Growing up, I was a stocky kid built like a Roman plinth with the mobility of a house plant. However, I was blessed with a strong arm and decent hand eye coordination – skills I had perfected while dodging the daily assaults of my older brothers. I excelled in Little League and watched as my father gushed with pride each time I hit a home run or cleanly fielded a short hop grounder. I could see him projecting forward well into the next millenium when I would be inducted into Cooperstown.
With each season of life, competition at first base became more intense and by the time I had reached seventeen, it was no longer a certainty that I would be a starter. I had thrived in a younger man’s world of fast balls but had risen to the level of my incompetence. Opposing pitchers had discovered my achilles heel — the breaking ball. Despite hours of practice, I could not overcome the temptation to lunge at the off speed ball and would often end up twisted into a pretzel as the rainbow curve floated harmlessly past my bat for a strike.
My batting average plunged as I dropped in the junior varsity line up. My dad was an ex-basketball player and could offer me no insights into my disability. I was doomed.
After a particularly humiliating 0-4 game, my father introduced me to a Babe Dahlgren, an ex-major league batting instructor working out of the local batting cage. The Babe was not as well known on the West Coast but he had walked into Major League Baseball’s history books on the day he replaced Lou Gehrig at first base — the end of an epoch when The Iron Horse concluded his 2,130 consecutive games played streak. On that afternoon, Babe hit a home run and the Yanks won 22-2.
Babe waddled over in the batting cages and shook my hand with a firm athletic grip. He had a toothy, crooked grin, light brown hair flecked with streaks of gray. He seemed to have a wrinkle for every day he had spent playing the game he loved. He was a right hander and carried a 38 ounce bat that served as a crutch, pointer and prod. He seemed unsteady on knees that had long since lost their cartilage only to become remarkably nimble once he entered the batting cage.
I was initially disappointed by the aging ballplayer whose name and claim to fame meant nothing to me. He straddled the batters box and waited as the electronic arm of the machine lifted and dipped, grabbing a yellow ball. As the fastball rifled towards home plate, the Babe picked up his front heel, stepped, pivoted and ripped a perfect line drive through the dish sized hole of netting that protected the pitching machine. He proceeded to hit ten more line drives that sprayed in every direction. ” Your turn, kiddo,” he yelled. I grabbed a 32 ounce aluminum bat as a pitch thwacked against a hanging mat.
I stepped in the cage and nervously shifted. He did not say anything but studied my uneven movements and watched as my weight shifted forward to my front foot. He stopped the machine. “Try this” He kneeled to my right and tossed a ball at my ankles, I missed it by a foot. ” Again. This time use your hands and hips.” This time, the ball was tossed slower but at the level of my chest. I missed again.
” Ok, Dad” he said turning to my father. “I can see what is going on. Give me six weeks with him, twice a week and he will be spraying line drives across the entire field.” As I walked out of the cage, I was distraught. “Dad, how the heck can this old man know what’s wrong with me after just five minutes?”
Over the next three months, the Babe completely reconstructed my swing. He colored my afternoons with stories of his life in the Major Leagues and his time spent with his idol, Lou Gehrig. He spoke of his career and the Hall of Fame players with whom he played, coached and shared a passion for America’s game. I would later learn that the Babe had his own demons and it was only through instructing young men that he seemed to temporarily exorcise them.
“Pick up your heel, step and pivot. Keep that head still. Bend that knee and go down to reach for that outside slider. Drive it through the right side of the infield.” He yelled. “Your hips, that is where all your power comes, Turp. You have a big butt, use it!”
Weeks later, I shook his massive catcher’s glove hand. It was already curling in old age like an eagles talon but he could still crush my adolescent bones without much effort. “Kiddo, you’re as ready as you’ll ever be. I don’t expect to see you back but I will be watching the papers!” Three months later in the spring of 1977, I was voted the MVP of my JV team after hitting .451 for the season. I promised to stay in touch but I never returned to thank my sage hitting instructor.
Thirty years later, I was sitting on a Metro North train lurching out of Grand Central Station when I was stumbled across a NY Times article on Congress’ efforts to identify those ball players who were guilty of abusing baseball’s drug policies. As the steroids scandal was savaging the reputation of baseball, the Times made reference to another obscure player from the 1940’s who was unfairly accused of drug abuse and as a result, blackballed by major league owners. His name was Babe Dahlgren.
He became the first major leaguer to volunteer to take a drug test in an effort to clear his name. Until his death in 1996, he solicited successive commissioners to reconsider the charges that had unfairly ruined his reputation. In the book, ” A Rumor In Town”, published in 2007, Matt Dahlgren, Babe’s grandson, detailed how a disagreement with Yankee owner Joe McCarthy, got Babe sideways with management. Apparently Babe decided his friendship with a blackballed batting coach, Lefty O’Doul was more important than McCarthy’s edict to avoid him. According to the Times and Dahlgren, McCarthy started a rumor among GM’s that Dahlgren was a marajuana user and used this as an excuse to trade him in 1940 to the Boston Braves.
Although Babe was an outstanding player and fielder, hitting over .260 in an eleven year career, the reputational damage had deposited a permanent cloud over him in the clubhouse and left him reputed as a risky investment. He would persevere in the face of prejudice, spending a nomadic final five years playing for nine teams. His promising career was cut short by an insider’s grudge and a public all too willing to believe the worst about an individual.
Babe carried on after retirement – coaching young players and passing on his God given talents — a marvelous synchronicity of hands , hips and bat. He worked across multiple generations of aspiring players transferring his incredible skill as a hitter into young adolescent arms. When his grandson’s book was published posthumously, it was a final chance to clear the name of a man whose love for the game was greater than the ill-will of those who conspired to prevent him from playing.
His voice still echoes across a hundred diamonds each spring. Former students, now graying youth coaches furrow their wrinkled brows and watch their hitters as they swing in batting practice.
“Hey kid, good swing. But next time, pick up your heel, step and pivot. Remember all your power comes from your hips. Hips and hands. Hips and hands!”