Son Makes Good on Father’s Pledge
I recently read a story about my grandpa, Babe Dahlgren and his father Peter that Iâ€™d never heard before. After all the years spent talking with my grandpa, all the countless months researching his life and career, somehow this one slipped past me like the easiest of ground balls. The story appeared in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune on October 13, 1939. The headline read:
Babe Dahlgren to Make Good Fatherâ€™s Pledge 31 Years Ago in Minneapolis
As I read the aged words from the old newspaper, I felt a chill run down my spine while simultaneously looking up and thinking, my God.
Iâ€™ve always known that my grandpa wanted to become a first baseman because of his childhood idol, Lou Gehrig. This of course made that indelible day in Detroit even more surreal when he was the one called on to replace Gehrig on May 2, 1939. But now Iâ€™ve learned that perhaps his first base roots may have come from a place far beyond the San Francisco playgrounds of his youth.
At the conclusion of the 1939 World Series where the Yankees rolled over the Reds in four straight games, my grandpa, as he did after every season, drove west to his home in San Francisco. This year however he decided to stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota to meet his two aunts on his fatherâ€™s side for the very first time. Ida Kastner and Mayme Burmeister were thrilled to meet their world champion nephew. Theyâ€™d followed Babe along the way by scrapbooking his young career and were eager to hear the stories about his experiences as a major leaguer and the bitter sweet year with the New York Yankees.
By now Babe had established himself in the eyes of many peers and scribes as the top defensive first baseman in the game. The adulation started while in the Pacific Coast League where even Charley Graham, president of the Seals and fierce rivals of the Missions, once said he always arrived early when the Missions were home, â€œSo he could see Dahlgren practice.â€ Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin took it one step further in the spring of 1935. When talking about his rookie first baseman Cronin opined, â€œHeâ€™s the greatest first baseman I ever saw.â€ Writer John Lardner would later say, â€œIf an old timer were to swear to me on a stack of testaments that there was a greater defensive first baseman than Ellsworth â€œBabeâ€ Dahlgren of the Yankees I wouldnâ€™t believe him.â€
So when the local papers picked up on Babeâ€™s plans to visit the Land of 10,000 Lakes, they interviewed his two aunts in an effort to preempt the trip with a human interest story about his late father and his love for baseball. And what a story it was!
Born in Minneapolis in 1890, Peter Dahlgren was the youngest of five siblings. The story has it that he was raised by his older sisters, Ida and Mayme. By the time he was twelve years old he had developed a love for baseball that was transparent. Throughout his teenage years Peter played on nearly every team on the east side of town working hard at honing his skills. The kids that played ball with him and went to Pierce school would often say that, â€œPete was the best major league prospect in town.â€ Thatâ€™s why it didnâ€™t come as a surprise when he left home at the age of 18 to chase his dream by heading west to Sacramento, California to play baseball for the Highland Parks, one of the strongest semi-pro teams on the coast and managed by his older brother, Charlie.
Before leaving, Peter made a pledge to his sisters that â€œhe wouldnâ€™t return until he became the best darn first baseman in the world.â€ But that would never happen.
Soon after arriving in Sacramento, he met and fell in love with Addie Davey. They married and in 1910 they had their first child, Harold. Within a year they moved to San Francisco where Peter began working as a steam-fitter at the Western Sugar Refinery at 23rd and 3rd streets. On June 15, 1912, my grandpa (Ellsworth) was born and three years later a third boy named Raymond was born. But tragedy would strike that same summer when just one month after Ellsworth turned three, Peter was scalded to death when a pipe burst at the refinery. This left Addie to fend for herself with three small children. But Raymond would succumb a few months later in a horrific hot water accident, himself.
Within a couple of years, Addie remarried and little Ellsworth, now Babe, had begun his own love affair with the game of baseball. And like the father he never knew, heâ€™d spend years roaming the sandlots and playgrounds in the Mission District until signing his first professional contract in 1931.
Thirty-one years had passed since Peter Dahlgren left home after making his bold pledge to his sisters. And in the crisp Minnesota fall of 1939 it wasnâ€™t he who was returning home with the recognition of being the â€œbest darn first baseman in the world,â€ but rather, his son.
I canâ€™t imagine the feeling my grandpa must have had while visiting his family to learn his father wanted to be a major league first baseman, too.
As far as I knew from the stories Babe told, the only memory he had of his father came from Christmas of 1914 when he thought Santa Claus had paid a visit. It wasnâ€™t until years later that his mother told him that it was his father wearing a red sweater.
But the fact that he never told me this makes me question whether or not he even knew about his dadâ€™s love of baseball and desire to play.Â He told me everything; surely he would have told me a remarkable story about his dad and baseball.Â Babeâ€™s son, my dad, wasnâ€™t aware of it either. Did his aunts, Ida and Mayme fail to tell him? Did he even read the article in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune? Iâ€™ll never know. What I do know is that Babe cherished a photo of his father with the Highland Parks baseball team. Itâ€™s one of the only photos he had of him. It would always put a smile on his face when he looked at it because it bared witness that his father liked baseball â€“ and that was important to him. He felt a sense of peace and pride knowing that.
Well Iâ€™m here to say that he more than â€œliked itâ€ Grandpa â€“he chased it like you!
My great-grandfather Peter has always been a mystery to my family because he died so young. But thanks to a story written in 1939 by a writer named Frank Diamond, a newfound light has been shed on him that cements an unmistakable love of baseball that now transcends four generations of Dahlgrens.
*Matt Dahlgren is the author of Rumor In Town: A Grandsonâ€™s Promise to Right a Wrong. To order your copy visit www.rumorintown.com.