked about any of that. That’s kind of the key point of the film at some level.”
Among the many stories about Dalkowski, Chiappetta says, is that he kept a mini alcohol bottle at the end of every row when he was picking fruit. But, like stories of his exploits on the baseball field, not every recollection is the same. “There are sometimes five or six different versions of the same story from people who were there,” Chiappetta says. “That’s what made Steve’s life; the legendary, mythical parts of it. They grow and they get embellished.”
Some recent medical issues gave Chiappetta enough free time to push through and see his project to completion. When Dalkowski, who had alcoholic dementia and had been in an assisted-living facility in New Britain since 1994, died from complications of the coronavirus in April, it prompted Chiappetta to make the final cut of the documentary more of a tribute. Longtime WTNH sportscaster Noah Finz is the narrator.
The documentary Far From Home: The Steve Dalkowski Story is scheduled to air on Connecticut Public Television in October.
CPTV: Oct. 10, 7 p.m.; Oct. 12, 9:30 p.m. and Oct. 18, 6 p.m.
CPTV Spirit: Oct. 21, 8 p.m. and Oct. 24, 4:30 p.m.