Review: High Heat by Tim Wendel

High Heat: The Secret History of The Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time, Tim Wendel, Da Capo Press, a member of Perseus Books, 2010, 268 pages, ISBN-10 0306818485, $25.00

Even though there are nine players on the field, the epic battle in baseball is always between batter and pitcher. And just as there are a select few athletes who can drive the ball into the stands forty, fifty, or even sixty times a year, there are even fewer who can consistently bring the high heat, ie, throw fastballs with speeds in the upper nineties and lower hundreds.

Both groups have their reasons to be considered more gifted than the other, but it would seem that pitchers—who perform an unnatural motion in overhead throwing—have more to risk in achieving their greatness. And while some batters can change their equipment—the weight and size of the bat—for a pitcher, the baseball has remained relatively constant throughout the century.

But even if you’re still a slugger’s fan, or even a not a baseball fan, Tim Wendel’s High Heat: The Secret History of The Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time is a fascinating read. In his ninth book, Wendel, a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly, searches for the greatest fastball thrower, traveling from Brooklyn to Cooperstown, Durham, Los Angeles, and cities in-between to talk to the coaches, teammates, doctors, scouts, and sometimes even the former pitchers themselves to understand how the human body can propel an object one hundred miles an hour; how a slight, short man can sometimes throw harder than tall, powerful one; and why one man’s career can last 15 years while the another tears a ligament during the first season.

But it’s not just mechanics and statistics into which Wendel peppers High Heat; there’s real sociological interest in the players themselves, how they evolved from men who had to work second jobs during the offseason to pay the bills, who policed each other and slept in segregated hotels to the pampered, metered machines they are today. Particularly interesting is the life of Steve Dalkowski, a pitcher in the farm system of the Baltimore Orioles. Possibly the hardest-thrower of all time (and the inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham”), Dalkowski was a functionally illiterate alcoholic who went from speeding along the road to success to literally sleeping under its bridge. There’s also documentation of how closely sports once paralleled with the popular sideshows and vaudeville; for instance, fireballer Bob Feller was once asked to throw a ball faster than a speeding Harley Davidson in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1940, a request that would be resoundingly rejected by a player’s agent today for fear of injury.

There’s also a lot of Wendel himself; like Mary Roach in Stiff and Spook, Wendel is from the school of nonfiction that explores the writer’s journey through his or her material. So we get to read about Wendel’s trip to Cooperstown to read old press clippings, his time at Dr Andrews’ American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, getting his fastball clocked and his pitching motion dissected, and even his phone conversations with other baseball men. We also are witness to his beautiful, lyrical writing. Of course, it’s easy to mythologize baseball, but Wendel is able to dig into deep disappointments in each pitcher’s career and highlight why someone–and not others–are able to overcome adversity to become great (Nolan Ryan versus Steve Dalkowski). He treats the reader as an equal and makes the quirkiest corners of theory and eye-glazing stats interesting and accessible. But at the same time, don’t confuse Wendel for a beat writer—who else would reference essayist Joan Didion and not a pitching coach when discussing the art of pitching?

So who was the fastest thrower ever? Wendel runs through the greats: Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Sam McDowell, Goose Goosage, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and many of the modern flamethrowers such as David Price, Tim Lincecum, and even rookie Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, who at the time of this writing was already undergoing potentially career-ending Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, there’s no accurate way to compare pitchers across decades, across expanding and contracting leagues (which often concentrated or diluted talent), and even conditioning, for instance, would Steve Dalkowski made it to the big leagues if he had the same modern player-development opportunities (or if he stayed off the sauce)?

Wendel does choose a number one fastballer, although his reasoning is largely nonscientific and limited to a few paragraphs at the end. Other than this and a few other “blown calls,” ie, the book’s organization into the parts of the windup, which seems like a cool idea until you realize that there’s really not much organization around these categories, and the bare mention of some higher-profile pitchers such as Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens (who gets one or two, albeit deservedly disdainful, paragraphs), High Heat is a quick and entertaining read. There are plenty of black and white photos and even “baseball cards” at the end of baseball’s heat men. If you’re a baseball fan, this book a must-have for your library or by for thumbing through on the coach during this year’s playoffs.—Jen Michalski

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