Review: Arms and the Man

This article was written by Gail Rowe

This article was published in Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal

On “High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time”

High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time

by Tim Wendel
DaCapo Press (2010)
$25.00 (hardcover); 288 pages

From the day in 1859 when Jim Creighton of the Niagara Club displayed his rising speed pitch against the Star Club of Brooklyn—and perhaps even prior to that—observers of baseball have debated who is “the fastest pitcher of all time.”

Across the years the controversy has rung out on baseball diamonds, in clubhouses, bars, barbershops, banquet halls, and SABR meetings. It has filled the pages of newspapers, magazines, and sports journals. William Curran, John Thorn and John Holway, Rob Neyer, Bill James, Martin Quigley, Jack Newcombe, and Roger Kahn have written entire books on pitching and pitchers. Tim Wendel is the latest author to offer a book-length celebration of fastballers.

Wendel concedes up front that the task of identifying the fastest pitcher of all time is both impossible and improbable. He is correct, of course. His aspiration is impossible because for most of the history of the game there has been no consensus among players, managers, scouts, agents, or fans as to who deserves the honor. Nor, most of that time, has there existed an instrument capable of measuring accurately the speed of a thrown ball.

The search is also improbable because it is highly unlikely that a single standard can be reached on how to measure the pitch that is quickest to the plate. Is such an achievement to be predicated on the speed of a pitch as it leaves the pitcher’s hand or as it crosses the plate? Is it to be based on several pitches calibrated by a speed gun? Numerous pitches throughout a game? Consistent speed in the strike zone? Measured speed over a several-year period? Should the quickest pitch be judged by batters’ perception? Do pitchers exist whose deliveries appear to be the quickest to the plate even though their measured speed is appreciably below 100 mph?

Under chapter headings constituting the various aspects of the pitcher’s motion (“Windup,” “Pivot,” “The Stride,” “Arm Acceleration,” “Release,” and “Follow Through”), Wendel explores the components associated with the ability to throw a baseball swiftly: a hurler’s physical and emotional makeup, his mechanics, his circumstances, the impact upon readers of writers and commentators describing the act, and pure luck.

Timing, too, is important. Those fortunate enough to watch Amos Rusie in 1890–91, Rube Waddell in 1903–04, Joe Wood in 1912, Walter Johnson in 1913–14, Lefty Grove in 1930–31, Sandy Koufax in 1963–66, or Bob Gibson in 1968 saw greater speed from those pitchers than if they’d witnessed them at other periods in their careers.

Before getting deep into his research for High Heat, Wendel understood that his conclusions would be equivocal, and that few readers—no matter who he chose as the fastest ever—would wholeheartedly embrace his choices. So rather than embarking on a systematic and comprehensive effort to identify a ranked list of the game’s hardest throwers, Wendel opted for a personal and clearly idiosyncratic journey in search of opinions, anecdotes, press accounts, recollections, and other sources of lore about hard-throwing hurlers.

High Heat takes its readers on a serpentine journey to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Jim Creighton’s grave site in Green-Wood Cemetery, New York, to the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina, to Billy Wagner’s home in the hills of Virginia, and to the American Sports Medicine Academy in Birmingham, Alabama.

Along the way, beyond comparisons of hard throwers, Wendel and friend Phil Pote treat readers to observations on topics such as the surprising number of fastballers spawned by small towns, the height of the pitching mound and its impact on pitching speed, the movie Bull Durham, the peculiarities of speed guns (the JUGS is the ‘fast’ gun, the RAGUN the ‘slow’ gun), the cadence of Joan Didion’s prose, and even Wendel’s own ability—lack of, actually—to throw heat.

Not surprisingly, Wendel and his readers discover the faulty recollections, myths, hyperbole, miscalculations, and outright lies that constitute much of baseball’s collective memory. High Heat shows that the line between myth and reality in baseball, although very fuzzy, is part of its charm. The result is an entertaining, informative, and provocative read.

Whether it’s persuasive is a different matter. Wendel reminds his readers that each generation of baseball people have their favorites for the hardest-throwing pitcher, but makes no comprehensive effort to judge the usual suspects. There is no mention of Asa Brainard, Jim Whitney, Guy Hecker, Larry Corcoran, Jouett Meekin, Kid Nichols, Dazzy Vance, Robin Roberts, or Kyle Farnsworth, and only passing mention of the likes of George Zettlein, Tommy Bond, Charlie Sweeney, Rube Waddell, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Sam McDowell, or Jim Maloney.

He admits to giving more space to Amos Rusie, Walter Johnson, Joe Wood, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and Sandy Koufax not only because of speed but also because their fastballs attracted the attention of eloquent and persuasive wordsmiths. Joel Zumaya, Stephen Strasburg, Tim Lincecum, Joba Chamberlain, and Aroldis Chapman—the most recent candidates for the honor of throwing harder than anyone else—are discussed, but coverage of them is surprisingly skimpy. David Price and Billy Wagner fare somewhat better.

Based on the assessment of his “experts,” Wendel selects twelve of the game’s hardest throwers in order: Nolan Ryan, Steve Dalkowski, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Billy Wagner, Satchel Paige, Joel Zumaya, Amos Rusie, Goose Gossage, Bob Gibson, and J.R. Richard. For all his earlier equivocating, Wendel insists that he is “comfortable” with his selection of Ryan as the fastest pitcher in the history of organized baseball.

In addition to realizing that satisfaction comes from the journey as much as from his ultimate choices, Wendel argues implicitly that it is necessary to fully value the factors that go into succeeding on the big league level even for young men with the God-given ability to throw hard. The list of young men with a capacity to buzz the ball by batters who failed to succeed in the higher echelons of baseball is long and sad.

It’s more than the speed with which an endless parade of young pitchers has thrown the ball that draws Wendel to the subject. He is drawn to the men themselves, their promise, their emotional and psychological battles to deal with their talent and with their separation from mere mortals, and the mental and physical battles in harnessing their amazing athletic gift. He demonstrates how having the ability to throw in the 100 mph range can be both a blessing and a curse, and his skill as an observer and a writer permits readers to vicariously experience that actuality.

For Wendel, no one exemplifies the tribulations confronting hard throwers better than Steve Dalkowski, a left-handed phenom from New Britain, Connecticut who never made it to the majors. Dalkowski’s story is the thread that holds Wendel’s disparate tale together, supplies its momentum, and provides much of its emotional impact. The prototype for “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham, the tragic Dalkowski, whose career succumbed to wildness on and off the mound, remains for Wendel the epitome of both the promise and reality of baseball.

Wendel, who teaches writing courses at Johns Hopkins University, offers his students an exemplary lesson in how to exercise the writer’s craft. He holds his readers’ attention through graceful and clear prose, informative chapters, thoughtful and entertaining observations, and intelligent judgments, carefully qualified when warranted.

Although his omissions and commissions will lead to arguments, most readers will probably put the book down and want to buy Wendel a drink and continue the debate. Early in his book Wendel says that his quest “promises to be a lot of fun” (p. xii). He delivers on that promise, which is high praise for any author.