Specialty Releases - If a curve ball, a knuckleball or a slider are show horses, the fastball is a thoroughbred. It's the epitome of beautiful simplicity, and of simple beauty, as it races 60 feet and six inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate—at its best, too fast for the brain to fully comprehend, where a batter's instinct and muscle memory alone must suffice.
That's not baseball lore between aficionados on a sultry summer's day. That's science. There's a 50-millisecond difference, explains Carnegie Mellon University cognition scientist Dr. Timothy Verstynen, between a 92-miles-per-hour fastball and a 100-miles-per-hour fastball, "an eternity in this kind of [brain] process." Each takes less than half a second to reach the plate, but at the slower speed your brain gets 25 times the amount of information needed to make a decision of when and where to swing the bat. "It's getting close to that range of where it's physiologically impossible," says Verstynen, "to actually plan a voluntary action…"
And with Fastball, produced in association with Major League Baseball, your brain may well get 25 times the amount of information as in many other documentaries. Narrated by Field of Dreams and Bull Durham star Kevin Costner and divided into more than a dozen fascinating chapters, it chases down one of baseball's primal questions: Who is the faster thrower, alive or dead? The filmmakers examine that question with the help of both Hall of Famers and modern-day stars, from Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench to Brandon Phillips and Justin Verlander, plus the legendarily tragic Steve Dalkowski, a smattering of scientists, and NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski, author of The Soul of Baseball. The result is a lively solemnity—don't you love how baseball can give you things like that?—that doesn't disappoint and even gives an answer using that thing baseball lovers love best: numbers.
The quest for the number attached to the fastest fastball began with the celebrated 1907-27 Washington Senators hurler Walter Johnson—nicknamed “The Big Train,” it is said, because Ty Cobb compared the sound of his fastball to that of a train whizzing by. Posnanski believes Johnson, the dominant pitcher of his era, changed the game by making the fastball larger than life. And fittingly, he was the first to have his fastball's speed measured scientifically, with Remington Arms, experienced in calculating munitions speed, clocking Johnson at 122 feet per second, or 83.2 mph. That doesn't sound massively impressive until physicist Dr. Gregg Franklin explains that the speed was measured at a spot that would be behind home plate, and not 50 feet in front of home, where such measurements are taken today. Since a ball slows down as it travels, Franklin computes Johnson's fastball as 93.8 mph by today's standard.
We see newsreel clips of 1930s-to-1950s legend Bob Feller, “The Heater from Van Meter,” throwing a pitch faster than a cop racing full-speed on a motorcycle—what measurements today would calculate as a blazingly hot, almost impossible to comprehend 107.6 mph, probably the second-fastest throw in the history of the human race except for... well, no spoilers.
Segments also are devoted to Aroldis Chapman, Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage, Craig Kimbrel, Nolan Ryan, the late Sandy Koufax and, most heartbreakingly, Steve Dalkowski, in the chapter "The Fastest That Never Was." A minor-league legend who threw so hard he once split a catcher's shin guard, he partly inspired both Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh and writer George Plimpton's Sidd Finch.
"He was a legend and you'd hear all these stories about him," Ryan recalls. Dalkowski unfortunately had as little vertical control over the ball as he had abundance of heat, but he persevered—and in 1962 remarkably struck out 104 batters while walking only 11. When word came out he was being called to the majors, the baseball-card company Topps included him on a 1962 rookie all-stars card. But on March 23, 1963, in a pre-season exhibition game for the Baltimore Orioles, with two out in the third inning, Dalkowski came off the mound to field a bunt and felt a pop in his elbow. That was it. He was sent back to the minors to recuperate, but the injury—and longstanding alcoholism the documentary whitewashes—would end his career. Interviewed here, in his mid-70s, Dalkowski can barely say a word, can perhaps barely comprehend. But it is poignant, not exploitative, and for everything he lost, he seems gratified to be remembered.
Jesse Owens' track records are now the stuff of high-school runners. The human body's capacity for athleticism improves over generations. Yet the record for the fastest fastball has remained for decades, and it's tempting to imagine it might never be topped. To which any diehard can only reply, "Wait'll next year.”
Click here for cast and crew information.