Monday, February 18, 2008

Even before there was Trivia (with a capital “T”) as we know it today, Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren was the answer to a classic sports question: Who replaced Lou Gehrig when the famous New York Yankees first baseman’s streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games ended in Detroit on May 2, 1939?

Dahlgren was a flashy fielder and dangerous if inconsistent hitter who labored for eight clubs, including the St. Louis Browns twice, from 1935 through 1946. He wasn’t a star (.261 batting average, 82 career home runs), but he was a good man who deserved better than he got. He was treated like a dog by the baseball establishment at a time when there were no unions or agents to protect a player’s interests.

According to a recent book by his grandson Matt (“Rumor in Town,” $24.95, Woodlyn Lane Press), Dahlgren was characterized and victimized by innuendo as a marijuana smoker. He was never confronted officially as such or given a chance to defend his name, but the widespread whispering campaign resulted in his being shipped from club to club — usually without logic. Literally and unfairly, his career went to pot.

Matt Dahlgren said his grandfather spent nearly half a century after his career ended trying to set the record straight. But when Babe died at age 84 in 1996, he had been unable to do so.

“I promised him I would write the book, and it was a cathartic, uplifting experience,” said Dahlgren, who gleaned much of his material from his grandfather’s unpublished memoirs. “I know that somewhere Babe is smiling down and happy that I did.”

Who started the rumor, without proof, in an era when even the suspected use of marijuana, aka “dope,” was enough to ruin a man’s life? Matt Dahlgren fingers two deceased Hall of Famers, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.

Although Babe was the Yankees’ regular first baseman for most of the 1939 season and all of 1940, McCarthy apparently took great umbrage when Dahlgren consulted noted hitting coach Lefty O’Doul rather than his own manager for advice after the 1939 season. Dahlgren was one of the best defensive first basemen in the major leagues, but McCarthy insisted Babe’s arms were too short and suggested that caused him to make many routine plays look spectacular — convoluted reasoning, to say the least.

In 2004, former Yankees public relations man Marty Appel told Matt Dahlgren of a conversation he once had with the late John Drebinger, a longtime baseball writer for the New York Times. Drebinger recalled McCarthy mentioning an error Babe had made in a crucial late-season game during a tight pennant race in 1940 and added, “Dahlgren doesn’t screw up that play if he wasn’t a marijuana smoker.”

None of the baseball writers who heard his remarks asked McCarthy for proof, and the story wasn’t printed. But after the Yankees unexpectedly traded Dahlgren to the Boston Braves in March 1941, Times columnist John Kieran suggested that “McCarthy must have known something.”

If he did, why keep it a secret? If drug use by Dahlgren could be proved, why wasn’t he tossed out of the game? Instead he wandered from team to team over the next seven seasons with no way to uphold his honor. Then and now, rumors can’t be refuted.

During the 1942 season, Dahlgren landed in Brooklyn, where he played sparingly behind All-Star Dolph Camilli. When he was optioned to Class AAA Montreal in August, manager Leo Durocher told him it was owner Larry MacPhail’s idea. MacPhail, in turn, told him it was Durocher’s idea. Excuses, anyone?

In the spring of 1943, with MacPhail gone, Dahlgren confronted new Dodgers boss Rickey, who told him, “Now don’t get mad — do you smoke marijuana?” Babe denied it emphatically. Soon thereafter he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. And so it went.

Dahlgren later met with commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to deny the rumors and demanded to be tested for drugs. (“Imagine a player doing that today!” Matt Dahlgren said.) Landis blustered that anyone so maligning a man’s character should be castrated, or words to that effect. Then he did nothing before his death in November 1944. Neither did his successor, A.B. “Happy” Chandler.

Yet Organized Baseball never shut the door on Dahlgren, who later served as a coach and cinematographer for the Athletics. It just never let the ugly rumors waft into the open or afforded Babe a chance to answer them.

Matt Dahlgren, a 37-year-old former high school and college player and now a California businessman, tells his grandfather’s tale in a most heartfelt manner. The two shared a love for baseball that shines through the pages and never died despite how the game treated the older man. And in an era when many players are suspected of using steroids and/or human growth hormone, the book reminds us of the basic legal and moral precept that a man is innocent until proved guilty.

Two months after the fatally stricken Gehrig left the Yankees’ lineup, he famously told a packed house at Yankee Stadium, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Perhaps his successor could have been considered the unluckiest.

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