May 2, 1939 Babe Dahlgren Replaces Lou Gehrig in Yankee Lineup
Seventy two years ago, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak came to an end. Many baseball fans know that the immortal Lou Gehrig began his famous streak by replacing Wally Pipp in the Yankee lineup. However, not many fans know who replaced the Iron Horse on May 2, 1939. That player’s name was Babe Dahlgren and he is the subject of the book: Rumor in Town: A Grandson’s Promise to Right a Wrong by Matt Dahlgren.
Several weeks into the 1939 season, Lou Gehrig asked manager Joe McCarthy to be taken out of the lineup. Gehrig’s weakness, eventually diagnosed as a fatal illness, was evident in Spring Training.
All eyes were on Lou Gehrig in the spring of 1939. Year after year he had been a Yankee mainstay, but unlike other springs, he just seemed lethargic, lacking strength and energy. The model bat Lou had used for so many of his illustrious seasons suddenly seemed too heavy for him, causing him to experiment with lighter bats, ultimately choosing the Joe Gordon model—the highest bat in camp.
Hear Babe describe what it was like to replace Lou Gehrig
Babe Dahlgren was, by most accounts, the best fielding first basemen of his era. He had good power, hit for a respectable average and played in the 1939 World Series and the 1943 All Star game. For his career, Dahlgren hit .262, slugged 82 HRs and drove in 569 runs. In fact, he made the all-star team at every level he competed in, from the Pacific Coast League, the International League (as well as Player of the Year), and the Majors. (The bottom of this article contains several video showing Babe in action).
Viewed merely through his statistics, one would be left to believe that Babe was an above average, if not spectacular, ball player who played for nine different teams across a decade spanning from the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s. Yet, it is the very vagabond nature of Dahlgren’s career that begins to shed a light on a darker story.
A rumor was circulated in Major League baseball that Dahlgren smoked marijuana. In this era, allegations of drug use were extremely serious. After discovering the existence of the rumor in 1943, Dahlgren became the first Major League Baseball player to take a drug test for a non-performance enhancing drug. He did so voluntarily to discredit the rumors circulating at the time. By the time of the test, however, the damage to Dahlgren’s career had been done.
Much of the book is devoted to finding out the “who” and the “why” of the rumor. Memories of baseball icons like Joe McCarthy, the manger of the New York Yankees or Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, conjure up McCarthy’s Yankee dynasty years and Rickey’s efforts to integrate baseball. You are less likely to hear about McCarthy’s jealousy or spitefulness or Rickey’s legendary tightfisted cheapness. It is the faults of these legendary men that were the undoing of Babe Dahlgren’s career.
The books shows that McCarthy started the rumor and Ricky perpetuated it. In addition, several baseball commissioners, including Kenesaw Mountain Landis failed to do anything to squelch the rumor. In the end, it was easier for baseball to allow the rumor to fester and metastasize than to take a brave stand to call out the perpetrators.
Sadly, Babe spent the last twenty plus years of his life trying to clear his name. He wrote to old teammates getting them to validate information about a past story. Twice, Babe started to write his memoir. The first one was destroyed in a house fire. The second manuscript remained unfinished when Babe died in 1996.
However, this book is much more than a thorough investigation into the rumors that waylaid Babe’s career. The book tells the story of the love between a Grandson and his beloved Granddad. Babe is shown to be a great teammate and a man who truly loved the game of baseball. Moreover, Babe was shown to be a man of principle and integrity and stood up for himself and teammates in dealing with baseball management and unfair treatment.
Each chapter begins with a real-life remembrance of their time together. Each chapter is, in essence, an inning of Babe’s life. After Babe’s death, Matt Dahlgren made a pledge to himself to tell Babe’s story.
Matt’s final words sum up his feelings for his Grandfather.
Grandpa, I miss our time together. I miss your stories. But they live forever deep in my soul in a place I hold dear. I hope you’re proud—not of me for telling this story, but of yourself for being a remarkable man of impecable character. I keep my promise, Grandpa. I rest your case. May you rest in peace forever. Love Matt.
BoB Rating: Triple (great insights about a great man undone by the cowardice of others)
Amazon: 5.00/ Goodreads 3.00/ B&N 5.00)
Videos of Babe Dahlgren
Dahlgren Replaces Gehrig
Dahlgren in 1939 World Series