Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-003754. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. I couldn't locate any photos of Dahlen in a Chicago uniform -- this one was taken in 1905, when he was a member of the NY Giants, who won the World Series that year.
Profile by BCB reader Kegler (with additions by Al)
William Frederick Dahlen, yet another in a long series of great 19th-Century Cubs nearly forgotten today, was born in Nelliston, New York, on January 5, 1870. Nelliston is a tiny little town located only 26 miles northeast of Cooperstown, and many people say that Dahlen's defensive feats deserve him a place in the Hall of Fame there.
If only we could just throw Mr. Dahlen in at shortstop today, then some of our worries this off-season could be relieved. We're always arguing about the importance of fielding, defense, The Basics, right? Some of us think Cesar Izturis is a fine defensive solution; however, offensively he's merely a younger, more spry version of our most recently exorcised demon (Neifi!). Others would consider moving "The Riot" over, trading for a slugging SS - but then we'd take a hit on defense, wouldn't we? - and so on. If only we could have Bill Dahlen back between the bags.
You want a superb shortstop that can field like a 19th Century Ozzie Smith? Bill Dahlen's your guy. Dahlen was such a solid fielder he played shortstop (after spending his first few years between 3B and outfield) for the Chicago National League Ballclub for several years, then went on to play short for many more years, and for three other teams, before becoming a manager in 1910 for Brooklyn. His playing career spanned twenty years, from 1891 to 1911. And even though he only had three at bats in 1911 (all of which resulted in a strikeout) and two at bats in 1910, that's still an incredible run. In fact, by 1909 all that baseball added up to a record for career games played, though that record lasted only five years. It was surpassed in 1914 by some scrub named Honus.
As I mentioned, Dahlen was an expert fielder. Just check out his exactly 7,500 assists at SS, an NL record that stood until 1993, when another slacker named Ozzie surpassed it. Or how about his major league record 13,325 total chances, a record that still stands today, nearly 100 years after it was set? He was out there a lot, so much that, in fact, he set another, rather notorious, mark as well (of course! Did you forget we're talking our favorite team here?). He made 975 errors at SS, which just happens to be the most errors, well, ever. No other player at any position in any league has made more. And remember: this guy was a defensive gem back when they practically were playing barehanded. That shows you how rough baseball was back in the deadball era. You could be the best fielding SS in the league and still end your career with more errors than anyone else. Ever.
But hey, Dahlen was the whole package, not a light-hitting, swift, defensive master. In 1894 Bill hit .357/.444/.566, and in '96 he hit .352/.438/.553. He hit .290 or better in all but two of his years with the Cubs, and those two years where his average dropped were still fairly productive. Unlike a lot of players of his era, he was remarkably consistent.
His power surge of 1894 (15 HRs) is rather easily attributable to that year being the first after pitchers were moved back from the plate a bit. But still: he'd had 9 homers as a rookie in '91 and 9 again in '96. So his power spike wasn't entirely a fluke. By the end of his career, Dahlen amassed 84 career dingers, 15th highest in baseball history at the time he retired in 1911. Only one shortstop of that day, Herman Long, had more, with 91. He finished in the NL top ten in HRs four times during his tenure with the club then known as the "Colts" and was in the running for best slugging percentage three times. And in each of his first six years, Dahlen scored 100-plus runs and hit 10-plus triples. Yes, friends, Mr. Dahlen was the complete package, at least as a Cub. While he continued on playing wonderful defense for the Superbas and Giants, his offensive prowess began to wane, which is why, when you look at his career numbers, some of his averages (BA, OBP) are a tad low. But still!
One of the things I learned and found most impressive while researching Mr. Dahlen's career was this: he hit in a then-record 42 straight games in 1894 before going 0-for-6 on August 7. Then he picked up another streak of 28 games the next day, for a "streak" of hitting safely in 70 of 71 games. Yow! We'd all take that in 2007. He is one of only six Cubs to steal sixty bases in a season (he did this in 1892). Bill James' "Win Shares" ranks him the sixth-best shortstop in baseball history, and "Total Baseball" ranked him the best-fielding shortstop ever in the late 1990's.
One last interesting tidbit: Dahlen was among the league's quietest players throughout his career. But strangely enough, he earned his nickname, "Bad Bill," from his four years of managing, when his temper and fiery arguing caused him to be ejected 65 times. In four years of managing. That's good enough to keep him, to this day, to this day still on the top ten all-time list of managerial ejections. Maybe Piniella will channel some of Dahlen's energy this coming year. We can only hope.
After he retired from baseball playing and managing, Dahlen lived in obscurity in Brooklyn for decades before he died on December 5, 1950. He is buried in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, with an unmarked headstone. Despite his fielding prowess, he received only one Hall of Fame vote in 1936 and another in 1938.
Dahlen's Records and Notable Feats
- Still holds ML Record for Total Fielding Chances at SS (13,325)
- 42-game hit streak, the longest by a right-handed National League hitter and fourth-longest in history
- Hit safely in 70 of 71 games in 1894