We are here today with Matt Dahlgren, grandson of former Yankee Babe Dahlgren and author of Rumor in Town and The Flannel Past.
Matt played professional baseball as a catcher for the West Virginia Coal Sox of the Frontier League during its inaugural season in 1993.
Matt’s books are available at mattdahlgren.com where you can also find his blog and a comprehensive Babe Dahlgren scrapbook with photos and newspaper clippings as well as the first chapter of his book titled, Rumor in Town.
Matt, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading The News.
Thank you Paul. I look forward to the interview.
Your grandfather plays a significant role in Yankees history. For those who are unaware, please share with us the story of Babe Dahlgren, and especially his role in the story of Lou Gehrig and his consecutive games streak.
My grandfather was born and raised in San Francisco. From the time he was a young boy he dreamed of becoming a major league ball player.
He started his professional career in 1931 with the San Francisco Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League. He played for the Missions from 1931-1934 and was sold to the Boston Red Sox and the end of the ’34 season.
In 1935, Babe was the everyday first baseman for the Boston Red Sox. Joe Cronin was quoted that year saying, “He’s the greatest fielding first baseman I ever saw.” Before the 1936 season began, the Red Sox acquired Jimmie Foxx which resulted in Babe being sent to the Syracuse Chiefs where he hit .318 with 16 home runs and 121 RBI. He was recalled by the Red Sox in September and played in 16 games with Foxx moving to LF. Some felt that Babe would be the Red Sox first baseman in 1937 because of his defense alone, and that Foxx would permanently move to the outfield. But it didn’t work out that way.
In the winter of 1937, Lou Gehrig was holding out for more money from the Yankees. The Yankees purchased Babe from the Red Sox as an insurance policy. Gehrig ultimately signed and after one pinch-hit at bat on May 7, Babe was sent down to the Newark Bears. He had a great year with the Bears hitting .340 with 18 home runs and 86 RBI. The 1937 Newark Bears won the Junior World Series and are considered by many to be the greatest minor league team of all time.
Babe was recalled by the New York Yankees in 1938 where he spent the entire season as a utility infielder and saw limited action.
During spring training of 1939, the players and writers all knew something was off with Lou Gehrig; things that normally came easy for him were now laborious. After only eight games into the regular season, Gehrig decided to end his streak.
On May 2, 1939, Babe was sitting on a stool in front of his locker inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Coach Art Fletcher leaned down, almost whispering, “You’re playing first base today, Babe.” Needless to say, Babe was stunned. Moments before the game, he had a private moment with Gehrig where he encouraged him to change his mind and get out there and play. “You’ve put me in a terrible spot, Lou.” Gehrig put his arm around Babe and said, “Go on, get out there and knock in some runs.”
The Yankees beat the Tigers that day, 22-2. Babe had a home run and a double. He went to Lou throughout the game and pleaded with him to get into the game to keep his streak alive. “They don’t need me out there,” Gehrig said. “You’re doing fine.”
The Yankees never looked back and rolled through the American League winning it by 17 games over Boston. They did this without Gehrig and without DiMaggio for the month of May due to an ankle injury.
New York faced the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series and beat them in four straight games making the Yankees the first team to ever win four consecutive World Series titles. Babe hit the first home run of that series.
From the day my grandfather replaced Lou Gehrig, he never missed a game; playing first base in 299 consecutive games before the Yankees sold him to the Braves in February 1941.
Lou Gehrig has been Babe Dahlgren’s boyhood idol. Now he was playing first base for him as his streak came to a close. What was that like for your grandfather?
The pressure was enormous. Gehrig’s shoes were some of the biggest to ever be filled in not only baseball, but all of professional sports.
My grandfather idolized Lou Gehrig going back to his teenage years while growing up in San Francisco. He even drew pictures of him on his high school binder. Never did he think he’d ever meet Lou Gehrig, let alone replace him. It’s ironic that he played in 621 consecutive games from 1931-1934 for the San Francisco Missions; some of the papers even called him Iron Man.
On opening day in 1935, Babe’s MLB debut, the Red Sox were playing the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. It had to be surreal for him to be making his debut against his idol, Lou Gehrig.
On the day he replaced Gehrig in 1939, he did so with a lump in his throat. It was the only day he can ever remember not wanting to play baseball. He wanted Gehrig to continue the streak.
Can you tell us a little about the relationship between Babe Dahlgren and Lou Gehrig?
Lou was a great teammate, always willing to help and encourage players. But he was a bit of a loner. He didn’t really hang out with the guys too much. In the years Babe was with the Yankees, I believe Lou was closest with his roommate, Bill Dickey.
The sport of baseball wasn’t kind to Babe Dahlgren. You have helped to tell the true story of Babe Dahlgren. Can you share this story with us?
I look at my grandfather’s career almost in two parts: leading up to replacing Gehrig and the Yankee years, and everything post Yankees.
By 1943 there were numerous headlines about the mysterious nature of Babe’s career; how nobody wanted him, etc. But after doing extensive research and listening to my grandfather’s stories, it really isn’t a mystery at all. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his name was being smeared by baseball executives throughout the league for almost two years.
In 1941, as a member of the Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs, Babe led the NL in home runs among right handed hitters with 23. The Cubs even named him their MVP.
In 1942, after only 17 games the Cubs sold him to the Browns. After a few days, the Browns sent him back to the Cubs over a disagreement in the terms over his draft status. The Cubs then turned around and sold Babe to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who already had an MVP first baseman in Dolph Camilli. At the time, Dodgers general manager, Larry MacPhail said, “I’ll take a guy who can hit 23 home runs.” But in August, after only 19 at bats with the Dodgers, MacPhail sent Babe down to Montreal. He refused to go; even pleading his case with Commissioner Landis. Instead of reporting to Montreal, Babe went home to California.
What made the Cubs sour on Babe in such a short period of time?
Why did the Dodgers, who were in a pennant race in 1942, send Babe (a proven major leaguer) down to Montreal? At the time, Dodgers were in first place with a nine game lead. They ended up losing the National League pennant by 2 games. Who knows, maybe Babe could’ve helped.
After the 1942 season, the Dodgers hired Branch Rickey as president and general manager. That same winter, the Dodgers optioned Babe to Indianapolis of the American Association League. But Landis informed the Dodgers that they’d have to offer Babe to all major league clubs for $5,000 before any deal with Indianapolis could be discussed. This infuriated Rickey and forced his hand to send Babe a contract or risk losing him for $5,000.
In February of 1943, Babe met with Branch Rickey at a hotel in Los Angeles to discuss his new contract. It was during that meeting that Rickey asked Babe if he smoked marijuana. The question came out of nowhere and infuriated Babe. So much so, that he removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and threw them at Rickey telling him to have them analyzed. The meeting abruptly ended without Babe signing the contract.
Branch Rickey didn’t just make up the marijuana question on the spot. He had to have heard it from someone else. Who?
The Dodgers then traded Babe to the Philadelphia Phillies just before spring training. As the season got underway, Babe was leading the NL in hitting as late as the first week of July. At one point he and his roommate, Danny Litwhiler, ran into Chuck Dressen in the lobby of a New York hotel. Dressen told Babe that he’d just come down from a meeting with Rickey and other Dodgers executives who were questioning Rickey for trading the NL’s leading hitter. Rickey told the group that he did so because “Dahlgren smokes marijuana.”
After hearing the rumor a few more times, Babe made an unannounced visit to Commissioner Landis’s office in Chicago and told him about the rumor and effects it was having on him. He asked to be tested for drugs. Landis agreed and even paid for the tests; all of them coming back negative.
The commissioner assured Babe that he would get to the bottom of the matter. But he never did. How come?
Why, after one season with the Phillies, where Babe was an All-Star and fan favorite did they trade him to Pittsburgh?
These are all questions that left the writers scratching their heads. These questions and others are answered in my book, Rumor in Town.
Is there a lesson for the world today in what transpired with your grandfather and his baseball career?
I think the lesson, at least for me anyway, is that players from my grandfather’s era had to fend for themselves. Whether it was filing a grievance or negotiating a contract, there wasn’t a powerful players union to back them, or agents to speak on their behalf. In hindsight, it’s sad to think that my grandfather thought the commissioner would help him when the commissioner is the pockets of the owners.
You have invested great time and effort to tell the true story of your grandfather. This connection is, in so many ways, what life is all about – giving of one’s self for a family member. Please tell us about this work, what was it like to do the research, write the book, find a publisher, and such. I am sure it wasn’t easy… but it must have been a labor of love.
I had known for many years that my grandfather was writing a book. He wanted very badly to tell his story. We spent a lot of time together and by virtue of that, I spent a lot of time listening. I couldn’t get enough of his stories. When he passed away in 1996, he left behind a three-ring-binder stuffed with pages and pages of stories. I took the binder and made a posthumous promise to him that I’d finish it. I sat on it for a few years. When I decided to begin the process, I read through his pages and tried to figure out how best to tell the story through his voice. I then began researching old newspapers via microfiche. I spent months doing it. I was amazed at how accurate Babe’s stories were, how good his memory was. I also learned that the overwhelming consensus of the writers from that day was that my grandfather was the greatest fielding first baseman they’d ever seen.
When I began to write, I used his written pages, the research I had independently collected, and drew upon the personal moments we shared over the years, and that’s how I came up with the finished book.
I solicited numerous literary agents and publishers and nobody was interested. So I published the book myself at the end of 2007. I came up with the title of the book, Rumor in Town. It was derived from a love song Babe wrote in 1949 called, “There’s a Rumor in Town.” I thought the title was appropriate for his story. I know he’d approve.
Your book has received critical acclaim from some of the most notable people in baseball and in writing circles. Please tell us what this means to you.
For me, it was most gratifying to receive a blurb from former Major League Baseball Commissioner, Fay Vincent. His statement is on the back cover of the book. Babe had written letters to numerous commissioners over the years asking to have his name cleared of any wrong doing and none of them came through; something Landis promised to do but never did.
Also, having Murray Chass, formerly of the New York Times, devote a large piece of a Sunday column to the book meant a great deal to me.
On Twitter you have shared some amazing never before seen photos of Lou Gehrig and many others from the 1930’s. How do you find these great, original, and rare shots?
Lou Gehrig is of great interest to me, and I spend a lot of my free time looking for images of him. I guess I get lucky from time to time. Searching for old baseball photos has turned into a hobby for me. It’s a way to relax at the end of a day. My posts on Twitter are simply a way to keep the history of the game alive. I think that’s important.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
That’s a tough question. There are so many wonderful books about the Yankees and the great players they’ve had throughout the years; so many great books in general about the game. As a Yankees fan, I think we missed out by Pete Sheehy not writing a book. Sheehy was the Yankees clubhouse man from 1927 until he died in 1985. What a book that would’ve been.
Do you have any new books or other works in progress?
I’m currently helping my friend and former major league pitcher, Tim Fortugno, write his memoir. Tim has a powerful and inspirational faith based story to tell. We’ll see what happens.
I’m also working on developing more content for my blog. I look forward to using that platform to tell more stories.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Wow, another tough one. I’d have to say Derek Jeter. He was a consummate “winner.” For twenty years he was epitome of consistent, not only in the regular season but postseason too. If the game was on the line, you wanted him up at the plate. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his defense either. There are only five people in the history of the game who have more hits thank Derek Jeter. Let that one sink in.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Yankees and they still are.
Who was your favorite player?
As a little boy it was Thurman Munson. As a teenager and into my young adult years, it was Don Mattingly.
What is your most prized collectible?
My grandfather’s St. Louis Browns road jersey from 1946.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
It’s really hard to pin point a favorite because I love to cook. Italian food is hard to pass up.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
I’d just like to mention my other book, The Flannel Past. It’s a short novel and fun read for any baseball fan. It’s a story of redemption, and how a relationship forms between a boy who never knew his father, and his grandfather who knows he’s running out of time. Have you ever wondered if there really was a baseball God? The Flannel Past will leave you wondering no more.
This was great. Thank you so much. I wish you only continued success – always!
I enjoyed answering your questions. Thank you for the opportunity.