A New Look at First
NEW YORK – After two years, the job was officially his. On June 21, 1939, Ellsworth ‘Babe’ Dahlgren earned his starting role for the season, as well as the now-permanent intimidating task of replacing an institution at first base. It was on that same day that Lou Gehrig officially retired from the New York Yankees.
The night before, the ailing ballplayer had returned from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. His wife was at Newark Airport to greet him, as were the reporters. Though he responded favorably to the kind of work that was being done at the center, he refused to speak of his own condition or even divulge on the side of its favorability.
Within that extensive report was a foreboding letter from a Doctor H.C. Habein. He stated that Lou was suffering from an ailment affecting the motor pathways and cells of the nervous system: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The nature of the disease was that Gehrig would no longer be able to continue playing actively. On the afternoon of the 21st, the news was broken to team president Ed Barrow at Yankee Stadium.
Along with Manager Joe McCarthy, charts, x-rays and many detailed reports were studied diligently hours before game time. It was Barrow who summoned the baseball writers and then told them all the news, stating that Gehrig was suffering from an infantile paralysis. Barrow claimed Lou would stay on the active player list at full salary, hoping above all hope that the slugger could eventually return and contribute to the ball club.
He had taken himself out of the lineup in Detroit on May 2, ending his incredible streak of consecutive games played. That afternoon, the Yankees pummeled the Tigers, 22-2. ‘Babe’ Dahlgren took advantage of his first starting opportunity with the ballclub. He had contributed his first homer as a Yankee in a big seventh inning. In addition to a double, he also hit two other long flies that were caught at the base of the left centerfield wall, both barely missing the stands.
Years earlier, Dahlgren had been a star with the San Francisco Missions in the Pacific Coast League, batting .295, with thirty seven home runs and 376 runs batted in from 1932 to 1934. He had also played in 621 consecutive games. It was no surprise that he was big league material.
Signed by Eddie Collins and the Red Sox, he performed admirably for Boston. Manager Joe Cronin called him the greatest fielding first baseman he had ever seen. However, at the outset of the 1936 season, the Red Sox purchased Jimmie Foxx from Connie Mack, making Babe the odd-man out at first. He was sent to the minors in Syracuse after the season, where he batted .318 with sixteen homers. He also led all International League first basemen with 121 runs batted in.
Collins sold Dahlgren outright to the Yankees in February of 1937. Joining the Newark Bears in Rochester in early May, Babe excelled. Placed in a lineup that included Charlie Keller, Joe Gordon, George McQuinn and Bob Seeds, he flourished at the plate. With the Bears annihilating the competition in the International League, Dahlgren averaged .340 that year, along with eighteen home runs and 88 runs batted in. That season, Newark finished 25 ½ games in front of the second place Montreal Royals. They would go onto beat Syracuse and Baltimore in the Governor’s Cup, and eventually would take the Little World Series by beating the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association League.
By the time 1938 rolled around, Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy was impressed enough with Dahlgren to promote him to the ball club as a utility infielder. He managed to get into twenty-seven games that year, helping the team win its third World Series in a row.
1939 seemed like it would start similarly for Dahlgren, even though he was batting .349 and playing spectacular defense after twenty-three exhibition games. It was during that March that Lou Gehrig began to noticeably falter. The press equated it to him being out of shape and getting along in his years as a ballplayer. They all felt that once the team left the humid weather in Florida to barnstorm their way back to New York, Gehrig’s bat would heat up. However, the ailing first baseman would not recover. His poor play continued into the season, and after ten contests, the club arrived in Detroit, where Lou benched himself.
So, it was in front of 6,503 fans that Dahlgren made his starting debut in New York. May 16th saw the first place Yankees host the hapless St. Louis Brown, in what was to be the first game in a two-week homestead. Despite the loss of Gehrig and DiMaggio out of the lineup with an ankle injury, New York had been riding high from their wild sojourn on the road. They had their lead in the league by a game and a half and were in the middle of a five-game winning streak. Because of inclement weather earlier in the season, attendance at the stadium had been rather sparse, so that Tuesday provided many with their first glimpse at the team all year. It might even be said that it was the first time that many of them had ever seen anyone at first besides Lou Gehrig.
With Irving ‘Bump’ Hadley on the mound for New York, he wasted no time in confounding the Browns. Though scoring a run in the opening frame, St. Louis struggled through the first seven innings with only four hits. After losing control in the eighth, fireman Johnny Murphy was called in to frustrate St. Louis further. It was in that eighth that Dahlgren single-handedly saved and then won the game for the Yankees.
In the top of the inning, there were two outs and loaded bases. Thanks to a big sixth inning that the Browns lost control of after an errant throw and a Joe Gordon homer, the Yanks were leading by a run. At this point in the game, a base hit could have made the game evermore interesting. Billy Sullivan was called in to pinch hit, hoping to drive in some for his teammates. He subsequently smashed a liner that screamed just inside the foul line, and the sprightly-footed Babe made a spectacular spear of the ball for the final out of the inning.
In the home team frame, Dahlgren was presented with an opportunity to make some more noise. Bill Dickey walked and Charlie Keller followed with a sharp single. Babe smashed a line drive into dead center field, where the ball bounded off of the 457-foot sign, scoring all of the runners, including Babe. The Yanks had their sixth straight victory.
The ball club had hoped that by the time they left New York on the night of May 28, they would have a healthy grasp of first place. In late June, with Gehrig retired and Dahlgren into the groove, they had a stranglehold on it – one they would not relinquish.