Paige? Koufax? The Goose? Who's Ball Was Faster?

In his new book, High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time, author Tim Wendel discusses the mystique behind the fastball and counts down the 10 legendary pitchers with the most heat. Host Scott Simon speaks with Wendel, a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Of course, Major League Baseball season opens tomorrow. Tim Wendel is in our studios. Hes the founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly, and has a new book out in which he tries to explain and explore the heater, the (unintelligible) bullet, the cheddar pellet, the fastball.

The book is called "High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time."

Tim, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TIM WENDEL (USA Today Baseball Weekly): Great to be with you, Scott. You got quite a few of those good nicknames in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Thanks very much. Yeah. How do you throw a great fastball?

Mr. WENDEL: You throw a great fastball first, by being blessed with the gift of being able to throw a great fastball. And I think often we tend to see these kids coming up, age 11, 15, 16, oh they got it made.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WENDEL: But, no, the rest of it is being able to control the fastball and being able to use it to your own devices. And at least half the folks we looked at in "High Heat" were cursed by it. I think if somebody came along and said would you like to do without this, they would go yes please. And even people like Nolan Ryan etcetera, you know, had to make something out of it.

SIMON: How fast can a human arm - and it's not just the arm...

Mr. WENDEL: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...throw a fastball?

Mr. WENDEL: It looks like we can top end out at roughly about 107 to 109 miles per hour. And unlike other sports Scott, it seems like that's relatively the barrier.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. WENDEL: It's almost like the sound barrier a little bit.

SIMON: Now see that's remarkable because we tell ourselves with better training, diet, nutrition, kinesiology, acupuncture, chiropractic, and I'm not even going to mention steroids.

Mr. WENDEL: Yeah, I was going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah. Well, I've just mentioned it, that obviously this has to make people perform better. But there does seem to be a limit on the fastball.

Mr. WENDEL: There's a limit on the fastball it appears. And also, unlike other sports, say if I'm a basketball player, well sure, makes a lot more sense to be tall. If I'm a football player, it makes sense to be sense to be muscular or bulky or whatever it would be. You line up all the great fastballers -fireballers throughout history and there's no correlation really between size and height and weight.

SIMON: God bless you Tim, you dont shy away from coming across with the goods...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...a list of the top 10 fastballers of all time. We're not going to disclose the whole list, but I want to ask you about some people on the list.

Mr. WENDEL: Sure.

SIMON: If I might. Man you mentioned, number five, Sandy Koufax.

Mr. WENDEL: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Began with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Obviously, they went to LA and for 11 years from the mid-50s to the mid-60s he was almost unhittable.

Mr. WENDEL: Yes.

Mr. VINCE SCULLY (Sports announcer): Koufax into his windup and the one-two pitch: fastball, fouled back out of play. Two and two the count to Chris Krug. Sandy reading signs, into his windup, two-two pitch: fastball, got him swinging.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SIMON: But, as you have heard, this was a guy who had some problems taming his fire at one point.

Mr. WENDEL: And I think this is something that all of us can gain something from this legacy - the brotherhood of fireballers. We tend to put them up on pedestals but they were all ones who had to come to grips with this gift. You know, are they going to turn it into a blessing or a curse? Koufax really had bookend careers. He had the jurymen career, literally turned it around in less than two weeks in spring training one time and suddenly became the Hall of Fame guy that he became. And I always find Koufax's story and somewhat some of the others heartening in a way.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WENDEL: Okay, they were blessed with this amazing talent but they still struggled and had to find their way through too.

SIMON: He just as easily could've been someone like Kerry Wood or Mark Prior. Somebody...

Mr. WENDEL: Sure. Or he could've been certainly say, Steve Dalkowski.

SIMON: Steve Dalkowski played mid-50s to mid-60s: Kingsport, Knoxville, Aberdeen, Elmira, Stockton, number two on your list and he never got to the Major Leagues.

Mr. WENDEL: Never. The day Scott, he was fitted for a uniform he throw out his arm that afternoon in a spring training game and had one of the more star-crossed not just careers...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. WENDEL: ...but really lives. Ended up being alcoholic migrant worker out in California, ended up being homeless, then was brought back to his home town, New Britain, Connecticut, and he's really regained the sense of himself. He's regained I think, you know, significant portions of his just confidence and such. He's one of those guys where it's great, you can go home again. You can go to New Britain, Connecticut; he's as big a star in his own way as he was when he was striking out 17-18 in high school.

SIMON: You got a name on the list at number seven who I would call - I would not hesitate to call the greatest pitcher of all time. I just didnt quite know until reading your book that he threw one of the fastest pitches of all time, Satchel Paige.

Mr. WENDEL: Yeah. Well Satchel, you know, because of the color barrier at that point in sports and such, I mean we never saw at least mainstream America - the media - never saw Satchel Paige at his best.

SIMON: He was 42 when came up with the Cleveland Indians, a rookie.

Mr. WENDEL: Right.

SIMON: At least 42, I suppose we should always say when we talk about Satchel Paige.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And so his days as a fireballer might have been - he was winning on a lot of curves and guile.

Mr. WENDEL: Yeah, but he still had, you know, a substantial curve - fireball. But certainly not as once was. He's also one of those interesting guys - all of them - they hit the crossroads either mentally or injury-wise or whatever, and he went through a stretch where he was actually playing first base in the Negro Leagues because his arm had gone south and suddenly, miraculously, he came back and then made the Majors.

SIMON: Does the fastball play a larger or smaller role in the game today?

Mr. WENDEL: I think it plays may a smaller role and because of that the search for it has become even more pronounced.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WENDEL: Because weve seen how, you know, we're in the eve of a new baseball season, how quickly teams can turn themselves around with a prominent fireballer or two. I mean the Red Sox win again a couple years back with Papelbon in the ball pin. The Detroit Tigers take off with some power arms like Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. So again, I think maybe there's less great quality arms, and because of that, there's more of a race to get them.

And I think some of the real interest as this season begins is Stephen Strasburg, potentially ones youre going to premier here in Washington, and also this Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman down in Cincinnati, who seems to be throwing 102, 103. Two teams that are looking for help in a big way and think they may have it with suddenly a young kid who can throw hard.

SIMON: Tim, thanks so much.

Mr. WENDEL: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tim Wendell - his new book, "High Heat: The Secret History of The Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time." He does have a number one on the list but you've got to get the book to find out who that is.

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