Brooklyn Boro

Bad Bill Dahlen — he knocked but didn’t get in

July 3, 2023 William A. Gralnick
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When looking for interesting subjects to write about, who wouldn’t stop at a name like this: “Bad Bill” Dahlen? He was a professional ball player whose career goal was to play in Brooklyn. He achieved that goal twice as a player and once as a manager. After his playing days were over, he became an “almost” for getting into the Hall of Fame. He came close multiple times, so many that he’s a subject in David Pietruzza’s TV documentary, “Knocking on Coopers Town’s Door.” The rock and roll smash, “I hear ya knockin’, but ya can’t come in” rings in my ears. So, let’s unpack Bad Bill’s equipment bag.

First, the nickname. This was a man who, it is said, that he had a spectacular temper. One writer called it ferocious. He was hard on umpires and showed no let-up for teammates.

The Baseball Almanac shows that Dahlen was born in Nelliston, NY, on January 5, 1870. Wondering where Nelliston, NY is, as was I? Let’s go to Google: The Village of Nelliston is in the Town of Palatine, west of Amsterdam. The Erie Canal passes the village. Andrew Nellis, founder of the Nellis family in the area, came to the Town of Palatine in 1722.

We turn to Hugh Donlon’s Outlines of History: Montgomery County, NY, to show you how rural Bad Bill’s upbringing was. And thanks to Kelly Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian, for finding this for us. In 1840 the census showed Palatine having 2,823 residents. Thirty years later, Nelliston “comprised only a couple of buildings.” By 1870, the year of Bad Bill’s birth, after a growth spurt, Nelliston had a whopping three hotels, two stores, and “other businesses.” The spurt didn’t last. The 2020 census shows a population of 564 souls, down about 60 folks from 2010. Baseball was a way out.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Dahlen was playing pro ball by the time he was 21, starting his career with the then-Chicago Colts. After a slow start, his batting average climbed to.293, a jump of 33 points from his rookie season. He stole a career-high 60 bases. His best year during his Chicago tenure was 1894, when he reached career highs in batting average (.359), home runs (15), runs (150), hits (182), and RBIs (108). Remember, this was the dead-ball era, yet he hit a career total of 64 home runs.

He was a stocky right-hander who weighed in at 180 lbs. spread over a 5’9” frame. He played shortstop and the hot corner. Wikipedia explains why this man was a shoulda/coulda for the Hall of Fame. It says that Dahlen was an outstanding hitter and had a good amount of power for the dead ball era. He began his career with the Colts in 1891, and during his eight years with the team finished among the NL’s top ten players in home runs four times and in slugging average three times. He also scored over 100 runs with ten or more triples in each of his first six seasons; in 1894, he posted the highest batting average to that time by a major league shortstop (various sources state .357 or .362), and he followed with a .352 average in 1896. His 1894 season included a record 42-game hitting streak, surpassing the 33-game streak by George David one year earlier.

Amazingly, after going 0-for-6 in the next game, a 10-inning contest on August 7, Dahlen pulled off another 28-game streak, having hit in 70 of 71 games. His mark was broken three years later by Wee Willie Keeler (who hit ’em where they ain’t), who hit in 44 straight; Pete Rose eventually tied N.L. record. With his 56-game streak in 1941, only Joe DiMaggio has bettered Dahlen’s mark among right-handed batters. Dahlen also twice hit three triples in a game, and once he tripled twice in one inning (August 30, 1900).

And then came Brooklyn. Prior to the 1899 season, Brooklyn picked up Dahlen from Chicago. His new team won the N.L. title in each of his first two seasons, and although his batting average had dropped from earlier years, he had other weapons in his arsenal to contribute. He continued accumulating numerous walks and stolen bases and played outstanding defense. In 1902, he finished fourth in the NL with 74 RBIs. In 1903 he set an N.L. record for fielding percentage with a .948 average.

Traded again, and then once more, first to the Giants and then the Boston Doves, Dahlen returned to Brooklyn, now named the Dodgers. The first time around, they were the Superbras.

In a 21-season career, Dahlen batted .272; his 84 home runs were among the fifteen highest totals in history and ranked behind only Herman Long (91) among shortstops. His 289 stolen bases were among the ten highest totals, as were his 547 total steals, since the time they were first recorded in 1887. Rabbit Maranville broke his records for games and putouts at shortstop, and his mark for assists was surpassed by

Luis Aparicio, with his N.L. record standing until Ozzie Smith broke it in 1993. Only Maranville (16,090) and Wagner (15,536)  surpassed Dahlen’s mark of 14,566 total chances at all positions.

His career stats are worth taking a look at. He had 9,036 at bats, 2,461 hits, with 84 dead ball homers. He finished up with a .272 batting average pushing across 1,590 RBIs. Bedeviling pitchers, he stole 548 bases, reaching base almost four out of every ten at-bats. His OPS was .382.

Here I offer a writer’s confession. I couldn’t remember what OPS meant, so I’ll assume some of you can’t either. Here’s the definition from Baseball Scouter: “The acronym stands for “on-base percentage plus slugging,” which refers to an equation, the sum of 2 other distinct statistics. A

batter’s OPS is what you get when adding a percentage for a batter’s ability to reach base successfully, with another figure that indicates a hitter’s power. The other categories are on-base and slugging percentages carry their own acronyms, OBP and SLG. Add them together, and you get OPS.” There you go.

As early as 1908, Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets sought to have Dahlen manage his club, though he could not achieve this until the 1910 season. In four years as a manager, all for Brooklyn, he posted a 251–355 record for a .414 winning percentage; he earned his nickname. His ferocious arguing style drew 65 ejections as a manager, still among the top ten in history. When Bill Dahlen sets a record, it stays set for a long time.

One wonders about the adjustment from great to gone. After his baseball days, Dahlen worked several jobs, including serving as an attendant at Yankee Stadium (as a former Dodger, did he curse out those pinstripers, I wonder?) and working as a night clerk in a Brooklyn post office.

I wonder about these guys. I’d ask them, “When you put your head down at night, do you still hear the roar of the crowd? Do you bark at the umps and steal bases in your dreams? Do you see yourself standing tall on third after a triple?” ‘must be tough.

If you go by Evergreen Cemetery on Bushwick Avenue, wave to a man who loved Brooklyn so much that he chose to be buried here. He deserves it.

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