Baseball in the 1890s could be an ugly, violent affair. The game had become a win-at-all-costs profession that sometimes seemed to put aggression, intimidation and trickery on an equal footing with fundamental batting and fielding skills. It took a special kind of player to survive in this environment. A player like Bill Dahlen. A hard-hitting shortstop with a great glove, he was among the top players in the game for almost 20 seasons. “Bad Bill” didn’t stick around because he was a nice guy. He went to war—and took no prisoners—every time he stepped onto the field.

William Frederick Dahlen was born on January 5, 1870, in Nelliston, New York. (Click here for today's sports birthday.) His parents, Daniel and Rosina, had five children, three of whom survived to adulthood—Daniel Jr., Harry and Bill.

Nelliston is located in the central part of the state, and in the 1800s the town was populated predominantly by German-Americans. Bill’s father, a master mason, arrived in the 1850s. He was the town’s president during Bill’s childhood.

Bill was a clever and combative child, full of energy and aggression, which made him a pain in the rear around the house but a star on the baseball diamond. After attending grammar school in his hometown, Bill enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute, a boarding school across the Mohawk River in Fort Plain. The arrangement was essentially the 1887 version of an athletic scholarship; the school paid his tuition and he pitched for the school’s baseball team. Among the school’ alumni were Grover Cleveland and Clara Barton.

Bill toiled on the mound and in the classroom for three years before signing with a semipro ballclub in Cobbleskill in the summer of 1889. It was at this time that he was moved to the middle infield. His potent bat was needed in the lineup every day. He soon gained a reputation as one of the state’s best hitters and fielder.


Bill Dahlen
     
 

In 1891, an umpire who had once played with Cap Anson recommended Bill to the Chicago Colts superstar. Anson signed him sight-unseen, and it was a good thing he did. One year earlier, the New York Giants—Bill’s favorite club as a teenager—had considered grabbing him, but a war with the Player’s League had the Giants running in the red, and they could not afford to add any more new talent.

Bill played his first big-league game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, filling in for injured third baseman Tom Burns. He demonstrated power at the plate, confidence in the field and daring on the base paths. By the end of May, he was being hailed as one of the top young players in the National League. Bill played shortstop and the outfield after Burns returned. His enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him, and he made a handful of bonehead rookie plays, but on the balance he was one of Chicago’s most valuable players.

Even then, experts were amazed at Bill’s successful jump from a sketchy semipro circuit to the big time. With no regular hitting .300 for the Colts, he finished the year with a respectable .260 average and tied for second on the team with 9 home runs. He had 40 extra-base hits in all. His 114 runs were tops on the team and 8th in the NL. Bill also stole 21 bases—not bad for a player who lacked exceptional speed. He had superb judgment as a runner and was a master at avoiding tags with acrobatic slides.

The Colts appeared headed for the pennant, with a 6 and 1/2 game lead in mid-September. However, the Boston Beaneaters fashioned a remarkable 17-game winning streak and blew past Chicago in the final week. At the time, accusations were flying that Boston’s opponents had laid down in the final weeks to keep Anson and the Colts from winning.

The 1892 season brought the demise of the American Association. From three leagues in 1890, there was now just one, and the flood of talent back to the NL left Chicago, which was famous for its low pay, at a competitive disadvantage. The Colts finished 70–76, marking the first time since the 1870s that Chicago baseball fans rooted for a sub–.500 team. Bill and outfielder Jimmy Ryan supplied most of the punch for the Colts. Both batted .293, and Bill led the club with 114 runs, 170 hits, 47 extra-base hits and 60 stolen bases. By almost any measure, at 22 he ranked among the Top 10 offensive players in baseball.

Chicago’s struggles continued during the next two season, as Anson’s skills eroded. Bill, meanwhile, was increasingly the focus of the offense. The 1894 season saw an explosion of hitting, thanks mostly to the fact that the pitchers were moved back to 60' 6" that year. Bill had his best season to date, batting .359 with 15 homers, 150 runs scored and 108 RBIs. The power was real but the stats were inflated; that season, five players topped .400, and six batters had a better slugging average than Bill’s career-best .566 mark. Even so, Bill showed remarkable consistency at the plate. He set a league record by hitting in 42 straight games and, after taking an oh-fer, he collected a knock in 28 more before going hitless again.

Cap Anson, Old Judge Cabinet
     
 

Bill’s days as a play-anywhere defender came to an end in 1895, when Anson installed him as the everyday shortstop. Bill had another fine season in 1896, hitting .352 with 51 stolen bases despite having broken his arm the previous winter. He also launched three triples in a game against St. Louis—the first of three times Bill would accomplish this feat. He and outfielder Bill Lange powered the Chicago offense, and Clark Griffith led a pitching staff that accounted for 71 wins against 57 losses. The Colts finished in 5th place, however, far behind the Baltimore Orioles.

The following year, Bill had his most disappointing season, as an injury kept him out of more than 50 games at the start of the season. He celebrated his return in July by stealing home against the Louisville Colonels to deliver a rousing 1–0 victory to the Colts. Bill was now recognized as a cagey and combative veteran. He was a great opportunist on the bases, and a great baiter of umpires. His short fuse earned him the nickname “Bad Bill,” and he would live up to it for another decade and a half as both a player and manager.

The 1898 season marked the Colts’ first without Anson at the helm. It was also Bill’s final season in Chicago. He was named captain of the team in Anson’s absence after Lange indicated that he would prefer the star shortstop to assume this responsibility. Bill hit a robust .290 with a team-best 35 doubles and 79 RBIs. At age 28, he was in his prime and considered to be one of the best infielders in the league. On the other hand, his penchant for getting tossed out of games (10 in 1898 alone) demonstrated a stunning lack of judgment and what had to be an incredibly negative attitude toward his profession.

For all of Bill’s faults, his good points drew the attention of the Orioles, who owned another exciting shortstop named Gene Demontraville. He was younger, made less money and was better behaved than Bill. Fans had been complaining about rowdyism in baseball and, needless to say, Bill was one of the chief targets of their ire. Chicago and Baltimore completed a one-for-one deal in January of 1899.

Alas, Bill never played an inning for the Orioles. That March, a blockbuster deal sent him to the Brooklyn Superbas, along with Dan McGann, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley and Hughie Jennings. These were some of the top players in the game, and the trade tilted the balance of power in baseball. Jennings, one of the only shortstops who could claim superiority to Bill, had ruined his arm in 1898 and was now a first baseman.

Loaded with talent, Brooklyn cruised to the pennant in 1899 with an astonishing 101 victories. Bill had an excellent year, batting .283 with 87 runs scored and 76 RBIs in 121 games. His defense held the infield together, and his ability to reach base made him a valuable table-setter, as well as a good run-producer.

The Superbas won only 82 games in 1900, but that was still good enough to take the pennant. Bill tied for the club lead with 69 RBIs and topped Brooklyn with 73 walks. This made up for a dip in his average to .259. Bill’s defense was exceptional once again. He led the NL with 517 assists. His 55 errors were not considered a major detriment, as he was making plays on grounders that other shortstops didn’t get close to. Errors at the time were given on most plays when ground balls glanced off infielders’ gloves.

Bill Dahlen, 1895 Mayo
     
 
Bill played three more years for Brooklyn and turned in solid campaigns at the plate and in the field. A couple of months after the 1903 season, he learned that he had been traded to the Giants—the team he adored as a boy. John McGraw, another famously feisty infielder of the 1890s, had built New York into a contender in around pitchers Joe McGinnity and Christy Mathewson. He felt Bill was the missing piece to the pennant puzzle and was thrilled to pick up the 34-year-old shortstop for a couple of spare hands.

An 18-game winning streak starting in June gave the Giants a death-grip on first place and they won the pennant with ease. Bill was a revelation. He played great defense, batted .268, stole 47 bases and led the Giants—and the National League— with 80 RBIs.

Honus Wagner was the undisputed superstar in the game in 1904, but during that season Bill was every bit as good on a day-in, day-out basis. The only disappointment that year was McGraw’s decision to stonewall the World Series, which had not yet become the official championship of baseball.

Bill won his fourth pennant and played in his first World Series in 1905 when the Giants repeated as NL champs. He enjoyed another fine all-around season, tying Mike Donlin for the team lead in homers with 7 and knocking in 81 runs. Against the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series, Bill made several fine fielding plays, helping to preserve shutouts by Mathewson and McGinnity. Although Bill went hitless in the series, the Giants won 4 games to 1.

Bill spent two more years at short for the Giants. By 1907, however, he was no longer an above-average player. That winter, he was part of a trade to the Boston Braves (formerly the Doves) that brought young shortstop Al Bridwell to New York. Playing for former teammate Joe Kelley, Al led an aging, lackluster squad with 144 games played and 23 doubles, but he batted a meager .239. In 1909, Bill finally gave way to a younger man at age 39. He did manage to see action 69 games, enabling to establish a new record for career games played. The old mark of 2,386 had been held by Jake Beckley.

The 1910 season brought Bill to Brooklyn. He was installed as manager, where he improved the team’s record by 9 victories and continued to be the scourge of National League umpires. The club did not improve under Bill’s guidance in 1911, 1912 or 1913, and he was replaced as manager by Wilbert Robinson, who served as a coach under McGraw during Bill’s days with the Giants.

John McGraw, 1973 TMCA
     
 

Bill faded away from baseball after his stint as Brooklyn manager, but he continued to live in new York City. He occasionally showed up for old-timers events and lived until age 80. He died on December 5, 1950, after a long illness and was buried in an unmarked grave.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bill Dahlen was in many ways the prototypical major league baseball star. He did a little of everything with the bat and glove, did it extremely well, and was a major thorn in the side of opponents and umpires. Bill retired with every significant career defensive record at his position, but he was overshadowed by Hughie Jennings early in his career and Honus Wagner later on. He was all but forgotten by the time of his death.

Fortunately, in this era of SABRmetrics and skilled researchers, Bill has been rediscovered for the exceptional player he was. His 2,461 hits and 1,590 runs stand out in any era; even his 84 career homers tell a story—he finished among the league leaders in that category at least a half-dozen times. The stats also support the evaluation by Bill’s contemporaries that he was a great fielder. Another interesting stat is that he was asked to leave the field more than 100 times as a player and manager. Bad Bill, it seems, lived up to his nickname...but he was as good as they came in the formative years of baseball.

Bill Dahlen, 1911 Turkey Red
     
 

 

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