Dahlgren's message: 'Enjoy the moment'

September 05, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Now for the missing part of the mosaic, a bridge from present to past in the continuing Ripken versus Gehrig narrative, otherwise known as baseball's marathon challenge. The unsuspecting man fate tapped on the shoulder to succeed Lou Gehrig sends a personal message he wants delivered to Cal Ripken.

"I hope for nothing more than to see you break the record and enjoy the moment for all you can," is the sentimental and meaningful expression offered by Ellsworth "Babe" Dahlgren, who took over for Gehrig on that fateful afternoon of May 2, 1939, when the New York Yankees played the Detroit Tigers.

Dahlgren, who was to play 12 years in the major leagues when the sport was at its competitive best, is not in robust health, but at age 83 allowed this interview to be conducted from his home in Monrovia, Calif., through his son, Don.

The younger Dahlgren, now 51, played four years as a minor-league pitcher/first baseman and, like Ripken, was raised in a baseball environment. "My father wants it known that Cal deserves the spotlight and doesn't want anything to detract from it," he said.

A fundamental question for Dahlgren: Did he ever think Gehrig's streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games would be broken? "It was one of those things you never think about because the feeling is it would last forever," he answered.

Now to Dahlgren again for reflections on the day in Detroit when he was projected into the most unenviable position any athlete has ever been placed. It came without advance notice but he sensed an eerie feeling in the locker room.

The usual banter among players was missing. They weren't throwing towels or squirting hair tonic. Even Lefty Gomez was quiet.

"Manager Joe McCarthy had coach Art Fletcher come to me with the word," remembers Dahlgren. "Fletcher put his hands on my shoulder and said, 'Babe, play first base.' "

That was the way the order was delivered. No speeches or explanations. And how did Dahlgren feel? "I had a lump in my throat the size of an apple," he replied.

It was a moment Dahlgren couldn't have prepared for and certainly he didn't ask to be placed in that pressurized, &r uncomfortable situation. Gehrig came to him and said, "Go out, Babe, and do a good5l job."

But every half-inning, Dahlgren turned to Gehrig and suggested, "Come on, Lou, go out there and give it a try." But Gehrig shook his head and answered quietly, "No, Babe, you're doing fine."

The Yankees, no doubt, were aroused emotionally, silently dedicating their performance to Gehrig, their captain who was watching and not playing in a Yankees game for the first time since 1925. They pounded the Tigers and pitcher Freddie Hutchinson into a 22-2 defeat. It was the debut of a new Yankees rookie, Charlie Keller, in the outfield, who went 4-for-6.

Dahlgren hit a two-run home run and two other times backed Tigers outfielders against the fence. It was agreed that Babe came close to producing a three-homer afternoon.

That was the way Gehrig's long, distinguished career ended, merely observing, and not a part of a Yankees power explosion as he had been so many times. He was never in the lineup again and, within five weeks, was diagnosed to be suffering from an untreatable ailment that proved fatal. Within two years, Gehrig was dead at age 37.

During the afternoon when Gehrig took a seat on the bench, Dahlgren believes he saw him get up to head for the water cooler with tears in his eyes. Other Yankees thought the same thing.

Two months later, on the Fourth of July, when Gehrig made his epic farewell speech in Yankee Stadium, it was McCarthy who told Dahlgren and two other Yankees, standing near Gehrig, to be prepared to keep him from falling if the weakened legs of the Iron Horse betrayed him.

Following Gehrig at first base was an impossible task, as Dahlgren knew it would be -- the same as Ripken's eventual successor will surely find out. Dahlgren continues to hold everlasting respect for Gehrig, but wants the world to know he has a new hero. His name is Ripken.

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