After winning a Purple Heart in WWII during the invasion of Italy, Bill Bergesch returned home, used the GI Bill to to get his business degree and began a long career as a baseball executive by accepting a job in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league organization. Ten years later he made his indelible contribution to that franchise when he became the guy who signed the great pitcher, Bob Gibson.
He was promoted to Cardinal’s scouting coordinator in 1959 and then was hired by the Kansas City A’s as an assistant GM, where he worked for the franchise’s new, slightly off-kilter owner, Charley Finley. He was hired by the Mets the following year to help that brand new franchise create its minor league organization from scratch and in 1964, was hired by the Yankees to serve as the team’s traveling secretary and manager of Yankee Stadium. He then changed sports, accepting front office positions with two Big Apple soccer teams. It was as GM of the New York Cosmos that Bergesch signed Brazilian superstar Pele out of retirement.
He then changed professions and industries, leaving sports and going to work for the next decade as a venture capitalist. By then, George Steinbrenner had taken over the Yankees and hired Bergesch as the team’s scouting director in 1978 and then promoted him to vice president of baseball operations a couple of years later. This was right during the time that “the Boss” was in his most tyrannical state as owner of the Yankees. In fact, Steinbrenner decided that he could be his own general manager, so he pointedly refused to give Bergesch that title. As it turned out, perhaps “hatchet man” would have been an even better one.
Regardless if it was devastating young Yankee prospects like Dave Righetti by unexpectedly demoting them back to the minors, firing Bob Lemon or Yogi Berra as skippers even though they each had been promised full years in the job or reminding established veterans like Tommy John that they were being paid too much money to have a bad outing, it was Bergesch who would be sent to deliver the ill-timed news from George. In fact, I remember thinking that Bergesch had as tough and thankless a job as Richard Nixon’s chief-of-staff did after the Watergate break in was discovered.
Before too long, Bergesch had carried out so many unpleasant Steinbrenner-directed edicts that he became a very unpopular guy in the Yankee clubhouse. The problem was that even though he was doing what George told him to do, the Boss would blame the poor guy whenever any of the things he did back fired or caused negative press, which happened about three times a week back then. It was the ultimate no-win situation.
The irony was that Bergesch genuinely liked Steinbrenner and enjoyed their friendship. He cited this as the reason why he had decided to leave the Yankees in 1984. He told the press he needed to go in a different direction. Unfortunately for Bergesch, that direction turned out to be working for the one owner in baseball who was capable of acting even more irrationally than Steinbrenner did at the time. Bergesch became the GM of Marge Schott’s Cincinnati Reds.
Not only did Bergesch value his friendship with the Boss, the feeling was mutual and when Steinbrenner entered a much more rational period of his tenure as Yankee owner in the early nineties, he brought Bergesch back to serve as Gene Michael’s assistant in 1990. The grateful executive would remain part of the Yankee family and good friends with George for the rest of their days. Bergesch passed away in 2011 at the age of 89.
Bergesch shares his June 17th birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.
When I first started following the Yankees back in 1960, Major League Baseball was still in the two-league, sixteen-team format that it had been in since 1901. To finish last in an American or National League Pennant race had always meant your team had ended up in eighth place. By 1962 however, both the AL and then the NL had expanded to ten teams and suddenly finishing eighth no longer sounded as forlornly horrible as it had for big league franchises since the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, your team could actually finish ninth and still not be considered the worst team in the league.
The Yankees of course had developed a reputation for finishing in first place but in 1962, their new crosstown rivals, the Mets would begin battling their NL expansion brothers, the Houston Colt 45’s for ninth place bragging rights in the senior circuit. Neither team finished ninth in their 1962 inaugural seasons because Houston was able to surpass a woeful Chicago Cubs team that year and finish in eighth. But for the next four seasons, it was baseball’s first-ever-team based in Texas that won the NL race for ninth place over the Amazin’s and the reason was Houston had much better starting pitching than the Mets.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was in the original starting rotation of that Houston expansion team. He joined Turk Farrell and Bob Bruce to give the Colt 45’s a solid trio of starters that made it tough to sweep a series against the early versions of this ball club. That 1962 Houston pitching staff had a 3.83 cumulative ERA (the Mets first year ERA was 5.04.)
Ken Johnson was the ace of that first Houston pitching staff. The native of West Palm Beach, FL had made his big league debut with the Kansas City A’s in 1958 and spent his first three years struggling to establish himself with that very bad A’s team. He ended up in Toronto in 1961, picking for an unaffiliated minor league team in the American Association, when he caught the eye of the Reds, who were at the time in the thick of the NL Pennant race. He joined the Cincinnati starting rotation and finished 6-2 for that NL Championship club. He actually got to pitch two-thirds of an inning of scoreless relief against the Yankees in the ’61 Series. Johnson thought he had found a home but the Cincinnati front office left him unprotected in the NL expansion draft and he became Houston’s 29th pick.
His four-year record with the Colt 45’s was 32-51 but his ERA while there was a very respectable 3.41. The Milwaukee Braves, in search of starting pitching during the 1965 season, acquired Johnson for Lee Maye. With a solid offense finally supporting him, the six foot four inch right hander went 40-25 during his first three seasons with the Braves. He slumped to 5-8 during his fourth year with the team and by 1969 he was 35-years-old.
The Yankees happened to be looking for a right-hander they could add to Ralph Houk’s bullpen and Johnson’s name came up. The Braves sold him to New York on June 10, 1969. He made his pinstriped debut one day after his 36th birthday, pitching two scoreless innings against the Tigers in relief of Mike Kekich. Four days later, Houk inserted him in the tenth inning of a game against the Red Sox and he got shelled and took the loss. It took him a couple of weeks to get used to his new surroundings but by July he had settled down and allowed just one earned run in his six appearances that month. Just as he was getting comfortable working in the Bronx however, Johnson was sold to the Cubs on August 11th.
Johnson’s most famous moment as a big leaguer took place on April 24, 1963, when he became the first MLB pitcher in history to toss and lose a nine-inning no-hitter. In the ninth inning of that Houston-Cincinnati Reds game, Pete Rose tried to break up the hitless performance by bunting for a hit. Johnson fielded the ball cleanly and quickly but his throw to first was wild and Rose advanced to second on the pitcher’s error. After Rose was sacrificed to third, he scored when Houston second baseman, Nellie Fox booted a ground ball and when his team couldn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson lost the game 1-0.
|ATL (5 yrs)||45||34||.570||3.22||130||104||13||26||3||3||769.2||746||317||275||72||155||390||1.171|
|KCA (4 yrs)||6||15||.286||5.03||52||9||19||2||0||3||143.0||148||92||80||21||60||96||1.455|
|HOU (4 yrs)||32||51||.386||3.41||113||106||4||19||3||1||690.2||660||311||262||49||151||471||1.174|
|MON (1 yr)||0||0||7.50||3||0||2||0||0||0||6.0||9||6||5||1||1||4||1.667|
|CHC (1 yr)||1||2||.333||2.84||9||1||3||0||0||1||19.0||17||8||6||2||13||18||1.579|
|CIN (1 yr)||6||2||.750||3.25||15||11||1||3||1||1||83.0||71||33||30||11||22||42||1.120|
|NYY (1 yr)||1||2||.333||3.46||12||0||8||0||0||0||26.0||19||11||10||1||11||21||1.154|
To understand the size of the target that was on the back of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant when he got his chance to play for the New York Yankees, I need you to picture a fictional modern-day scenario. Imagine if Derek Jeter comes back from his broken ankle this summer and after struggling at the plate for a few games, tragically breaks his ankle again. While they are carrying the Yankee Captain off the field the Stadium’s PA announcer introduces the new Yankee shortstop, a young prospect Brian Cashman has just traded for who’s name happens to be Billy Mattingly. Not only does this poor kid have to replace one Yankee legend, he’s got a last name that will remind every Yankee fan of another one every time it is seen or heard. Then to make that target on this young guy’s back even bigger, after he plays decently for the rest of the season, the Yankees trade him to the Braves, even though they have nobody any better than him to take over at short. When another big league GM asks Cashman why he got rid of Mattingly, Cashman tells him its because the just-traded player has a drinking problem.
Now let’s turn the above fictional scenario into a non-fictional historical account of what actually happened to today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s baseball career. Substitute Lou Gehrig for Derek Jeter, instead of the new replacement player having the same last name as Donnie Baseball give him the same nickname as Babe Ruth. Now replace Brian Cashman’s name with the Yankee Hall-of-Fame managing legend, Joe McCarthy and instead of using alcohol as the substance being abused, make it marijuana. Do all that and you now will understand what happened to the once promising career of former Yankee first baseman, Babe Dahlgren.
This native of San Francisco had broken into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 1935, when he was just 23-years-old and put together a strong rookie season in Beantown. Then that winter, Boston acquired Philadelphia A’s slugging first baseman, Jimmie Foxx and Dahlgren spent almost all of his sophomore season on the Boston bench. Dahlgren probably realized his days as a Red Sox were numbered with Foxx playing his position, so imagine how he felt when he found out that his contract had been purchased by the Yankees just before the 1937 spring training camps opened. At least in Boston, Foxx liked to take a day off every once in a while. The first baseman Dahlgren would now be backing up over in the Bronx hadn’t missed a game a dozen years. Gherig’s streak would continue for the next two years and that meant more time on the pine (and in the minors) for Dahlgren who played in just 1 Yankee game in 1937 and then 27 more in 1938.
It was only after ALS disease struck the Iron Horse in April of 1939 that he got his chance to start in New York and as he had done in his rookie season with the Red Sox, Dahlgren performed well. Though he averaged just .235, he did bang 15 home runs and drive in 89 to help New York win its fourth straight pennant. He then appeared in his only World Series that year and hit a home run as the Yankees captured their fourth straight ring with their victory over Cincinnati in that Fall Classic.
The second Yankee “Babe” then began a streak of his own in 1940, appearing in all 155 of New York’s games that season and he got his average up to .264. But by that time, according to a book self-published by Dahlgren’s grandson in 2007 and based on an unfinished manuscript written by the player himself, an incident had already occurred that led Joe McCarthy to believe he couldn’t trust Dahlgren. The Yankee skipper and Dahlgren had both attended Joe DiMaggio’s wedding to Hollywood starlet Dorothy Arnold a month after the 1939 World Series. Also in attendance was former big leaguer Lefty O’Doul, who was then in the process of building a reputation as baseball’s best hitting instructor. Dahlgren later explained that his manager had seen him and O’Doul discussing the first baseman’s swing at the affair and McCarthy was worried that Lefty was trying to undermine him and possibly take his job. Far-fetched on the part of Dahlgren? Perhaps, but so was the explanation McCarthy gave the press when the Yankees sold the first baseman to the Boston Braves during the 1941 spring training season. Marse Joe told reporters that Dahlgren’s arms were too short to play his position even though Babe was by all accounts an excellent defensive first baseman. Since baseball insiders knew this couldn’t have been the real reason McCarthy traded his staring first baseman, Dahlgren says his skipper made one up and the lie he concocted ruined the player’s career. According to Babe, McCarthy told “baseball-insiders” that the reason Dahlgren had committed a costly error in a late-season 1940 Yankee game was because the player was a “marijuana smoker.”
Now-a-days, I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the players (and coaches & managers) in the big leagues toked an occasional joint but back in the 1940’s, using marijuana was a societal taboo that left a deep and dark stain on a person’s reputation, especially if that person was a professional athlete. According to Dahlgren, McCarthy’s false accusation would become the reason why he would play for seven different teams during the final seven seasons of his big league career and his grandson’s book does a very good job of validating this claim.
Babe Dahlgren’s big league playing career ended after the 1946 season. I wonder what went through his head just a few years later, when another Joe McCarthy became specifically infamous for making false accusations that ruined peoples’ careers? Dahlgren lived until 1996, passing away at the age of 84. By the way, his real name was Ellsworth Tenney Dahlgren.
He shares his birthday with this great Yankee pitcher, this Hall-of-Fame third baseman and the guy who just might actually replace Jeter should he re-injure his ankle in a late-season game this year (though trust me, that’s not going to happen!)
|NYY (4 yrs)||327||1270||1143||130||283||43||10||27||163||3||104||115||.248||.314||.374||.688|
|CHC (2 yrs)||116||463||415||54||113||21||1||16||65||2||47||41||.272||.348||.443||.791|
|PIT (2 yrs)||302||1252||1130||124||306||52||15||17||176||3||98||107||.271||.333||.388||.722|
|SLB (2 yrs)||30||91||82||2||14||1||0||0||9||0||8||13||.171||.244||.183||.427|
|BOS (2 yrs)||165||661||582||83||154||30||8||10||70||8||63||68||.265||.340||.395||.735|
|BRO (1 yr)||17||23||19||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||4||5||.053||.217||.053||.270|
|PHI (1 yr)||136||565||508||55||146||19||2||5||56||2||50||39||.287||.354||.362||.716|
|BSN (1 yr)||44||183||166||20||39||8||1||7||30||0||16||13||.235||.306||.422||.728|