This book review is written by guest author CLuke who despite being a White Sox AND a Northwestern Wildcat fan, is a pretty cool guy.
In his new book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time (2010) author Tim Wendel has gone on a quest for speed. His speed obsession is very specific and as a matter of fact coincides with one of my favorite obsessions- baseball. Tim has traveled on an enjoyable literary journey to find one or in this case the fastest pitcher of all time.
The true baseball fan will recognize the paths that Mr. Wendel will take you down must include such names as Walter Johnson, Bob Feller and of course the Express- Nolan Ryan. What many fans may not expect are hearing names such as Rusie, Dalkowski and yes even Wagner and Zumaya contained in this elite group.
Newer pitchers such as Steven Strasburg and David Price are mentioned as well as sometimes overlooked pitchers like J.R. Richard, Sam McDowell and Pud Galvin (an often forgotten Hall of Famer).
Wendel interviews great fastball pitchers, batters who’ve faced them and other baseball intelligentsia in what is a pleasant celebration and quest for one of the most dangerous elements in the sport of baseball- a horsehide flung at speeds up to and over 100 mph!
One of the more fascinating aspects to Wendel’s book is his comparison of how the speed of a fastball has been measured down through the years.
In the closing days of the 1912 season Baseball magazine convinced the two fastest pitchers at the time Washington’s Walter Johnson and Brooklyn’s Nap Rucker to travel to Bridgeport Connecticut and there at the Remington Arms Company bullet-testing range measure the speed of a fastball for the first time. A tunnel that was intended to be used for testing the speed of bullets was used in an attempt to measure the fastballs of each of the two hurlers. After considerable effort and a consequent loss of speed (per the book quoting Baseball Magazine) Johnson clocked in at 86.6 mph and Rucker only 76 mph. The test probably had some significant flaws however.
Later Bob Feller had to fling a baseball past a speeding motorcycle in attempt to measure the speed of his pitch. Even today with the apparent sophistication of measuring devices Wendel notes that there are discrepancies between radar guns in different stadiums.
All in all an enjoyable book that took me to a few places that I’ve never been before. I particularly enjoyed hearing once again the story of Steve Dalkowski a Baltimore farmhand in the 1960’s who never made it to the big time but may have had the fastest fastball of all. Wendel depicts a fascinating story about Dalkowski and HOF manager Earl Weaver. “In 1962 with Weaver instructing him to throw only his fastball and his slider Dalkowski went on to have his best year ever. In the final 57 innings pitching for Weaver at Elmira, the left hander gave up only one earned run and struck out 110 batters and walked only 21”. He would go to spring training the next year with the Orioles but I’ll leave it for the author to tell the rest of this tale.
I would recommend High Heat as a pleasantly readable and enjoyable romp through the history of the fastball and many of the men who threw it. With this meaty of a topic however, I was a little bit disappointed that the book was only a little over 200 pages and it did seem to be lacking on serious stats for all of the sabermeticians out there.
Still in all this, is a worthwhile read and a nice addition to the library of the true baseball fan.
I’m giving it 3 and a half bats.
You can pick up High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time at any fine book store near you or order it from Amazon. You can also check out the book’s blog site.
As an aside, I was intrigued to learn that Mr. Wendel has written a book on the long forgotten Buffalo Braves of the NBA. This one may also be worth checking out if I can find a copy.