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Waiting for smoke, and his grandfather’s name, to clear

Times Staff Writer

Probably the last thing anyone wants to read these days is another story about drugs and baseball.

But this one’s different.

This one predates by many years Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens and the Mitchell Report, not to mention public awareness of anabolic steroids, androstenedione and human growth hormone.

At the center of this story is not a villain but a victim.

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But it’s another sad tale.

And baseball, in the end, winds up smelling badly again.

It’s the story of Babe Dahlgren, a major league first baseman from 1935 to 1946 probably best remembered as the man who replaced Lou Gehrig in the New York Yankees’ lineup on May 2, 1939, ending the Iron Horse’s incredible 14-year consecutive-game streak after a then-record 2,130 games.

Less widely known is that Dahlgren’s career and life were waylaid by an unsubstantiated rumor that he smoked marijuana.

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Dahlgren, who lived in Southern California for more than 40 years before dying in 1996, volunteered to be examined by a doctor in Philadelphia in 1943, thus becoming the first major league player to be tested for drug use.

It seemed to matter little that the tests came up clean.

A strong defensive player who batted .261 and hit 82 home runs while playing for eight teams in 12 major league seasons, Dahlgren spent the last half of his life trying to track down the source of the rumor and clear his name, appealing to a succession of baseball commissioners who showed little interest.

The details are spelled out in “Rumor in Town,” a new book written by grandson Matt Dahlgren, a 37-year-old former Southern California College catcher and first-time author who made good on a pledge to bring his grandfather’s story to light.

“I was turned down many times by literary agents and publishers,” says the Irvine-based Dahlgren, who published the book himself. “But what kept me going was, I promised him I’d do it. I know that might sound corny, but it’s the reality. I loved him to no end. I respected him. And I know how badly he wanted this story told. I know how badly this game hurt him. And so I had to do it. . . .

“I just couldn’t let him down.”

Using a 600-page manuscript left behind by his grandfather as a guide, and after tracking down details through interviews and research, Dahlgren says he believes the rumor was started by the late Joe McCarthy, a highly respected Hall of Fame manager who guided the Yankees to a record seven World Series championships.

McCarthy, the book says, was upset that Dahlgren sought batting tips from fellow San Franciscan Lefty O’Doul, a respected hitting instructor, after Dahlgren and O’Doul spoke at the November 1939 wedding of Joe DiMaggio and actress Dorothy Arnold.

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Apparently viewing O’Doul as a threat, McCarthy engineered Dahlgren’s sale to the Boston Braves after the 1940 season, explaining to reporters that Dahlgren’s arms were too short to play first base. Never mind that Dahlgren at the time was considered “the cleverest fielding first baseman in the league,” a widely held opinion articulated in a column written by Shirley Povich of the Washington Post.

Later, Matt Dahlgren writes, McCarthy offered a more inflammatory reason for dumping Dahlgren. Speaking with a group of “baseball insiders,” including a New York Times reporter, McCarthy blamed the Yankees’ failure to win the 1940 pennant on a late-season error by Dahlgren. And, the book quotes McCarthy as saying, “Dahlgren doesn’t screw up that play if he wasn’t a marijuana smoker.”

Dahlgren, oblivious to the talk, played for four teams over the next two seasons, bouncing around the majors before running into the rumor head-on early in 1943 during a contract negotiation with Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.

Rickey, the book says, asked Dahlgren, “Do you smoke marijuana?”

After Dahlgren was then traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, the book says, a former Dodgers coach told him that Rickey was spreading the rumor, explaining to his bosses that he traded Dahlgren because he smoked pot.

Dahlgren, an All-Star with the Phillies, was traded again after the 1943 season, this time to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He retired in 1946.

According to the book, then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told Babe Dahlgren that “castration would be an appropriate punishment for the culprit behind the rumor.” But Landis failed to act.

Nor did any of the subsequent commissioners Dahlgren implored.

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Fay Vincent never heard from Dahlgren, who finally tired of beseeching baseball’s hierarchy. But Vincent, baseball’s commissioner from 1989 to 1992, has read “Rumor in Town” and is quoted on the book jacket as saying, “Baseball, like life, can sometimes be a cruel and vicious business. Some of the people in it from time to time are not worthy of the game.”

Babe Dahlgren felt the same way, his grandson says.

Recalls the author, “He would say, ‘Matt, this is a great game, but it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. At times, it can be a dirty game.’ ”

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com


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