The man who replaced Lou Gehrig
Ray Dahlgren fondly remembers a father who was baseballs mystery man
Babe Dahlgren had to do the hardest task in baseball history: replace the great Lou Gehrig as the first baseman for the New York Yankees.
Then he had to do something even harder: Battle a false rumor that took bitter root and threatened his career.
He succeeded at the first task, but failed at the second. That was proven beyond a doubt with what happened to his son, Ray Dahlgren, when he was pursuing his own baseball career with the Houston Astros farm club in Florida in the 1960s.
One day my manager Joe Frazier took me aside and we walked down the left-field line, said Dahlgren, a resident of West Linn since 2006. He said, I heard this thing about your dad smoking marijuana. You dont do that? I answered him, I dont do that and neither did my dad. Joe apologized and said, The front office wanted me to ask you that.
The rumor that he smoked marijuana, a totally outrageous offense for a Major League Baseball player in the 1940s, was like a phantom that Babe Dahlgren could never grapple with because it never reached the surface of public knowledge. You could only tell it was there because every stop in his career was a short one, even though his awesome fielding ability was attested to by some of the greatest figures in the game and he slammed as many as 23 home runs in a season.
Baseball was the king of sports in that era and the baseball press picked up on the strange trajectory of Babe Dahlgrens career, with famed baseball writer Joe Williams calling him something of a mystery man and columnists asking questions like: Why was he dropped by the Yankees in 1941 when they did not have another first baseman on their roster? Why did the Chicago Cubs release him after he led them in runs batted in? Why did the Philadelphia Phillies let him go after he led the team in batting?
Shocked by this strange turn in his career, Babe Dahlgren asked, What the hell is happening? He did all he could to defeat the lie, even undergoing drug tests. Nothing worked. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseballs commissioner, was quoted as saying that anyone spreading such a rumor deserved to be castrated. But Landis did nothing to help Dahlgren, and neither did any of the commissioners who followed him.
At the end of his life, Dahlgren was still fighting to reclaim a reputation that had been so unfairly stained. He was gathering materials for a book until just before he died in 1996. That task was taken up by his grandson, Matt Dahlgren, and his book Rumor in Town was published in 2007.
This is still the subject of pain for Ray Dahlgren, once a pitching prospect, who still looks big and strong enough to fire a ball through a wall. He has nothing but the dearest memories of his beloved father. Babe Dahlgren was a heckuva baseball player and an even better man, even though fate threw a beanball at him.
The fortunate thing about Dahlgrens career is that the thing millions of old baseball fans remember about him involves baseballs most moving story the day Lou Gehrig took himself out of the lineup on May 2, 1939, and wished luck to Babe Dahlgren. The action ended Gehrigs 2,130-consecutive-game streak and stunned a nation. The answer to this mystery was even more stunning Gehrig had a disease that would not only end his baseball career but also end his life just two years later.
Ray Dahlgrens home in the Willamette Falls area has a room filled with memorabilia, with a big part of it devoted to that famous day. Photos show Gehrig and Babe Dahlgren sitting together.
Dad begged Lou to go in there in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings to keep his streak alive. He said, Lou, youve got to go in there, Ray Dahlgren said. Lou just told him, Youre doing fine.
Gehrig could not always keep up a brave front.
In dads interview with Keith Olbermann, he told about sitting next to Johnny Murphy, the relief pitcher and seeing Gehrig at the water fountain with his back to them. Dad told Murphy, Johnny, hes crying. Johnny threw a towel that landed right on Lous head and he used it to wipe his face.
Another of his photos shows his dad among the sad-faced players lined up as Gehrig gave his Luckiest Man speech before the most massive and emotional crowd ever seen at Yankee Stadium.
How well did Babe Dahlgren replace the immortal Gehrig? Pretty darn well. The 1939 Yankees had one of the most dominating seasons in baseball history, going 106-45 and flattening the hapless Cincinnati Reds in the World Series for their fourth consecutive championship. Babe Dahlgren batted only .234, but he provided punch at the plate with 15 home runs and 89 RBIs. In the World Series he ignited the Yankees rout by slamming a home run in Game 1.
But it was his fielding that really lifted the Yankees. Perhaps that is best illustrated by a story from the games greatest hitter.
At spring training Ted Williams came up to me and said, If there was anyone I wanted to beat with my bat it was your dad, Ray Dahlgren said. The Splendid Splinter explained, Its too bad you never saw your dad play. He was unequivocally the greatest fielder Ive ever seen in my life, because he took plenty of base hits from me.
I would see your dad ready to field when I got up to bat, ready to battle me to the end. I said to him, You SOB, Ill drive the ball down your throat. I never did.
Ray Dahlgren proudly displays photos that show his dads fielding prowess, stretching, leaping and diving to spear line drives and errant throws or tagging out baserunners.
Unfortunately, it was a couple of errors that Dahlgren committed in the 1940 American League pennant race that laid the shaky basis for his downfall. The mighty Yankees lost, and their manager blamed Babe Dahlgren.
His arms are too short, Joe McCarthy said.
This reason struck baseball insiders as ludicrous, because Dahlgrens greatness as a first baseman was universally acknowledged. Just a few of the premier personalities praising him were John Lardner, one of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived; Shirley Povich, who had the longest baseball writing career in history; and Joe DiMaggio. Joltin Joe had been Dahlgrens friend since childhood and he raved that Dahlgren had won more games with his fielding than most pitchers win. Hes so good that our other infielders have become lazy.
Stung after making himself look ridiculous, McCarthy whispered another reason he had let Dahlgren go: He smoked marijuana.
From that moment on, Dahlgren was baseballs wandering first baseman, playing with the Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. That averages out to six teams in six years.
He later found out that one of the people most responsible for perpetuating the false rumor was Branch Rickey, legendary owner of the Dodgers.
Still, even with a shadow always hanging over him, Babe Dahlgren shaped a wonderful life. Ray Dahlgren gives vivid testimony to that. Any baseball fan visiting his home is in for a tremendous treat. First his dogs and cats shower you with affection. Then his wife, Diane Dahlgren, fixes you a delicious toasted cheese sandwich for lunch. Then Ray takes decades off of your life by telling baseball stories.
He was a full-time dad. I had a tremendous upbringing, Ray Dahlgren said.
Baseball fans still fondly remember Babe Dahlgren, and those memories are not tainted by any phony scandal.
Ray and Diane Dahlgren found that out when they visited Yankee Stadium and got the full VIP treatment from the Yankees bombastic and controversial owner George Steinbrenner in 2006. The high point came when the massive scoreboard flashed the message that Babe Dahlgrens son Ray and daughter-in-law Diane were special guests of the day. The sell-out crowd of 59,000 fans at Yankee Stadium stood up and cheered.
It was just unbelievable, said Ray Dahlgren, misting up at the memory.
The baseball gods were finally smiling on Babe Dahlgren.