Baseball Books Reviewed: High Heat

High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time by Tim Wendell (Da Capo, 288 pg., $25). HB, 2010.

Any book that sets out to name the top ten fastball pitchers of all time is sure to provoke controversy, and Tim Wendel accomplishes just that in his somewhat quirky, somewhat biased, freewheeling, and always entertaining book, High Heat. Stimulated by an off-season conversation with Frank Howard, who both loved to hit the high heat but also knew it as the pitcher’s ultimate weapon, Wendell, a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly, interviews many of the living fastballers who qualify as candidates for the top ten, as well as biomechanical engineers, doctors, scouts, coaches, and players.

One of the things Wendell learns on his quest is that a pitcher’s velocity comes from six key elements in his delivery: the windup, the pivot, the stride, the arm acceleration, the release, and the follow through. These local stops on the way to the express form the chapters of the book, along with a final chapter that names the winners. Oddly, though perhaps beneficially, no one of these chapters focuses on the particular portion of the windup for which it’s named. Instead, Wendel takes us along on his journeys, sometimes chronological, sometimes just in the order he encounters people. Starting with a wonderful recounting of efforts to measure Bob Feller’s velocity and a touching account of how a film of Feller’s fastball racing a speeding bullet stopped all other activity in the Indians offices one winter’s day, Wendel works backward to nineteenth-century figures like James Creighton, who invented the submarine delivery around 1860. Creighton introduced “speed and sometimes intimidation” to the game, and the control problems subsequent hurlers had in imitating his delivery led to the introduction of the base on balls in 1863. That Wendel tells us all this not in some dry recitation, but as part of a sweet, comical retelling of his search for Creighton’s gravesite in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery is a testament to his skill as an entertaining as well as informative writer.

From Creighton and other nineteenth-century fireballers like Pud Galvin and Amos Rusie, it’s a short hop to deadball era stars like Christy Mathewson (too reliant on the screwball to be a contender in the fastball contest) and Walter Johnson. Wendel very cleverly uses Johnson’s fear of killing a batter with his fastball—a fear Ty Cobb used brilliantly to get ahead on counts by crowding the plate, then killing the 2-0 cripple—to launch into an extensive discussion of the darkside of the fastball. Fear and intimidation play a huge role, and Wendel’s thorough account of the Carl Mays pitch that killed Ray Chapman (where he leans heavily on Mike Sowell’s classic The Pitch That Killed as well as an interview with its author) is surpassed only by his retelling of how a Jack Hamilton pitch dramatically altered Tony Conigliaro’s life and baseball career (and probably cost the Red Sox a chance at a post-war World Series championship thirty years before they finally got it in 2004). “He was baseball’s JFK,” Wendel quotes Sports Museum of New England director Dick Johnson as saying of Tony C. It’s a brilliant comparison.

Control is directly related to fear, and one of the real strengths of the book is Wendel’s account of how so many young pitchers gifted with overpowering fastballs struggle to harness the gift. See Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson for success stories, David Price for a work in progress, and the sad case of Steve Dalkowski for perhaps the greatest “I mighta been a contender” episode in baseball history. Wendel loves Dalkowski, and though I didn’t count words, I believe he gives him more of them than any other pitcher in the book. It’s easy to understand why even though Dalkowski appeared in as many big league games as I did—zero. The man is a legend, the source for Nuke Laloosh in “Bull Durham,” though the movie had a happier ending. Dalkowski once threw a ball through a wooden fence. One year he pitched 170 innings, struck out 262, and walked 262. Happily, nobody was counting pitches. But he never harnessed his speed, and the one time he came close and was actually slated to come north with the Orioles out of spring training, he blew out his arm before he got there.

Wendel tells all these stories well, but this is still a book whose self-proclaimed goal is to name the top ten fastballers in baseball history. We meet pitchers from every era—in addition to those already named they include Smoky Joe Wood, Lefty Grove, Satchel Paige (whose real heat was thrown in the Negro Leagues before he hit the bigs past age 40), Ryne Duren, Luis Tiant (more for the delivery than the heat), JR Richard, Roger Clemens, Billy Wagner, Tim Lincecum, and plenty of others in passing. There are some odd omissions—Dizzy Dean (except for a quote about somebody else), Allie Reynolds, Bob Turley, Dick Radatz, Sudden Sam McDowell—and no doubt most would be able to offer favorites of their own who didn’t merit consideration. No matter—Wendel travels his own road, and he excels at bringing us along with him. That it might not be the exact road anyone else would take just offers more fuel to heat the argument.

I have only one quibble with Wendel. He never lays out exactly what the criteria are for making his list. He says it’s a “consensus” of the experts he consulted, but he never quite says what the measure is. Wendel does say emphatically that it isn’t best readings on the radar gun, and all praise to him for that; it’s a human game, and the movement on the ball and the control over it mean something, too. So does longevity, or so I thought until I discovered Joel Zumaya had made the top ten. One other top-tenner is active, but seven of the ten are still alive and that points to another problem in selecting all-time bests. There’s no film of the earliest players, limited film from pre-World War II days, and fewer and fewer people around to recall those eras. Inevitably a bias creeps in that leans toward the more recent.

But the absence of firm selection rules is in the end merely a quibble; the list is really just the excuse for an interesting journey. Any list of best anything in baseball history is arbitrary to some degree and will always reflect bias toward people the selector has seen, met, interviewed. I’m fine with that. In the end it isn’t where you’re going that matters; it’s how you get there.

Oh, were you wondering who else made the list? Sorry—you’ll have to see the book yourself for the other nine!

Reviewed by: Alex Holzman (Feb. 22, 2010)