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.
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.
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.
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.