September 26, 2021

Book Review: “Rumor in Town”

December 4, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

The story of Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren is about more than just the life of a ballplayer. It’s about redemption, loyalty, promises made and kept, and love; love between a grandfather and grandson, between a player and his boyhood idol, and between a man and the game he fell for at age six while sitting in the bleachers at San Francisco’s Recreation Park in 1918.  Unfortunately the game didn’t treat Dahlgren nearly as well as he treated the game.

I have to admit that all I knew about Babe Dahlgren prior to reading Matt Dahlgren’s Rumor in Town could fit into the following sentence: He was the guy who took over first base for the Yankees when Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak finally came to an end in 1939.  That was the extent of my knowledge.

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But there was so much more to Dahlgren’s life that Rumor in Town makes for a compelling read that transcends the typical baseball biography.  And that it was written by a man that knew Babe better than perhaps anyone makes it that much more interesting.

The book begins with a fire that destroyed Dahlgren’s home and almost everything in it in 1980 and indirectly resulted in the death of a neighbor who suffered a fatal heart attack while driving away from the conflagration.  Only 10 pages later, Babe’s tragic childhood is laid out bare—he lost his father at the age of three to a scalding accident, then lost his six-month-old brother to the same fate only six months later—of which Matt writes, “Death was no stranger to Ellsworth, born June 15, 1912; in fact, it was his earliest introduction to the realities of life.”  I found myself rooting for Babe by page 11 and hoping that the years in between the tragic events were much kinder to him.

In the beginning they were.  We learn that Babe announced at six years old that he wanted to be a baseball player, then kept good on that promise, becoming one of the top players in San Francisco’s Mission District, before signing his first professional contract in 1931.  After four years in the minors, mostly with the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Reds, Babe joined the Boston Red Sox in 1935 and became the team’s starting first baseman.  By then he had already developed a reputation with his glove and it wasn’t long before Red Sox manager Joe Cronin was proclaiming Dahlgren the greatest fielding first baseman he ever saw.

But a series of hiccups interrupted Babe’s career and he bounced around from Boston to Syracuse to New York to Newark, before finally getting another major league job with the Yankees in 1938, serving as a late-inning defensive replacement for third baseman Red Rolfe and his childhood hero Gehrig, and as an occasional pinch-hitter.  Only a year later Babe would replace Gehrig, a legend who was dying before his eyes.

Lou Gehrig (right) gives Babe encouragement before the Yankees' new starting first baseman takes the field on May 2, 1939

Dahlgren bouncing around from team to team and city to city is a recurring theme in Rumor in Town, not because he wasn’t a valuable player or a good teammate, but because the rumor to which the title refers, that Babe smoked marijuana, made him a pariah and his teams were reluctant to retain his services lest their reputations be besmirched as well.  By today’s standards it’s almost unfathomable to think that something so innocuous would wreak havoc with a man’s career and integrity, especially in a world dominated by athletes who are guilty of more heinous transgressions like gun possession, cocaine possession, dog fighting, steroid abuse, and, in some cases, murder.

But in Babe’s era being a pot smoker was serious business.  It didn’t matter that it was a lie, it didn’t matter that no one who really knew Babe attested to his integrity, and it didn’t matter that then Commissioner Landis was so outraged by the accusation that he spat, “Any man who would make such an accusation of another man, without even knowing that man, ought to have his balls cut off!”  It also didn’t help that the rumor was started by a Hall of Fame manager, perpetuated by a Hall of Fame executive, and swept under the rug by Landis, who failed to keep his promise that he would investigate the matter.  Because of all that, Dahlgren ended up playing for seven different teams from 1940-1946, and he was sold or traded eight times in seven years (he played for the St. Louis Browns on two different occasions).

Babe fought to clear his name until the day he died, and he went to his grave never knowing the identity of the man who started the rumor (although he had a good idea).  Babe’s grandson Matt picked up the torch in 1996 when he made a promise to his grandfather that he would tell Babe’s story and get to the bottom of the lies that haunted the man for the rest of his life.

Matt kept his promise and the result is an even-handed, well-written account of Babe Dahlgren’s life and his struggle to fight off the rumor that questioned his integrity.  I highly recommend it.

For more information about Matt Dahlgren’s book or to hear Babe speak about the rumor in an interview with Keith Olbermann, check out Matt’s web site:


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  1. […] 4 12 2008 Mike Lynch, who hosts the always thought-provoking, penned (keyboarded?) this review of Babe Dahlgren’s biography. The twist? It was written by Dahlgren’s grandson, Matt, who is seeking to exonerate charges […]

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