This is pretty spooky. In light of the reports of Aroldis Chapman hitting 102 mph on the speed gun yesterday, and Stephen Strasburg hitting 98 in his spring debut today after the folklore of 103 and even 104 gun readings while at San Diego State, I thought a fun blog post would be to reminisce about the hardest throwers in baseball history.
I envisioned it being like last year’s post on Willie Davis, whom I proclaimed as the fastest player I ever saw. That sparked a lot of spirited debate, just as I hope this one does. No sooner do I start writing, when this comes across the wire: Willie Davis dead at the age of 69. What a shock, and what a sad piece of news. Rest in peace, Three Dog. You gave me a lot of joy in my youth, and I still think you’re the fastest player that ever lived.
Now, back to the hardest throwers. Here are the obvious choices that come to mind:
*Sandy Koufax (big surprise that he was the first name that popped into my mind, though it was Sandy’s big overhand curve that really separated him).
*Sudden Sam McDowell
Old-timers point to Walter Johnson and Smokey Joe Wood as legendarily hard throwers. In recent years, players who have touched 100 mph include Joel Zumaya, Robb Nen, Ubaldo Jimenez, Armando Benitez, Kyle Farnsworth, Billy Wagner, Brad Lesley, Billy Koch, Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, Jose Mesa, Bartolo Colon, Roberto Hernandez, Troy Percival, John Rocker and Daniel Cabrera. Heck, Mark Lowe hit 100 regularly back in the day. Some of the names on list are testament to the fact that a 100 mph fastball is not predictive of stardom. Two players that measured at 103 mph on a gun were Mark Wohlers and Matt Anderson, neither of whom set the world on fire.
But I tend to come back to one person who really blew me away (and blew away a lot of hitters, too). That’s James Rodney Richard, the 6-foot-8 right-hander of the Houston Astros in the 1970s. Richard struck out 15 Giants in his major-league debut in 1971, and after battling control issues, went on to strike out more than 300 in both 1978 and 1979. In 1980, Richard started out 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA. At age 30, he seemed to be on his way to a Hall of Fame run, until suffering a stroke in July that ended his career (despite some comeback attempts). It’s one of the saddest stories in baseball history, but the J.R. Richard I remember threw unbelievable heat. I’ll put him atop my list. And I won’t even get into his 92 mph slider.
Two other players that deserve mention are Ryne Duren and Steve Dalkowski, both of whom threw mythically hard but had little idea where it was going. If you want to get truly fictional, then there’s Sidd Finch, Steve Nebraska and Roy Hobbs (pre-injury). And don’t forget Satchel Paige, who was a renowned fireballer, though it’s hard to separate myth from reality when it comes to old Satch. Herb Score was on the fast-track until he was struck in the face by Gil McDougald in 1957.
I’m going to stick with J.R. Richard as the hardest thrower I’ve ever seen, with Randy Johnson ranking as the most intimidating. I’d put Nolan Ryan as a close runnerup in both categories. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll be talking about Strasburg and/or Chapman in this conversation.
Who am I leaving out? And who were the hard throwers that made the biggest impression on you?
(Photo by Associated Press)