“Fastball,” a fascinating and downright lovable documentary feature by Jonathan Hock, starts with an eternal question. No, not whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight—this week’s failed blockbuster should put that one to rest—but who in the history of major league baseball has thrown the fastest fastball. To provide an answer (and yes, a definitive answer is provided) the film starts with a group of charmingly garrulous hall-of-famers, including Johnny Bench, Al Kaline, Tony Gwynn and Joe Morgan; adds individual interviews with fellow luminaries like Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter, and with such legendary pitchers as Goose Gossage (“I loved being a power pitcher—if I could change one thing in my whole career I wouldn’t change a single thing”) and the singular, inexplicable, near-indestructible Nolan Ryan.
‘Batman v Superman’
‘Suicide Squad fashion’
In what has become a data-driven game, no data about pitching speeds were available until 1912, when investigators using a primitive but ingenious machine clocked Walter “Big Train” Johnson at 122 feet per second (or 83.2 miles per hour, a unit of speed that wasn’t used at the time) and declared him the fastest pitcher ever. Bob Feller threw a ball faster than a cop on a motorcycle in 1939; his speed was judged, approximately, to be over 100 mph; a later test with more accurate equipment put it at 98.6 mph. With the advent of radar guns in the 1970s, established speeds climbed steadily toward 100 mph and slightly beyond. Given that a 100 mph pitch reaches the plate in 396 milliseconds, faster than the blink of an eye, it’s remarkable that a batter can hit one, but “Fastball” abounds with vivid descriptions of what it’s like to try. (According to Ty Cobb, Johnson’s fastball hissed as it came by like a big train.)
As if all of that isn’t interesting enough to baseball fans, “Fastball” enlists the services of a physicist to illuminate what happens in the course of a pitch, and exactly how fast it happened in the past. This leads to upward adjustments of earlier stats that represented the speed of the ball at or near home plate, rather than at what has become the standard measurement of 50 feet from the plate. Thus Bob Feller’s 98.6 mph becomes 107.6 mph. And the fastest speed ever? In 1974 an infrared device that was a precursor to the radar gun measured one of Mr. Ryan’s pitches at a record-breaking 100.8 mph. Adjusted thusly, that becomes 108.5 mph, a speed as unthinkable as it is unhittable.
“Fastball” is narrated by Kevin Costner, and it’s hard to separate his voice here from what he said and how he sounded as the catcher Crash Davis in “Bull Durham,” the best baseball movie ever. Why try, though?