An Ugly Rumor Better Left Forgotten

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

Lou Gehrig puts his arm around Babe Dahlgren, the first baseman who replaced him when his consecutive games streak came to an end.

Ellsworth Tenney “Babe” Dahlgren would be an anonymous figure in Yankees’ history if he hadn’t been penciled in as the starting first baseman on May 2, 1939, the day Lou Gehrig’s then record streak of 2,130 consecutive games came to an end.  In that game, the Yankees didn’t miss a beat without their legendary captain as Dahlgren went 2-5 with a home run, but the rest of his career hardly met the standard established by the Iron Horse.

Following in Gehrig’s footsteps couldn’t have been easy for Dahlgren, but at least it gave him a bit of immortality. After all, without that distinction, chances are very few baseball fans, even the most hardcore, would know his name. However, that isn’t the footnote Dahlgren seemed to believe was most associated with his name.

I recently came across the following video from the 1939 World Series, which includes a glimpse of Dahlgren crossing home plate after homering in game 2. Amazed by the quality of this rare footage (which is remarkable in its own right), and hoping to find more just like it, I clicked on the provided URL and stumbled across an intriguing website about a book called “Rumor in Town”, which tells the story of another anecdote regarding Dahlgren’s career: one about which I had never heard even though Dahlgren spent the rest of his life trying to  dispel it.

Dahlgren may have been known to the public as the man who replaced Gehrig, but in baseball circles, he was branded a marijuana user. For many years after his playing career was over, he tried to remove that stigma, but his pleas, which included numerous letters to past commissioners, fell upon deaf ears. During the process, Dahlgren also began compiling a manuscript that he hoped would one day set the record straight, but in 1996, he passed away before it could be completed. However, after his death, Dahlgren’s grandson Matt brought the project back to life. Published in 2007, “Rumor in Town” is not only the story of Dahlgren’s career viewed through the prism of an ugly allegation, but also the culmination of the first baseman’s life-long attempt to clear his name.

According to the book, the rumor that dogged Dahlgren was started by none other than Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy, who was reportedly angered by the first baseman seeking hitting consul from Lefty O’Doul, the former Giants and Dodgers’ outfielder with whom the Yankees’ skipper had clashed. Following that incident, the Yankees traded Dahlgren to the Boston Braves, and that’s when the book claims the rumor got started.

Although McCarthy justified the trade to the press on purely baseball grounds (at one point explaining that Dahlgren’s arms were “too short to play first base”), the book alleges he cited marijuana use when discussing the deal with other executives in the game. Even more damaging, the book contends that McCarthy blamed losing the pennant in 1940 on defensive miscues made by Dahlgren…errors the Yankees’ manager believed were caused by his use of marijuana. As a result, the rumor followed Dahlgren on a dizzying tour of four teams in two seasons until Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey finally confronted him with the accusation just before he was traded to the Phillies in 1943.

The most mysterious run-around ever given a major league ball player has fallen to Ellsworth T. (Babe) Dahlgren, the present first baseman of the Phillies.” – AP, March 23, 1942

In the book, Matt Dahlgren writes that his father first learned about the rumor from Rickey, but in an AP story published after his trade to Philadelphia, the first baseman still expressed ignorance about why he had been dealt so frequently. “Nobody has ever given me any explanation,” he told the wire service, “and I have never asked for any”.

Perhaps Dahlgren kept his conversation with Rickey quiet because he hoped the rumor would go away? If so, that wasn’t the case. As the book details, the Phillies wound up hiring a former Dodgers scout, Ted McGrew, who was aware of the marijuana allegation, and then two months later traded Dahlgren to the Pirates. Before retiring, the first baseman would be traded again to the St. Louis Browns before spending his last two season as a professional toiling in triple-A.

Although the whispers probably contributed to Dahlgren’s frequent travels, and likely caused unnecessary shame and aggravation, it’s still hard to conclude he was “blacklisted” (an opinion that could change after reading the book). After all, several rumors about off-field behavior frequently followed another Babe around, but they never ran him out of town.

Widely heralded as a defensive standout, Dahlgren wasn’t as highly regarded with the bat (think Doug Mientkiewicz). Also, he was already 29 when first traded from the Yankees, so his status as an un-established veteran likely caused many teams to view him as no more than a stop-gap measure. Additionally, during the war years, first base became somewhat of a transient position. So, with all those factors considered, it’s easy to see why he would have become a journeyman even without the baggage.

Twelve of the 16 major clubs have used at least two first basemen in the first two months of the season. Three of them have employed three different men and three have called upon as many as four. And, despite that unprecedented turnover, several managers haven’t settled their problems to any degree of satisfaction yet.” – Jack Guenther, UP, June 3, 1942

Dahlgren may have been destined to be a baseball nomad, but that doesn’t justify the whispers. As powerful figures in the game, McCarthy and Rickey had a moral responsibility to confirm their suspicions, which gave life to a rumor that haunted Dahlgren until his death. Even if they firmly believed the allegation was true, the burden of proof was still theirs. Instead, Dahlgren wound up carrying it for nearly 50 years.

It seems a shame that Dahlgren spent so many of his golden years trying to clear his name, especially because his legacy as Gehrig’s replacement wound up outliving the rumor. Ironically, if not for Dahlgren’s efforts, which were eventually synthesized into his grandson’s book, very few, if any, would be aware the rumor ever existed. Even with the book’s publication, which attracted some attention when it first hit the shelves, the story still remains as much of a secret as the rumor did during Dahlgren’s career. Although the first baseman never succeeded in having baseball officially cleanse his good name, in reality, history seems to have removed the stigma long ago. If only Dahlgren had realized that before he passed away.

5 thoughts on “An Ugly Rumor Better Left Forgotten

  1. Cool video. Interesting to see the old Yankee Stadium again. One thing you didn’t mention: I think that’s “the clown prince of baseball,” Max Patkin, warming up on the mound and having a little fun for the crowd. Am I right?

  2. Interesting tale, but one question: How exactly did he expect MLB commissioners to “clear” his name of a rumor? It isn’t like he could produce drug tests from his playing days to exonerate himself; and even if he could, what would he expect the commissioners to do about it? …Just wondering.

    • Actually, he did take a drug test in 1943 while with the Phillies, according to the book. I guess he wanted the commissioner to write a letter stating there was never any evidence to suggest the rumor was valid. It seems like it was more a matter of principle than anything else.

      • Poor guy. Sounds like he was really desperate and just swinging at shadows. Thank you again for a great read and the answer to my question. William. A nice change of pace for this space.