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Mudville: June 23, 2024 2:51 am PDT

Matt Dahlgren

" It was Hollywood dramatics, but it always bothered my grandfather that they got that wrong.”

In 2021, Major League Baseball established June 2 as Lou Gehrig Day and today at BallNine, we’re recognizing that day in our own way. Gehrig’s streak started on June 1, 1925 when he pinch hit for Paul Wanninger against Walter Johnson, and his first start of the streak came the next day, which was 98 years ago today. June 2 is also significant as that is the date Gehrig passed away in 1941.

Gehrig’s streak ended on April 30, 1939 and the player who replaced him was Babe Dahlgren, a defensive whiz who later became a pioneer at incorporating video into coaching decades before anyone else did so. Dahlgren played 12 fine seasons in the Majors, earning an All-Star selection in 1943, gaining MVP votes in three seasons, and winning World Series titles with the Yankees in 1938 and ’39. He was also the victim of a vicious false rumor that followed him along every stop of his career.

Dahlgren’s grandson, Matt Dahlgren, penned the book Rumor in Town: A Grandson’s Promise to Right a Wrong to help clear Babe’s name and provide insight into his grandfather’s career. He  joins us this week to talk about the person we all know as the man who replaced Lou Gehrig; a man Matt called his grandfather.

On this Lou Gehrig Day, join us as we remember some of the iconic moments in baseball history and the legacy of the man who replaced Gehrig – as we go Spitballin’ with Matt Dahlgren.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Dahlgren! So much ground to cover here. First, let’s talk about your own life in baseball, as you were a pretty good player yourself. What was baseball like for you growing up?

Being the grandson of a major leaguer and having my father and uncle who played minor league ball, professional baseball was embedded deep in my family. I couldn’t help but love the game. We’d have family get-togethers and I’d hear my grandfather rehashing old stories with the family. I was a diehard Yankees fan growing up. My grandfather Babe played for several teams, but was best known as a New York Yankee and winning two World Series with them. My first favorite player was Thurman Munson, who died about two months before my ninth birthday. My dad would take me to see the Yankees play at Angels Stadium and I remember watching Thurman play there. Then, as I got older, I carried a picture of Don Mattingly in my wallet. From Munson to Mattingly to Jeter and Judge, I’ve always loved the Yankees. I have three daughters, and my 17-year-old might be a bigger Yankee fan than me!

“Wait a minute, he’s standing here with Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio!”

Was there a time growing up when you realized just who your grandfather was and how important he is in the scope of baseball history?

Maybe at seven or eight years old, I would see these black and white photographs of my grandfather in uniform and be like, “Wait a minute, he’s standing here with Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio!” As a young kid, I didn’t understand the full significance of it, but I thought that if he was hanging around with those guys, he must have been a big deal too. As I got as little older, I started asking him questions and talking to him about baseball, travelling, the players he played with and against, and all the nuances of the game. Once he started opening up to me, I couldn’t get enough of it.

You wrote the book Rumor in Town: A Grandson’s Promise to Right a Wrong. Let’s start here, what is the rumor referenced in the title?

The first time Babe ever heard of the rumor he was in a one-on-one meeting with Branch Rickey to negotiate a contract for the 1943 season. Babe had been sold to the Dodgers the previous year. Branch Rickey had sent him a contract and in that meeting, he told him he thought the offer was low. Rickey said, “Babe, can I ask you a question? You promise you won’t get mad at me?” Babe said, “I can’t promise that, I don’t know what the question is!” Rickey said, “Babe, do you smoke marijuana?” Babe looked at him deadpan right in the eyes and said, “What the hell kind of question is that? No, I don’t smoke marijuana! Why would you even ask me that?” Branch Rickey told him not to get mad, but word is going around that he did. Like a lot of ballplayers back then, Babe smoked cigarettes. He took the pack out of his jacket and threw them across the room at Rickey and told him to go have them analyzed. You have to realize that back then attitudes towards marijuana were way different than they are now. You could get in real trouble with that. Things had soured quickly with Babe and the Dodgers and a couple weeks later they traded him to the Phillies.

Did that rumor follow him to the Phillies?

The 1943 season started and Babe got off to a red-hot start all the way to the All-Star Game. He was leading in the NL in hitting for most of the first half. The Phillies were in New York and his roommate was Danny Litwhiler. They were in the hotel lobby and Chuck Dressen, the former Dodgers coach, was in the lobby. Babe and Danny went over to say hi and Chuck said that he had just come from a meeting with Dodgers executives and they were grilling Branch Rickey about trading Babe away. Dressen told Babe that Rickey said he traded him away because he was a marijuana smoker. Litwhiler said, “That’s a hell of a thing to say about someone that isn’t true.” Babe said, “To be honest with you, I’ve heard that before from Rickey.” He said he told Rickey it wasn’t true and not to spread it around. Now here’s Rickey saying it in a meeting with these baseball executives.

A couple of weeks later, Babe was in the training room in St. Louis. The Phillies had hired a guy who was an Olympic running coach to be like a fitness guy. This guy was in the training room with Babe and said to him, “I was hired by the Phillies out of the track world and didn’t know a lot about baseball. I picked you out and watched you because you were a veteran and I wanted to see how major leaguers acted. This is why I have to tell you something I heard that I’m bothered by.” Babe was starting to realize where this guy was going. The guy told Babe about the marijuana rumor. Right there in the training room, Babe started to cry. He realized this was spreading and there was nothing he could do.

Did Babe try to do anything to combat the rumor?

He got off the training table and approached his manager Bucky Harris. He said that when they were in Chicago next week, he was going to meet Commissioner [Kenesaw] Landis because there was a rumor going around about him. Bucky said, “The marijuana thing?” Babe was like, “You knew about that?” Bucky told him that Branch Rickey told them about it when they traded for him, but he didn’t believe it. The next week, Babe went to Commissioner Landis unannounced. Babe told him everything about the rumor and Landis said he would take him to a doctor in town who would test him and then refer him to a doctor in Philadelphia for further tests. He also said that he wanted it to be kept confidential. So he was the first major leaguer to be drug tested. Babe was thinking this would be great because he could finally put this to rest. All the tests came back negative. He kept writing to Landis asking what he was going to do about his case. Landis died in 1944 and Babe felt like the one guy who was going to help him was gone. Babe wrote to Happy Chandler, who said there wasn’t a lot he could do. Landis swept it under the rug and so did Chandler. They didn’t want to have to deal with punishing Branch Rickey.

Did Babe ever find out where this rumor was started?

I believe, and so did Babe, that Yankees manager Joe McCarthy started the rumor in 1940. He didn’t hear about it until 1943. Babe took over for Gehrig in 1939 and played every game the rest of the season. Defensively, he did great. Offensively, you’re never gonna be Lou Gehrig, but hitting eighth, he drove in 89 runs and hit 15 home runs. Right before 1940 Spring Training, Babe visited Lefty O’Doul, who was the San Francisco Seals manager and known as a big hitting guru. O’Doul gave him some pointers and Babe went on his merry way. A report came out in the papers that Babe sought hitting advice from O’Doul and there were quotes in the article where O’Doul said, “I don’t know why these managers are getting these big salaries when their hitters are coming to me for advice.” O’Doul and McCarthy didn’t like each other going back to the 1920s. Babe ended up leading the Yankees in home runs in Spring Training and McCarthy came up to ask him what he was doing different. He asked him about what O’Doul had said in the paper and Babe realized that McCarthy was pissed at him. That whole season, he felt that the Yankees had soured on him. Babe ended up making a couple of errors towards the end of the season and, I learned this through Marty Appel, McCarthy had told New York Times writer John Drebinger that Babe wouldn’t have made those errors if he wasn’t a marijuana smoker. That puts McCarthy right at the beginning of the rumor.

This is all beyond fascinating and we could spend the whole interview on this, but I wanted to ask some questions about Babe the player too. Let’s start with his defense. Quite simply, he was one of the best defensive first basemen of all time. Could you tell our readers what you know about your grandfather’s defense?

He took pride in his defense. I played high school, college, and independent professional ball and Babe always told me that when I stepped on the field, I had to know that I was good. He always said that he knew he couldn’t carry Lou Gehrig’s bat; nobody could. But Babe thought that nobody could carry his glove. I have read in newspapers that the label of him being a fantastic fielder started his first year as a professional and followed him throughout his career. It’s not just me being a proud grandson, but I have read writers of his time and his peers say they had not seen a better defensive first baseman up to the time he played.

I started a hashtag on Twitter #DahlgrenDefense and I post things I find about him. I want fans to see what writers were saying about him back in the 1940s. To the day he died, he carried a first baseman’s glove and rubber ball in the trunk of his car and even into his 80s and with two knee replacements and shoulders that barely worked, he would go to a park and throw the ball against a wall and field balls to the best of his ability. It was his passion and he was so good about it.

Absolutely incredible. Your grandfather’s career overlapped Babe Ruth’s by one partial season. I read that their paths crossed in a game. Could you tell us that story?

My grandfather’s first year in the majors was 1935 with the Red Sox. Babe Ruth’s last year was 1935 with the Boston Braves. Before the season started, the two teams played a crosstown series. I have seen a picture where my grandfather had just hit a ball and is running to first. The picture shows him crossing the bag with Ruth playing first. It’s the only picture I have with my grandfather and Babe Ruth in the same picture. He would see him in later years when Ruth would come around the Yankees. As a kid, he idolized Ruth and Gehrig, particularly Gehrig because he played first. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would be the one to replace him.

That’s so remarkable when you put it that way. Let’s lead right into that day when he did replace him. What had your grandfather told you about the day he replaced Lou Gehrig?

That spring in 1939, everyone knew something was wrong with Lou. He looked off. They thought maybe the years were catching up to him. The players and writers all saw it. After the first eight games, Lou was hitting .143 with no homers and knew something was going on. On May 2 in Detroit, the team was in the clubhouse getting ready. One of the coaches, Art Fletcher, came up to Babe, who was sitting on a stool in front of his locker. Art kneeled down real close to him, got right in his face, and said, “You’re playing first base today.” Babe looked at him like, “What are you talking about?” As he walked away, Art looked back over his shoulder and said, “Good luck.”

Word got out and guys were talking about it. Photographers started to hear about it and they wanted pictures of Babe and Lou together. Lou took the lineup out to home plate and when he came back, he went right to the drinking fountain and stayed down in the fountain for an excessive amount of time. Babe and Johnny Murphy realized he was crying. Johnny took a towel and tossed it at Gehrig and it landed over his head. He took the towel, dried his head and face and put his cap back on. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it. Nobody knew what to say and nobody wanted to be caught looking at him. Right before the game started, Lou walked over to Babe and asked him to reconsider. Lou said, “Go out there and knock in some runs. You’ll do fine.” The Yankees won 22-2 and Babe hit a home run and a double. Babe kept going up to Lou to get him to go out there and keep the streak going, but he wouldn’t. Lou Gehrig never played another game.

That leads into another iconic moment in sports history, Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech. What did your grandfather tell you about that day?

To the day my grandfather died, whenever he talked about that day he would always tear up. Always. They played a doubleheader against the Senators and it was in between games of the doubleheader when he did the speech. My grandfather was standing right on the third base line and was the closest to Lou. Joe McCarthy walked by Babe shortly before the speech and said, “If he starts to go down, catch him. Don’t let him fall.” Gehrig’s legs had already weakened significantly and he was clearly sick by then. My grandfather told me that when he watched Gehrig give that speech, he could see his legs shaking. That was a heavy moment and it was hard for Babe because that was his boyhood idol who became a teammate and friend. Everyone knew he was suffering, but he stood there with grace and class. It just always choked my grandfather up.

I can only imagine what was going through Babe’s head during that speech. I have a question from a huge Yankees and baseball history fan, Pop Roberto, who wanted to ask what your grandfather thought of the movie Pride of the Yankees.

Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey appear in the movie themselves. Babe Dahlgren was contacted to be in the movie too. My grandfather said if MGM was making the movie to show for people for free, he would be in it for nothing. But he felt that if they were going to profit off Lou Gehrig, he wanted to be paid as much as the other guys. They couldn’t reach an agreement, so he wasn’t in the movie. Babe said that since he wasn’t in the movie, he didn’t want his name in it either. So in the movie, they never say his full name, Babe Dahlgren. They just say Dahlgren. It always irked Babe how they did that scene. In the movie, Gehrig comes up to McCarthy in the middle of a game and said he couldn’t play anymore. McCarthy says, “OK Dahlgren, you’re in.” It didn’t happen like that. Babe started the game. It was Hollywood dramatics, but it always bothered my grandfather that they got that wrong.    

Were there any other legends of the time that Babe spoke highly of?

One of the first true veteran stars to treat him well was Jimmie Foxx when he was with the Red Sox. In 1935, Babe was the everyday first baseman with the Red Sox and Foxx was with the A’s. The next year, Foxx came to the Red Sox and they sent Babe down to Syracuse. At the end of the ’36 season, Babe was called back up for the last month of the season and got to know Jimmie Foxx really well. Babe would always say that Jimmie was very kind to him and always gave him advice. He was the type of guy to pick up the tab and things like that. It says a lot about Jimmie Foxx to have that kind of career and then treat a young guy who plays the same position that well. That didn’t happen back then. Foxx even agreed to play left field and even caught a couple of games so Babe could play first.

That’s awesome to hear. Jimmie Foxx is one of my favorites from that era. Babe was teammates with Joe DiMaggio too. What did he say about him?

Their relationship started before the Yankees, playing against each other in the Pacific Coast League. In 1932, Babe was playing for the San Francisco Mission Reds in the PCL. One day, this kid came in for a tryout. The manager asked Babe to play first base because this kid was here trying out and he was a shortstop. They hit him some grounders and he’d throw them over to Babe, then they asked the kid to take some swings. When they were done, they told him thanks, but they didn’t have any room on the roster this year and to come back and try again next year. That kid was Joe DiMaggio. With a couple weeks left in the season, Joe signed with the San Francisco Seals and his very first game he played against Babe and the Mission Reds. In 1933 DiMaggio had a 61-game hitting streak with the Seals. One time, when holding him on first, my grandfather asked him what he thought about as a hitter because he was fascinated by his swing. DiMaggio just always said, “I guess I’m just a natural hitter.” They played together four years with the Yankees and Babe always said Joe was the greatest player he ever saw.

This has been absolutely fascinating, Mr. Dahlgren. One last question for you. What is something you’d like fans to know about your grandfather when you consider his legacy?

In baseball today, video plays a huge role in coaching when it comes to correcting swings and other mechanics of the game. My grandfather was doing that in the late 1950s. He would be throwing my dad and uncle batting practice as kids, and realized the best way to correct their faults was to show them their swings. He bought the top of the line film equipment. Then he took that to the Major Leagues. In 1958 and ’59, he went around to Major League camps filming the best hitters swing and talking about hitting. He made a 90-minute motion picture on hitting using my dad and uncle as models and footage of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

In 1964, he showed the movie to Charlie Finley with the Kansas City A’s and he hired him on the spot as the hitting instructor and film guy. He used to drop a bedsheet down in the tunnel or the clubhouse and run his film on the sheet. Charlie Finley took him on the road with the A’s and set up a suite so if guys wanted to watch their swings, they could go to his room and watch. He had film of everybody’s swing. He was the first paid coach in Major League Baseball to use film to look at their swings.

To learn more about Babe Dahlgren and for fascinating old time baseball content, follow Matt Dahlgren on Twitter (@MattDahlgren12). Dahlgren’s book, Rumor in Town: A Grandson’s Promise to Right a Wrong, is available on Amazon and most places books are sold. (Oh, and don’t forget to check out his website which is a treasure trove of baseball history – ed.)

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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