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

Book Reviews | Jul 11th, 2011

Author: Tim Wendel
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: Sports
Pages: 268
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Since the inception of baseball, fans have been debating which player is best. Since basic statistics such as batting average and runs have been recorded since the 19th century, apples-to-apples comparisons can somewhat be made for hitters, if still argued endlessly given the numerous changes (legal and illegal) to the game over the years.

“Who is fastest?” though is a much more elusive and subjective question. The radar speed gun wasn’t used in baseball until the mid-70s, and even then, only a few clubs were using it. Plus radar gun readings vary by manufacturer and, some claim, aren’t entirely accurate.

Measuring heat, then, means relying on eyewitness and newspaper accounts, biographies, scouting reports, anecdotes, and the myths and legends handed down by generations of fans. (And in the case of Bob Feller, a pitching battle against a motorcycle.)

Sportswriter Tim Wendel tackles this quandary in a highly enjoyable, well-researched book. His style reminds me of many New Yorker articles I’ve read – interesting biosketches of two or three subjects at once, in a way that interweaves their stories while avoiding a confusing jumble. His method of bouncing between profiles within a chapter helps move the narrative forward while bridging the eras and lives of these players.

Wendel’s top dozen contenders (plus a bunch more) have their backstories thoughtfully fleshed out with context and history. Besides his crisp and informative writing style, the selection itself is impressive: Wendel spans all eras (going back as far as Amos Rusie and, a generation later, Walter “The Big Train” Johnson) as well as the minor leagues (Steve Dalkowski) and Negro League (Satchel Paige, for most of his career).

Wendel also keeps his eye on the ball, so to speak. He’s not looking for the winningmost pitcher, or the strikeout king, or the best ERA, although any of these can go hand-in-hand. His focus is on heat, pure and simple. His list, then, includes Sandy Koufax, a personal favorite who I admit only had a few stellar (okay, interstellar) years, and Dalkowski, whose wildness both on and off the mound inspired the character of Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham.

The book also includes insightful sections on the technical and physical aspects of hurling a 100+ ball, injuries and their recoveries, and some discussion on the dark side of baseball (headhunting beanballs). This all flows around the overarching personal story of the author’s “improbable” search. The latter is the only weak part of the book – while Wendel did exhaustive secondary research, his interviews (or his reporting of his interviews, I should say) tend to have long setups with little reward. Occasionally, there will be a few pages dedicated to how the author scored an interview with a player, manager, or scout, the payoff being some useless quote like, “Yeah, I agree, so-and-so threw fast.” A bit fluffy.

That aside (as well as the fact that nothing here is particularly “secret” or “improbable,” sexy title be damned), I thoroughly enjoyed this book. And the best part – Wendel doesn’t just offer up a slate of candidates and then leave the decision to the reader. He doesn’t end it with feel-good “they are all the best” rhetoric. True to his word and like any true, opinionated fan of the game, he persuasively pitches his top pick. By the end, you may agree with him. Or not. But what’s baseball without debate?

Bottom Line: My pick? Gary Frickin’ Carter!
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