Tim Wendel takes the reader on a journey through baseball lore in High Heat: The Secret History of the Fast Ball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time. His title says it all, the improbable search. For no matter how good an argument he makes, or how much data he provides, Wendel is unlikely to get a consensus among baseball fans on this topic. He gets credit for bravery in picking his all time top twelve. Because from now on, every ball game he attends, he will hear some facsimile of the following statement. “You picked who? Are you crazy?”
Picking the fastest pitcher of all time sounds like an undertaking loaded in relativity. Baseball fans will always have their personal favorite. This favorite will vary depending on their favorite team and their age. A Boston Red Sox fan would never agree with a Yankee pitcher being on the list, no matter how good a fastball the guy threw. If you asked the question of Tampa Bay fans these days, they would argue between Matt Garza and David Price.
By the way, Wendel really likes Price. He thinks Price has an excellent chance to be the next greatest fastball pitcher, and he could be correct. This season Price is 5-1 with a 2.03 ERA. In 48.2 innings pitched, he has 38 strikeouts. Wendel provides some interesting tidbits about Price and the other str pitchers in the book.
High Heat contains a few statistics, but not so many that the book gets bogged down. While baseball is a sport of statistics, nothing can be worse for the reader than three hundred pages of batting averages. Luckily, Wendel didn’t do that with this book. Instead, he pointed out the unreliability of the radar gun, and the antics teams used before the radar gun to clock a pitcher’s speed.
For instance, Bob Feller attempted to measure the speed of his pitch by testing it against a speeding police motorcycle. As the cycle passed Feller at 86 miles per hour, Feller threw the ball. It passed the policeman and reached the target first. After the calculations, it was determined Feller’s pitch hit a maximum speed of over 104 miles per hour. More hype than substance, but still an interesting attempt at measuring the ball’s speed.
Throwing the ball fast encompasses so much more than just muscle and power. It involves torque, form, and mechanics. Wendel takes the reader to the Biomechanics Motion Lab in Birmingham, Alabama to dissect the pitching motion using digital technology. They lead the world in helping athletes diagnose their form problems, and assist athletes in recovering from injuries. Wendel spent a day being critiqued at the lab. His form did not receive high marks from the specialists. Maybe his picks will fare better.
Tim Wendel selected Nolan Ryan as his number one fastball pitcher of all time. A few may argue, but Nolan certainly has the numbers, the longevity and the contribution to the sport. He pitched 27 years, with an ERA of 3.19, and 5,714 strikeouts. He made the Hall of Fame in 1999. He had seven no hitters, and struck out a record 383 batters in 1973. He deserves the honor.
Here are the remaining 11: Steve Dalkowski, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Billy Wagner, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Joel Zumaya, Amos Rusie, Richard “Goose” Gossage, Bob Gibson, and J.R. Richard. The only questionable pick on the list is Steve Dalkowski. He could throw fast, but never really materialized. He never made the majors, so it is difficult to compare him with the others.
However, Wendel spends a considerable amount of time highlighting Steve Dalkowski. Few today would know of Dalkowski, if it weren’t for the movie Bull Durham. Nuke LaLoosh, the wild pitcher of the movie, is based on Dalkowski. Steve was known for his antics both on and off the field.
Wendel tells the following story. Steve Dalkowski threw so hard in high school the catcher’s hand would become swollen and bruised after a short period of time. Some baseball veterans advised the catcher to cut a thin piece of beef and put it inside his mitt as extra protection. After a few innings the meat would begin to ooze blood. Imagine the effect on opposing batters, when they noticed the blood dripping out of the mitt. Talk about intimidation!
Satchel Paige only played at the major league level about five seasons, and that was at the end of his career at the age of 42. Statistically comparing him to other major league pitchers would be difficult. Yet, he played in the Negro Leagues almost 20 years, and no one would doubt his right to be counted among the top 12 greatest pitchers of all time.
Walter Johnson and Amos Rusie pitched at the turn of the last century, and few remember their names. Back in the game’s infancy, Amos Rusie was considered the best fastball pitcher. He pitched for wins in 20 or more games eight seasons in a row. Walter Johnson won 417 games pitching for a losing Washington team.
For more about these amazing 12 fastball hurlers, read High Heat. It is written in seven sections representing a particular aspect of the pitching motion: Windup; Pivot; Stride; Arm Acceleration, Release; Follow Through, and The Call. Each section contains a little bit about a couple of pitchers. Unfortunately this organization interrupts the reader’s rhythm, making the book somewhat difficult to read.
However, Wendel includes a large amount of baseball knowledge, stories, and lore that any baseball fan would savor. In researching the book, he conducted a number of interviews that overcome the organizational difficulties, and make the book worth reading. He interviewed the players, teammates, coaches, fans, and family members. He even talked to the forgotten baseball scouts.
Wendel states, it was not about finding the fastest, but enjoying the trip of inquiry. He is definitely a baseball fan, and knowledgeable about the sport. He asks the correct questions, and provides a view of baseball that few fans get to see from the stands.