What say you, Skip?

In April of 2018, I received an email from Mark Healey of gothambaseball.com. I’d become acquainted with Mark after my book, Rumor In Town was published in 2007. I appeared on his podcast a couple of times in an effort to promote the book. It’d been a while since we’d last corresponded and his email was to the point: Just read Skip Lockwood’s bio “Insight Pitch” and he takes quite a few shots at your grandpa; thought you should know…

I read his words again, confused. Who’s Skip Lockwood? A quick Google image search awakened memories from my trove of childhood baseball cards. But why was this guy taking shots at my grandpa? Still in Google, I searched his book and entered Babe Dahlgren in the search window. That’s when my blood began to boil. Aside from the various cheap shots Lockwood takes at my grandfather, it was an alleged fist fight between the two inside the clubhouse that ultimately motivated me to write this after sitting on it for over a year.

Before discrediting Chapter 7 of Skip Lockwood’s Insight Pitch, here’s some background. In 1964, my grandfather was a hitting/film coach for the Kansas City Athletics. Babe pitched the idea to club owner, Charlie Finley during the Winter Meetings in 1963 by showing him a 90 minute movie he’d produced on hitting. After watching the movie in a suite at the Statler Hotel in Los Angeles, and listening to Babe’s passion about film and how it could benefit hitters, Finley hired Babe on the spot for the ’64 season. His primary task was to film the A’s hitters during games, and then review the film with them so they could see their tendencies: good and bad. This method had never been used before – my grandfather was truly ahead of his time. During that summer in June, Skip Lockwood, a 17-year-old high school senior from Catholic Memorial High School in Boston signed a $100 thousand bonus with the A’s. Before Lockwood was assigned to the Burlington Bees of the Midwest League, Charlie Finley had him workout with the major league club. Lockwood joined the A’s in Cleveland on June 12.

He writes about that experience in Chapter 7 which is titled: An Unwelcoming Welcome to the Show. Leading up to the alleged fight between he and Babe, Lockwood makes several attempts at chopping my grandfather down. The following excerpts jumped out at me.

Excerpt from page 92: Insight Pitch – A coach named “Babe” was the opposite of the aforementioned gentleman. Babe was not held in very high esteem by the baseball community in general, against whom he continued to hold a grudge. He was the first major leaguer to fail a drug test and believed that he had been victimized by baseball brass. He had grown into a surly man, twenty years older looking than his age, and he was just barely hanging on to his present job by doing two things that no one else wanted to do: throw batting practice and record the game on tape. He hated both jobs, but it meant a paycheck and a uniform…

Lockwood’s claim that Babe was the first major leaguer to “fail” a drug test is false. It is also slanderous and I’d like to see what proof he has to back his claim. The truth is, in 1943 Babe approached baseball’s commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and asked to be tested for marijuana because of rumors spreading throughout the league. Babe volunteered to be tested, the league paid for the tests and the results came back negative but nothing was done to clear his name. It’s why I wrote, Rumor in Town. Here’s a clip of Babe talking with Keith Olbermann about the rumor in 1989.

With regards to hating his job with the A’s, Babe spent several years and thousands of dollars on equipment to make a film on hitting for the sole purpose of helping hitters – it’s what inspired Charlie Finley to hire him. Babe loved nothing more than using film to help ball players actually see what they were doing right, and what they were doing wrong. So, when Lockwood says that Babe hated his job, he couldn’t be more mistaken.

Excerpt from pages 92-93: Insight Pitch – Babe heard through the grapevine that the front office had signed a kid out of Boston, a bonus baby. Bunch of fools, he probably thought. Rookies are not worth the tobacco to spit on them, he probably said to himself. Babe also didn’t like Northerners, especially Bostonians.

For starters, Babe didn’t chew tobacco. He also treated rookies the same as veterans; wanting to help them all. Having only been around Babe for all of an hour, Lockwood takes great liberties with his “probably thought/probably said” quotes. His assertion that Babe “didn’t like Northerners, especially Bostonians” is baseless and cheap. Babe was a city kid who grew up in San Francisco. If he didn’t like someone it was because of their character, not because of race or origin.  

  • In 1935 Babe roomed with Mel Almada – the first Mexican born major leaguer.
  • In 1941 Babe and teammate, Charlie Gilbert, were held-up at knife point in Chicago by a couple of “thugs” as he always referenced them to me. It wasn’t until researching old newspapers for my book that I learned the two suspects were black – it never mattered to Babe to add that to his story.
  • Babe had the good fortune of playing in Boston twice throughout his career (1935 & 1941). Here are some examples of fan letters to a young kid in 1935 where Babe tries to help him with advice on how to play baseball – odd behavior for someone with such hostility towards Bostonians.    

Lockwood then describes meeting A’s manager, Ed Lopat, for the first time in the dugout at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. He paints Lopat as a cantankerous, tobacco spitting, gas passing buffoon. Lockwood’s dialogue with Lopat reads like a scene from The Natural between Roy Hobbs and Pop Fisher. You can almost hear Lopat’s lines being said in Wilford Brimley’s voice.

Excerpt from pages 94-95: Insight Pitch – My eyes wandered as I listened to the sharp crack of the ball hitting the bat as it echoed in the empty stadium. I walked over toward the dugout steps to meet Eddie Lopat, the A’s manager. “Hello,” Eddie said in a monotone, bored tone. He seemed to be concentrating partially on the batting practice and more intently on an attractive blonde near the first row. “You Lockhart?” “Lockwood,” I corrected and stuck out my hand. “Eddie Lopat,” he said without shaking hands or looking up. He lifted one cheek of his rear and cut wind in my direction. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lopat,” I said, withdrawing my hand, embarrassed by his lack of civility. Running the corner of his eye over me with a wave of annoyance, a sneer formed on Eddie’s lips, and he spit tobacco on the steps between us. It splashed into a well-established puddle with some outliers landing on my new white cleats. “We’re all on a first name basis here. Save your formal greeting for them teachers you had in high school back East. Here, I’m Eddie to you…same as everyone else. Now get out of my face. Grab your ass in that pretty new uniform over to the bat rack, pick one out of the pitchers rack, the bat boys will show you where, and shag up there to the cage for a couple of swings before practice is over.”

Aside from the fact that the A’s didn’t wear white spikes (not cleats) until 1967, the problem with Lockwood’s story is that by his own admission on page 91 of Insight Pitch, he joined the team in Cleveland which would’ve been on Friday, June 12. Ed Lopat was fired as A’s manager the day before that, which was an off day. In other words, Ed Lopat wasn’t the manager when Skip Lockwood arrived, Mel McGaha was. How could Lockwood have such vivid memories and quotes from someone who wasn’t even there?

But the most egregious story in Chapter 7 is about an alleged fight that took place inside the clubhouse between Lockwood and my grandfather; a fight stemming from an incident that happened during batting practice.

In Lockwood’s version of the story which begins on page 97 of his book, he entered the batting cage to take a few swings and right away my grandfather deliberately started throwing at him. He claims Babe’s first pitch was well inside and that his second pitch hit him on the middle of his back causing him to fall to the ground (pause and let that sink in for a moment). Lockwood then says Babe’s third pitch carried a message and hit him hard on his shoulder – once again bringing Lockwood to the dirt. (In all my life I’ve never seen a BP fastball bring someone to their knees once, let alone twice, but I digress). Lockwood claims that as he left the batting cage, he looked out at Babe and shouted, “Throw the fucking ball over the plate, meat,” at which point Babe allegedly grabbed his crotch and yelled, “I’ve got your meat right here. Get your candy-ass back in there. You get two more pitches and I ain’t done with you.”

Lockwood describes Babe as a “Neanderthal” who was snorting like an escaped bull, sighting that one of the coaches had to run out and calm him down. According to Lockwood, the next hitter in the cage was Larry Stahl who’d just come back from a stint on the disabled list from a shoulder injury. Lockwood said Stahl yelled at Babe, “You hit me asshole and I’ll hide all the beer in the clubhouse.”

A little research shows that Larry Stahl didn’t make his major league debut until September 11, 1964 – 3 months after Lockwood worked out with the club. The following box score for the Birmingham Barons, the double-A affiliate for the A’s, appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times on June 4, 1964.

Notice Larry Stahl was batting third. If Stahl had a shoulder injury, it would’ve happened on June 4th or after. This makes it peculiar, if not unrealistic, that as a minor leaguer, Stahl would be returning from the disabled list with the major league club in Cleveland on the 12th. And if by some chance Stahl was there, would a minor league player who hadn’t made his major league debut yet call a big league coach “asshole?” Maybe in Hollywood – but not in real life.

After reading Lockwood’s account in utter disbelief, I poured through over 300 pages of my grandfather’s original manuscript for the book he was writing before he died. Perhaps he mentioned an incident that had been lost on me over the years. Low and behold, I found the following excerpt. Notice the identity of the player involved was intentionally left out.

Now compare what my grandfather wrote to Lockwood’s preposterous description of a fight that ensued inside the visitors’ clubhouse.

Excerpt from pages 102-104: Insight Pitch – As luck would have it, my locker was near Babe’s. He was still fuming about his personal problem with rookies, his misfortune compared to their good fortune. On his way for a beer, he passed my stool and bent over and said, “Wish I had stuck it in your rookie ear. Do you have any idea where your candy-ass is?” If the question was geographic in nature, in truth, I might have had a problem with the answer. Given the ire and sarcasm that was spitting out of the corners of his mouth, I guessed that Babe was aiming at a more philosophical response. “Where am I?” I replied mockingly, reflexively. When I left home less than twenty-four hours ago, I knew I would have to make it on my own. I’d have to fight my own battles. I would not be accepted into this game until I earned respect. But I was confident in my talent, and I would not be belittled for my age or where I came from. I did not understand Babe’s emotional instability, but I knew this was some kind of test being administered in public view. Dignity and honor were at stake, I was not going to back down, not today or ever. Babe was expecting me to timidly back down, but instead I stood up. “This here place belongs to professionals not the likes of you,” Babe growled, still in his underwear and showing a mid-section girth much in need of a few more sit ups and few less beers. He stepped closer. The players in near proximity spun around smelling an argument, hoping for more. Tension had been mounting in the locker room because of the team’s poor on-field performance. They all needed something to break the jinx. Players craned their necks around the sharp corners of the lockers. I assumed that civil camaraderie would come with wearing the same uniform, but apparently, sixty minutes in the green-and-gold were not enough to cement that bond. Babe was tightening his fists as he pushed one of the stools aside for better access. His nostrils flared. His gray hair lay flat on the side of his head. To me, he looked burnt out, but nevertheless, I decided I better take him seriously. Babe swore and moved to a more combative stance. He slapped his own stool to the floor. His complexion dimmed from white-gray to ashen. I widened my stance too, thinking, “Is this guy really going to take a swing at me. For what? Why?” “Yea, Rookie. Why don’t you just get up from here and go back where you came from!” Babe said working himself into a rage again. I let my eyes follow the overturned stool. I was very much an unproven rookie in this surrounding. Looking at me with contempt, he saw a pathetic, incompetent rookie, not worth the bonus or even deserving of a uniform. He emitted a single, guttural noise like an animal snort, triggering an adrenaline surge from his nervous system. He drew back to make a swing. “Don’t do that, old man,” I said reflexively. Again my words were not well chosen and, like before, only enraged him more. Babe had kept his resentment inside for way too long. Now he was in attack mode. His fists en route, he lost his balance, undisciplined in this type of physical behavior, and stumbled. The blow landed mostly on my shoulder. I saw it coming and ducked towards the towel bin. This was my first fight ever but I would soon find out, not my last. I was in survival mode. All eyes in the room were harvesting the show. I punched back with a right. I felt a swoop of elation as we surged backward. Babe was on one knee near his locker. He knew he’d been hit, and he knew he missed with his best chance. Enraged, he stopped to collect his thoughts from the impact and design a counter. This fight was far from over. Babe gathered himself, still kneeling, and noticed the assortment of extra bats stored handle-up next to the wall. He grabbed one, scraping his elbow, losing his balance for a second time. His mouth was distorted, and he tried to gain some leverage. The irony of the situation was palpable. I was a rookie and on display. Really. Here’s an old batting practice coach trying to make a serious mark on my head and career. I pounced on him, getting a knee into his chest, smothering the fight. “What the hell is going on?” yelled Luke Appling, one of the coaches. Both Babe and I were on the ground panting for air, absurdly dressed in our underwear. A pool of blood was dripping under the overturned stool. “Break it up. Break it up. What the fuck is going on? Why are you guys all sitting around watching them fight?” The fight was over. I was back up on my stool and out of breath, shocked that I had been in my first street fight. I stood up and caught a glimpse of a mirror on the wall about ten feet away. I didn’t recognize my own reflection. This was certainly not the welcome I imagined as I embarked on my career as a big leaguer. Mulling over the events of the day, I was mortified that I had been so disrespected by people I had assumed I should offer respect, but mollified that I had withstood the ordeal and maintained my self-respect. Having been king of the hill for so long, I was shocked at my new status of persona non grata. Still, I didn’t want to make more of this incident than it deserved. This childish “Babe” evidently had a problem that needed professional intervention. He mistakenly thought that I would be an easy target for his wrath. On the upside, I believed I had found an on field mentor in Ed Charles and an off-field protector in Luke Appling. Having been challenged as a rookie, I responded like a veteran. It was evident that from here on out I was going to have to fight for what was mine. Nothing was going to be handed to me.

My dad, grandfather and uncle – Municipal Stadium, 1964

Throughout the entire summer of 1964, my dad, who was 19-years-old, and uncle worked out with the Kansas City A’s before home games. They spent a lot of time on the field and inside the clubhouse. One would think if an incident like this ever happened (even if it was on the road), they would’ve heard about it. But they didn’t. My dad was so angered by Lockwood’s story that he reached out and spoke with Jim Gentile, Ted Bowsfield, Nelson Mathews and Wayne Causey. When they heard what Lockwood had written in his book they were in disbelief – mad even. They all liked and respected Babe. None of them saw the alleged fight between Lockwood and Babe, or heard about one.

I recently spoke with Ken Harrelson over the phone. We had a great conversation and he spoke highly of my grandfather; saying Babe was one of his favorite coaches. In 1964, Harrelson was in his second year in the big leagues with A’s and would’ve been there when Skip Lockwood arrived. I asked him about a fight between Lockwood and Babe inside the clubhouse. Harrelson responded candidly by saying, “I never saw it, and never heard about it.” He also told me that if something like that had happened, “everyone on the club would’ve known about it.”

In 1964, Rocky Colavito was in his first and only season with A’s. My dad wrote to Colavito and included Lockwood’s description of the alleged fight. He recently received the following statement.

How could a fight like this happen in the tight quarters of a clubhouse, a fight which resulted in a “pool of blood” and yet none of these six players saw it, or heard about it? Remember, Lockwood said on page 104 that, “All eyes in the room were harvesting the show.” Apparently Rocky Colavito, Jim Gentile, Ken Harrelson, Nelson Mathews, Ted Bowsfield and Wayne Causey didn’t buy a ticket to get in.

What about the press? On page 94 Lockwood says, “I was greeted by the media and took a few questions, but batting practice was not going to last too much longer, and I wanted to show my stuff.” Wouldn’t that same media have had an interest in writing a story about the $100,000 bonus baby fighting Lou Gehrig’s successor inside the clubhouse on his first day joining the club? Surely they would’ve heard about it. Writers would salivate over a story like that. Yet there isn’t one story written about it. How come? If a major league coach engaged in a fist fight with the teams’ newly signed bonus baby (who was still a minor) would that coach have kept his job? Of course not!

Common sense says none of this adds up. Frankly, it’s pathetic.

The truth is my grandfather embarrassed Skip Lockwood when he dressed him down that day in 1964 during batting practice. And after the two shook hands my grandfather moved on, but Skip Lockwood never did. It’s obvious he harbored resentment for years and never forgot it. And his book was his chance to get back at Babe Dahlgren with lies knowing he was dead and couldn’t defend himself. It doesn’t get lower than that.

When my grandfather died in 1996 at the age of 84, hanging in the back right corner of his garage was a red Everlast punching bag. He loved boxing. I named my dog Dempsey as a young boy because I’d heard so many stories from my grandpa about the great Jack Dempsey. If Babe had never made it as a baseball player, he would’ve tried boxing. As a 16-year-old in the California National Guard, he boxed and won a medal against an opponent several years older than him. He memorialized his medals in the back of his pocket sized phone book that he carried with him during high school and after. That small book is now in my possession.

Babe’s childhood phone book

A former welterweight champion in the Navy once asked Babe’s stepfather if he could manage the young fighter, but his stepfather said “no” because he wanted him to play baseball.  Several years later, as a rookie with the Red Sox in 1935, Babe and teammate Bill Werber exchanged punches inside the dugout at Fenway Park. On page 46 of Bill Werber’s book titled, Memories of a Ballplayer, he recalls the incident that stemmed from an error my grandfather made.

“It was a dumb play on Dahlgren’s part and I made the mistake of telling him so when we reached the Sox dugout at the end of the inning. He was as annoyed as I was and gave me his thoughts in what I considered strong language. In the dugout was a large tin bucket of Florida water and ice along with a sponge for wiping the sweat from your face. At that moment the sponge was in my hand and I shoved it into Babe’s face. The next thing I felt was his fist against my jaw and my head rocked against the concrete wall of the dugout. My left caught him on the bridge of the nose and blood gushed out on his uniform and dugout floor. At that juncture teammates separated us, to my great benefit. I had not known that Dahlgren had been an amateur boxer of some accomplishment in his native California.”

Babe hitting the speed bag in the basement of his San Francisco home during the winter in 1941.

I had to smile when Lockwood said that Babe “drew back to take a swing” and that Babe (referring to fighting) was “undisciplined in this type of behavior.” Unlike a cowboy in an old western movie who telegraphed his punches, when Babe threw a punch there was no warning; this was obvious to me as a youngster when I’d playfully spar with him. The only thing undisciplined in this story is Lockwood’s ability to tell the truth.

What say you, Skip?

*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  

    

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THEY CALLED HIM SHINE

“I don’t know for sure how old I am,” says Shine, “but I remember when I was a boy I followed the Union Army during the Civil War. The Confederates didn’t have much food and the Federals did. And I always did like to eat.”

                                                      Shine Scott, the Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1933

 

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Nobody ever knew his real name, though one can surmise that the infectious warmth he possessed made him shine in the eyes of those around him; thus the name was born.

Shine Scott was abandoned as a baby during the Civil War and adopted by a family with the name of Garrison. He lived with them until he was sixteen before he hit the road working odd jobs and doing anything to make a buck. Soon after he set out on his own, he found a job as a piano player and did some occasional bouncing in a brothel where he could use his baritone voice to its fullest.

By the turn of the century Shine had made his home in Vernon, California where he bought a horse and wagon and made his living as a junkman. In 1909 Vernon became the home to the Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. On his way home each day, Shine made a habit out of pulling up behind the outfield fence where he’d stand on his wagon and talk to players. They loved him from the start – his heavyweight laugh and outlook on life was contagious. It didn’t take long before Shine was invited into the clubhouse where he’d charm the players by telling tales about his travels. The club couldn’t resist Shine’s presence, and Tigers manager, Hap Hogan found room on the payroll and appointed Shine as the team trainer.

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In 1925, the Vernon Tigers were sold and moved to San Francisco where they became the Mission Reds, and Shine immediately became part of the new franchise. Shine was just the kind of guy to take the edge off a young rookie who was entering a professional clubhouse for the first time. My grandfather, Babe Dahlgren, was one of those rookies in 1932 when he joined the Mission Reds.

Shine referred to all the youngsters on the club as his lambs. Whenever he sensed a lamb was down, he’d walk over to their locker and sit beside them asking what the problem was while gazing at them with his watery bloodshot eyes. Sometimes during games he would walk out and stand in the grandstands and watch, but most of the time, if he didn’t have a candidate for the rub table, he’d doze off under the heater in the clubhouse to avoid the crisp Bay air.

When giving a player a massage, Shine would often put on a show by winking to the surrounding teammates and dousing the player on the rub table with whatever was close at hand like soda or just plain water instead of the usual rubbing liniment. This of course kept everybody loose. If a game was rained out when the club was on the road, the payers would take off their uniforms and sit in front of their lockers waiting for Shine to tell stories – it was Showtime! He also liked to argue, and once he got started, he would chase his opponent across the clubhouse until a wall demanded an about-face. Then Shine would stuff large wads of cotton in both ears and walk away unable to hear his agitator which caused the players to roar with laughter.

Shine had a hard time sleeping due to asthma. When the club traveled north to play Portland and Seattle, he’d consistently complain about the high altitudes. “Lamby, I’m afraid this is old Shine’s last trip up these mountains.” But the players all knew Shine wasn’t going anywhere – he was just looking for a little sympathy and the players were happy to give it to him.

One day in 1932, club President, Joe Bearwald, walked into the clubhouse unshaven. The club had been struggling and it was apparent he wasn’t going to shave until the club broke out of its losing streak. In an attempt to relax the club, Bearwald held a team meeting giving the floor to anybody who wanted to offer words of encouragement. That’s when Shine stood up in the back of the clubhouse. “Mr. Bearwald, I know what’s wrong with this club and why we aren’t winning.”

“Why isn’t the club winning Shine?” Bearwald asked.

“Mr. Bearwald, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit!” Shine explained.

The club broke out in laughter, as did Bearwald, who shaved the next day.

At the end of each season Shine would collect all his belongings while looking over his thin glasses that rested on the edge of his nose. When he gathered his Gillette razors, he’d become sentimental. “Well this is my last year. I won’t be shaving anybody’s legs anymore before I tape ‘em up. So I’m going to give you something to remember old Shine by.” He’d start to give away one of his razors but pull it back claiming that it was bad luck to give anything away that cuts. “Tell you what, just to chase the demons away, how ‘bout giving me a dime?” The players would smile knowing that was all he paid for the razor when it was brand new.

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Shine Scott died on October 7, 1940, of a heart attack. The Pacific Coast League was his home for more than thirty years. Though no one knew for certain, it was believed he was over eighty years old.

 

*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 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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*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