Fan Mail

One of my favorite things to do as a boy was to sit in my grandfather’s chair inside his home office and read his fan mail. He received fan mail every week until the day he died in 1996. They were usually blank 3×5 cards or a post card sized portrait with the request to have it signed by the man who replaced the legendary Lou Gehrig. But every so often, there’d be an actual letter on lined paper (sometimes 2-3 pages) that recounted a particular hit, a dazzling play around first base or even an exchange between them like, “I remember the time you said hello to me outside the stadium. I’ll never forget it.” These were memories seared into that particular person’s mind who simply wanted to share it with the man who stoked the initial flame. And at the end of the letter, almost apologetically, they’d ask for an autograph stating that it would mean the world to them.

These were true fans and my grandfather took great pride in responding to every letter.

Since the inception of the game, young boys and girls have written letters to their favorite ball players – letters that would find their way into the lockers of men larger than life. And when time permitted, these flannel clad fellows would try to uphold their duty as role models and write a pithy response or sign a photo.

gehrig_fan mail
Lou Gehrig, 1930’s.

And if these kids were lucky, a faceless mail carrier somewhere in a rural town or big city would stuff their mailbox with a return envelope making them feel very special, like 15-year-old Roger Barry from Weymouth, Mass must have felt.

A few years ago, while searching on eBay, I found three letters for sale that my grandfather had written to Barry in 1935. Given my passion for reading his fan mail (letters written to him) I jumped at the chance to read something he wrote to a fan. I bid on the letters and now own them. IMG_0004Two of the letters were written during spring training on stationery from the Hotel Sarasota Terrace. The other one was written from the Myles Standish Hotel in Boston shortly after the club came home to play a series against Babe Ruth and the Braves before traveling to New York to start the season.

After much success in the Pacific Coast League, the Boston writers were talking about the good-looking young kid named Babe Dahlgren from San Francisco who was stepping into the first base position for the Red Sox. IMG_0005Upon reading the letters, it became apparent that young Roger Barry must have been a first baseman himself and was hoping Boston’s rookie first sacker might offer some tips. My grandfather’s letters were full of advice on how to play the bag, select a bat and even shared his thoughts on the attitude a young player needed to have. I felt good knowing that my grandfather took the time to write such detailed letters to a young kid who looked up to him – something I watched him do in his later years from his desk at home. I realized after reading these letters that Babe Dahlgren was no different at 22 than he was at 84 when he passed away – he loved talking about baseball and helping young kids anyway he could.

Below are the three letters my grandfather wrote to Roger Barry in 1935.

page1

page2.jpg

page3

page4

page5.jpg

IMG_0002.jpg

IMG_0003

IMG

The letters inspired me to look-up Roger Barry. It led me to an obituary that was written by Dick Trust of the Patriot Ledger in 2012 after Barry had passed away at the age of 92. Roger Barry had been a sportswriter spanning five decades for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts and was loved by everyone who ever knew him. He had a passion for golf, and was the president of the Golf Writers Association of America for many years. He was even on a first name basis with Palmer and Nicklaus. But there was one line in particular that Dick Trust wrote that stood out. It read: Roger spoke to little guys like me and giants of the sports world like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player.

…Spoke to little guys.

I can’t help but wonder if the thoughtful letters my grandfather sent to Roger Barry when he was a “little guyhad a small part in nurturing his love of sports and shaping the writer and man he’d one day become.

Roger Barry’s obituary from 2012 can be found here . It’s well worth reading.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or at mattdahlgren.com 

Read more

Advertisements

Lou Gehrig’s Streak – and the hand of Fate

The clubhouse was strangely quiet. The players felt the unspoken mood but nobody knew what it was. Babe Dahlgren was sitting in front of his locker in Detroit on May 2, 1939 when Yankees coach Art Fletcher whispered in his ear, “You’re playing first base today, Babe.” The pressure of the unexpected task that Fletcher bestowed on the Yankees utility infielder was extraordinary. For Dahlgren it was the first and only time in his life that he didn’t want to play baseball. Growing up poor in San Francisco’s Mission District, young Babe would walk miles just to play the game he loved so much. He dreamed of becoming a major leaguer and idolized Lou Gehrig because he too was a first baseman. He even sketched detailed pictures of him on his school binders, never imagining he’d ever meet the man, let alone replace him.

100488_0649_lg
Lou Gehrig with his replacement Babe Dahlgren on May 2, 1939

That one sentence whispered by Art Fletcher and the subsequent events that day changed Dahlgren’s life forever and placed an indelible stamp on Major League Baseball history. Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games played ended on that cold Tuesday afternoon. But it almost didn’t happen that way. It nearly ended four years earlier after a fall at first base and at the feet of…Babe Dahlgren?

If we are to believe that it was fate that put Babe Dahlgren there in 1939 – then perhaps it was fate that emerged over Boston on a rainy afternoon in 1935 and said, “It’s not time yet.”

Babe Dahlgren’s dream of becoming a major leaguer became a little more real in 1931 when he signed a professional contract with the San Francisco Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League who sent him to Tucson to play in the Cass D Arizona-Texas league. In July of that same year, he was recalled by the Missions to play first base. After 3 ½ years in the Pacific Coast League (.295 37 HR 376 RBI), Dahlgren was purchased by the Boston Red Sox to be their first baseman in 1935. Ironically, the kid who idolized Lou Gehrig had put together a streak of his own playing in 621 consecutive games with the Missions giving him the nickname “Iron Man” with some of the Bay Area writers.

lougehrigbabedahlgren1935
Lou Gehrig with Babe Dahlgren – June 1935.

 

 

On Monday, August 5, 1935 the Yankees began a three game series with the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Lou Gehrig entered the game hitting .322 with 17 home runs – a game that put his streak at 1,597. It was Gehrig’s record to break since passing Everett Scott who previously held the mark with 1,307 consecutive games. After the third inning, the Yankees were leading 4-2 when the top half of the fourth was delayed due to rain. When play resumed, Yankees left fielder Jesse Hill led off with a base on balls. Red Rolfe then hit a comebacker to Fritz Ostermueller who forced Hill out at second. Rolfe then stole second and Ben Chapman walked which brought Lou Gehrig to the plate with runners on first and second. Gehrig was 0-1 with a walk and Red Sox player-manager, Joe Cronin went to the bullpen for the left handed George Hockette. The move didn’t pay off and Gehrig lined a single to left field scoring Rolfe, sending Chapman to third. While rounding first base however, Lou slipped on the soft dirt still wet from the rain and fell to the ground. “My back, my back…I’ve hurt my back,” Gehrig moaned. First base umpire, Bill Summers yelled, “Time out.” Gehrig, who was writhing in pain, was still in fair territory unable to get back to the bag. The rookie first baseman for the Red Sox, Babe Dahlgren screamed for the ball. Umpire Summers wasn’t having it. “I said, TIME OUT.”

And just like that play stopped.

Doc Painter, the Yankees trainer charged across the infield grass to assist Lou. But before he could get there, Babe Dahlgren was on his knees tending to Gehrig as if he’d reverted back to that kid in San Francisco who was making sure his favorite player was okay. Players from both teams and Umpire Summers huddled around the Yankees captain who remained face down in the dirt for several minutes.

gehrig_35
Babe Dahlgren is on his knees next to Lou Gehrig as Doc Painter arrives while others gather around to help – August 5, 1935.

 

Eventually Lou was helped up and surprisingly stayed in the game, and later scored on George Selkirk’s base hit. However, when Gehrig’s spot came around in the top of the fifth, he was in too much pain to hit forcing Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy to pinch hit for him with Myril Hoag. The rain never let up and the game was called after five innings. The Yankees won, 10-2.

Fate wasn’t done just yet. The rain continued throughout the night and washed away Tuesday’s game forcing the Yankees and Red Sox to play a double header on Wednesday, August 7, 1935. Like the true Iron Horse that he was, Lou Gehrig was in the lineup for both games. One has to wonder if the rainout on Tuesday gave Lou Gehrig the extra time he needed to rest his ailing back and thus keep his streak alive.

That is a question left only for the baseball God’s to answer.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or at mattdahlgren.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Passing of a Great Man

The Iowa summer nights were hot and humid. The porch swing is where I’d go after games to find comfort under a black sky where fire flies flickered just beyond the properties edge.

The patrol car rolled to a stop in front of the house. The officer, who was built like a tank and beginning to gray at his temples, got out and walked up the steps to where I was sitting. I can remember hearing his leather police belt and shoes squeaking with every step.

“How’d you do tonight, Matty?”

I gave him a quick rundown of the game before he entered the house through a screen door to grab a drink and a snack.

The screen door opened back up. “Wanna go for a ride along?”

“Sure,” I said excited.

“Get your shoes on and meet me down at the car.”

We spent the next hour or so driving from the end of one day into the beginning of another, well past midnight. He pointed out various sites, homes and anecdotes about the city he knew so well while I was still learning to appreciate it. I can still see the beams from the patrol cars headlights reflecting off the barren roads while we both spoke and both listened. I’ll never forget that drive.

We came from all over the country to play in the Jayhawk League, one of the most prestigious collegiate summer baseball leagues in the nation. Host families brought in young aspiring ballplayers that were all chasing a dream, all far from home for the first time and all seemingly homesick.

I hit the jackpot in the summer of 1991!

I got picked by the Roberts family, Steve and Kathy, because Steve liked catchers. And throughout that summer I was made to feel like part of the family and have been treated like it ever since.

img_0009
I’m the tall one in the back. Steve’s the proud one in the front.

Steve was a pillar of Red Oak. He was chief of police in the small town of 6,000 people in southern Iowa until he retired in 2005. Strong in stature he possessed a soft spoken, gentle quality that you knew better than to test.

Red Oak has a large orange water tower at the edge of town; a tower that has weathered many storms and reflects the sun’s rays on sweltering summer afternoons. When I think of that tower, I think of Steve Roberts: strong, reliable, quiet and resolute.

red-oak

Steve passed away on Thursday after a hard fought battle with cancer at the age of 65. He fought to the very end and never once complained, all the while keeping his sense of humor – a sense of humor that prompted him to paint my fingernails pink when he returned from a graveyard shift while I slept in the basement. He didn’t have to work graveyard. After all, he was the Chief. He did so to free up his days to spend time with his kids and coach and to watch a couple innings of our games before he had to leave and do it all over again.

Steve loved baseball and its rich history. He loved the College World Series because that’s what good folks from small towns do. He loved the movie Field of Dreams that took place in his home state of Iowa. In the summer of 2014 when the movie celebrated its 25th anniversary, Steve and his beloved wife Kathy and family traveled to the Iowa farm where the movie was filmed for a screening along with thousands of others including Kevin Costner.

steve-roberts
Steve Roberts in 2014

Two weeks ago I received a letter in the mail from Steve. Inside the envelope was a gold challenge coin and the history of how and why they are used. He wanted me to have it and know that I was part of his club, that I was a hero to him.

Steve, you’re the hero my friend – to me and so many others. And I will carry that coin with pride as a reminder of you and your unwavering commitment to live life to the fullest.

When I think of Steve Roberts, I think of a loving husband, father and grandfather. I think of a mentor to so many, a coach and a 30 year public servant.

When I think of Steve Roberts, I think of an unabashed patriot who loved his country.

When I think of Steve Roberts, well, I think I’m blessed to have known him.

I’m reminded of the line “Go the distance” from the iconic movie, Field of Dreams.

Let the record show that Steve went the distance and never quit – he won the day. And so did the entire Roberts family. He wore his strong faith on his sleeve and offered daily doses of hope and inspiration for those who needed it until the very end. And now he’s home, somewhere beyond the corn fields in God’s arms forever.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or at mattdahlgren.com 

 

 

When Major League Baseball Used Replay in 1964

On July 14, 1964, Major League Baseball umpires used replay to determine whether or not a home run call was correct.

The home run in question happened the day before during a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City A’s at Municipal Stadium. At the time, the White Sox were in third place just 2.5 games behind Baltimore. The A’s however were out of reach a distant 21 games back.

In the bottom of the seventh inning of the second game, and the White Sox leading 6-3, A’s shortstop Wayne Causey hit a shot to right field off Don Mossi that appeared to have bounced off the top of the wall. Second base umpire Joe Paparella ruled it in-play and Causey pulled into second base for a double driving in Dick Green and Ken Harrelson. But home plate umpire Frank Umont saw it differently. Ironically, it was Umont’s vision that had been the topic of conversation eight years prior when in 1956 he became the first Major League Umpire to wear spectacles in a game. At the time Umont remarked, “I expect to be ribbed about my glasses, bu I don’t expect it will worry me.”

Standing at home plate, peering through his glasses from over 325 feet away, Umont saw the ball, or so he thought, hit the base of a yellow support poll that held up an awning in an area called “One Half Pennant Porch” that had just been added that year by A’s owner Charlie Finley. Finley originally tried to move the right field fence to 296 feet down the line to replicate Yankee Stadium and was going to call it “Pennant Porch.” But that was shot down by Commissioner Ford Frick. So he moved it back to 325 feet saying, “In the depression days they used to say it’s better to have a half loaf than none at all,” and thus the name One Half Pennant Porch was born.

one-half-pennant-porch

Umont overturned Paparella’s call and ruled Causey’s hit a home run which tied the game at 6. White Sox manager Al Lopez charged out of the dugout to argue with Umont which resulted in Lopez being ejected. Lopez protested the call and the A’s went on to win the game, 8-7.

The following day the Cleveland Indians arrived in Kansas City to begin a new series with the same umpiring crew of Frank Umont, Cal Drummond, Joe Paparella and Lou DiMuro there to work it.

Babe Dahlgren was hired by Charlie Finley before the 1964 season as a coach with the sole purpose of using film as an instructional method. His job was to film hitters during batting practice and games so he could then review it with the hitters to go over their tendencies. He was the first big league coach to do this. Incidentally, Dahlgren had also been teammates with Al Lopez in 1944-45 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and held him in very high regard saying, “As a player no one was more liked by the other players than Al Lopez.”

al-lopez_45_most-games-caught-1793
Babe Dahlgren signs a ball for teammate Al Lopez in 1945 after Lopez set the record for most games caught with 1,793.

Babe suited up and gathered his camera equipment to head out for batting practice when the umpires met him in the clubhouse. They were aware of his job with the A’s and asked if he caught the flight of the ball on film from the prior day. Dahlgren explained that although the film had been processed (developed) he hadn’t had time to edit and review it. They told Babe that Cal Hubbard, American League umpire supervisor, was flying into Kansas City that day to review the consequential call with them. He was on his way to the ball park and they were all on edge, in particular Frank Umont.

Dahlgren offered to leave the ball park (in uniform) and pick up the film at his apartment. Parking in the underground garage, Babe entered the elevator which stopped at the first floor to pick up several residents of the building. They all flashed a peculiar look at the guy standing before them wearing a white flannel vest with 48 on the back and on the arms of his green short sleeve undershirt. He got to his apartment, ran some film through his film editor to find the needed evidence and drove back to the ball park.

When Dahlgren returned Cal Hubbard was indeed there waiting. Babe put the film through his projector inside the A’s clubhouse where they all gathered around and watched. Sure enough, Umont’s eyes didn’t let him down. The ball hit the base of the pole right at the top of the outfield fence – clearly a home run. Umont had made the right call after all. Hubbard remarked that he had confidence in the umpires all along and didn’t doubt the call for a moment. This of course brought puzzled looks from the crew who sat there watching the film while feeling the weight of his visit.

Just three days later on July 17, Kansas City traveled to Chicago to start a three game series. Out of respect for his old teammate and friend, Dahlgren pulled Al Lopez aside and told him that he had reviewed the film he took of Causey’s home run and it was indeed the correct call. He wanted to give Lopez piece of mind.

And what an important call it was. The White Sox finished the 1964 season one game behind the New York Yankees for the American League pennant.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or at mattdahlgren.com 

“Who’s the kid in right?”

In the winter of 1956, my grandfather Babe Dahlgren wrote a letter to Ray Kennedy asking for a job. Kennedy was the director of player personnel for the Kansas City Athletics. The club was expanding their scouting program and Hank Peters, the Athletics farm director subsequently hired Babe to cover the West Coast. Part of his responsibilities included scouting major league spring training camps in Arizona.

Babe liked to distance himself from the other scouts, preferring to sit alone; not wanting to discuss players he was interested in. He used to tell me that he wanted a young player to “wake him up” and once they did, he’d hone in on their every move.

There was one particular spring day in 1957 while watching the Cleveland Indians that a young kid stood out. There was something about his quiet demeanor and powerful left-handed swing that reminded Babe of a former teammate named Lou Gehrig. After taking his swings on the field, the kid ran out to right field to shag. That’s when Babe got up from his seat and approached Indians manager, Kerby Farrell.

“Who’s the kid in right field?” Babe asked.

“Roger Maris,” Farrell replied. “He played for me last year in Indianapolis. He’s the only one out there I’m not sure of in the starting line-up. What do you think of him?”

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen him, but if I were in your shoes he’d be the one guy sure of a job.”

maris_cleveland

Babe watched Roger with a keen eye that afternoon during an exhibition game. Later, when he returned to his motel room, he penned a letter to Parke Carroll, vice president of the Athletics alerting him of the young outfielder and how his status on the Cleveland ball club was uncertain. He stressed that if a deal could be made for him, to do it.

Roger Maris finished his rookie season in 1957 with 14 home runs and hit .235.

As for Babe, he asked for a raise after the 1957 season and his contract with the Athletics wasn’t renewed.

Within a year of Babe tipping-off Parke Carroll, a deal was made. On June 15, 1958, the Athletics traded Woodie Held and Vic Power to the Indians in exchange for Roger Maris, Dick Tomanek and Preston Ward. In the remaining 99 games with his new team, Maris hit 19 home runs finishing the season with 28. He was only 23 years old.

maris_a's

While Maris did make the All-Star team the following season in 1959, his power production slipped. He finished the season with 16 home runs and 72 RBI’s. The Athletics gave up on Maris way too soon. In December of 1959, he was part of a package deal that sent him to the New York Yankees in exchange for Hank Bauer and Don Larsen.

Upon hearing the news of the trade, Babe wired George Weiss, general manager of the Yankees congratulating him on the deal feeling they’d just clinched the pennant for several years. He was right! The Yankees went on to win the American League pennant the next five seasons. And that kid in right field became a legend.

maris_paper

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or at mattdahlgren.com 

‘You taught me to pray’

The Sporting News, December 24, 1952:

Ex Big Leaguer Dahlgren Composes Yule Song, ‘You taught me to pray’

An experience last Christmas in his home town of Arcadia, Ca, led Babe Dahlgren to compose the words and music to a Christmas song titled “You Taught Me to Pray,” Dahlgren relates in a letter to Publisher J.G. Taylor Spink of the Sporting News.

“Last year we found a post card in our mail box shortly before Christmas. All of our neighbors received them. We were told to contact the chairman of a local group if we wished Santa Claus to visit our homes on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Dahlgren liked the idea, even though our boys were 9 and 7 years old respectively. When we told the boys that Santa Claus was coming, they looked at each other with wise little grins. There was no doubt in their minds as to whom Santa Claus would be if he did come to our house.

“Christmas Eve we were in the living room testing the lights on the tree when with happy shouting and jingle bells the boys ran to the front door. As they opened the door, in came Santa Claus. As he called them by name, they looked at me with open mouths. Santa gave them each a gift, told them to go to bed early because he would be back later with more gifts. Then he ran down the driveway shouting ‘Merry Christmas,’ crossing the street, down another driveway and into the house of a neighbor. We could see him swinging the little girl around the room and hear him shouting, ‘Merry Christmas.’

“We settled down finally and came back into the house to sit around the tree, but not for long because we heard voices signing. Opening the door again, there in front of our home stood carolers, faces lit by candles they held, singing for us and then following Santa’s tracks to each home. It was a wonderful Christmas – even without snow on the ground. I felt deeply indebted to ‘Santa’ (a local postman) and the carolers for making our Christmas such a happy one.

“The thought that they were spending their Christmas Eve walking from house to house to make others happy was a sober one indeed. But they were having a good Christmas, too. “I hated to see them go. I wanted Christmas to stay, believe me. Hearing the Christmas carols, hymns and melodies gave me the desire to write one.

“It was six months before I found the melody and it took me three months to find the words I wanted to use.

“Recently, on a Sunday, I gave my boys a copy to take to Sunday School. Later I stopped to visit the director of the church. I wanted to know what he thought of my song – the melody – the words.

“Don Ruud, the director, looked at me and said, ‘Babe, I like your song. I haven’t heard it with any musical accompaniment as yet but my wife studies voice and she sang it beautifully. The melody, though not like our church songs because it is written with ‘popular music’ appeal, still makes good listening and has something soothing about it. It has a definite message, Babe, and I got it. The thing that I like most about it, Babe, is it was written by a ball player. When I think of how the kids in America idolize ball players and think what it would mean to the churches of America if the kids knew a ball player wrote such a song, I only wish every kid in America could hear it.

“Well, Taylor, that’s it. I guess I’ll always be known as a ball player. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It seems that if I do write something good, it will reflect on all ball players.”

Following are the words of Dahlgren’s song:

You taught me to pray,

It was Christmas and gay

All the world seemed to say

Merry Christmas

You taught me to pray

When you sang songs that day

Christmas carols that say,

Merry Christmas.

Bethlehem’s Christ child,

The Savior, was born.

Angels in Heaven called this

Christmas morn.

Good will, peace on earth,

Praise the Lord

Praise His birth!

Bless the day I learned to pray

Dear Lord.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the new novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or http://www.mattdahlgren.com

The Story Behind the Photos

57_3In 1939, after returning from the Mayo Clinic with dire news, Lou Gehrig entered the clubhouse to greet his teammates. His locker was full of mail, most of it from fans that associated his illness with theirs, some even suggesting remedies. Gehrig put on his uniform and walked down to the Yankees dugout. Babe Dahlgren saw Lou and walked over to say hello. It was hours before the game, and the fans were not yet in the ballpark. Just then, a photographer spotted the two talking when he approached them with a request. “What kind of picture?” Gehrig asked.

“I want Dahlgren posed at first base reaching for a ball and you standing close, cheering,” said the photographer.

The two obliged, but when Babe took his position at first base, he suddenly heard resistance from Gehrig behind him. “Nothing doing,” Gehrig snapped. “I’m not cheering at first base. I haven’t given up my job yet.” An innocent photo opportunity quickly turned into an awkward moment. Babe couldn’t believe what he was hearing. After all, he’d been cheering for Lou all his life it seemed. Babe stood there long enough to get the shot but did so without Lou, who retreated back to the Yankees dugout, where he agreed to have his picture taken. After the photo session, Babe started thinking about what had just happened and he came to the conclusion that that was precisely why Gehrig was so great – he wouldn’t quit on himself. Even after being told by the best doctors in the country that he would never play again, he didn’t believe it himself.

*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town and the new novel, The Flannel Past. He can be followed on Twitter: @mattdahlgren12 or http://www.mattdahlgren.com