Pick Allen for the Hall?

There are those who continue to press a Hall of Fame case for Dick Allen, too. To many, it’s as off-the-wall as it comes, considering the trajectory of his career knitted to the controversies that bristled around the uncommonly talented third/first baseman.

Statistically, Allen belongs. There’s no question about it. It only began with his rookie season; he wasn’t just the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1964, he may have posted one of the ten greatest rookie seasons of all time. In fact, Allen’s rookie season does compare rather well to Joe DiMaggio’s.

Over the rest of his career, Allen turned out to be a statistical near-match to Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, though Allen was the better athlete between the two, was a better baserunner, and when he wasn’t injured he was a decent fielder once he got comfortable at a position. Allen was converted to a third baseman when he came up to the majors and it took him the full season to become assimilated at the position; he ended up playing much first base and well enough, and he was a passable outfielder.

Talented, troubled, tortured Dick Allen, when he was a young Phillie flogger known as Richie (a name he considered childish) . . .

In a pitching-friendly era for the most part, Allen was a monstrous plate presence, a game breaker at any given time, and—like Mike Schmidt to follow—his home runs weren’t just home runs, they were tape-measure trajectories. He was a seven-time All-Star, and three of those All-Star appearances came when the voting hadn’t yet been returned to the fans.

And if you’re looking to hang responsibility for the infamous Philadelphia pennant collapse of 1964 on anyone’s shoulders, you can’t hang it on Allen’s: during that infamous ten-game losing streak, Allen (who’d finish the season hitting .318, slugging .557, and posting a .382 OBP) hit .415 with seventeen hits, eight runs scored, six extra base hits, and five runs batted in.

You can attribute that to a rookie’s inexperience; not that many rookies are thrown full-tilt into a pennant race of the kind the Phillies experienced in 1964. Nobody should have expected a rookie to carry the club down that stretch, nobody of sound mind would have. (The Phillies’ collapse may actually have cost center fielder Johnny Callison the National League’s MVP award in 1964, won by Ken Boyer of St. Louis.)

What you can hang on Allen’s shoulders, and he might be the first one to admit it today, is the question of whether or not he did as much to keep his teams from winning as he did to help them win. Hark back to Bill James (in The Politics of Glory) once again:

22 September 1969: Allen's final game in Philadelphia. The fans were as brutal as the press on him . . .

It has become fashionable to say that Dick Allen was a victim of the racism of his time, and for this reason it is politically incorrect for me even to mention any of this old business. Bob Carroll, in making Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame case, wrote that “Rugged individualism is more admired at a distance than up close and personal.” Rugged individualism? How about alcoholism, irresponsibility, and vindictiveness? How about paranoia and pettiness? They’re all easier to admire from a distance . . .

Dick Allen was a victim of the racism of his time; that part is absolutely true. The Phillies were callous to send him to Little Rock in 1963 with no support network, and the press often treated Allen differently than they would have treated a white player who did the same things. That’s all true.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the issue. Willie Mays was a victim of the same racism. Jackie Robinson was. Roy Campanella was, Curt Flood was, Bob Gibson was, Hank Aaron was, Ernie Banks was, Monte Irvin was, Lou Brock was, Minnie Minoso was, and Roberto Clemente was. Those are all very different personalities, and they all dealt with racism in different ways. The best of them used the racism of the outside world to bond the team together, us against them, those bad guys out there. Allen directed his anger at the targets nearest him, and by doing so used racism as an explosive to blow his own teams apart.

Dick Allen was at war with the world. It is painful to be at war with the world, and I feel for him. It is not his fault, entirely, that he was at war with the world.

But that’s not the issue. Allen was a jerk; that’s not the issue, either. There are lots of jerks in the Hall of Fame, white and black. There are irresponsible people in the Hall of fame, and there are alcoholics in the Hall of Fame. That’s not the issue.

When the White Sox were trying to trade Dick Allen in 1974, somebody asked Joe Burke of the Royals whether he was interested. “I wouldn’t pay the waiver price for him,” Burke replied. “I wouldn’t pay a dollar for him. I wouldn’t take him if you paid me $10,000.” That’s the issue. Did he have value? Did he help his teams win?

He did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball. And if that’s a Hall of Famer, I’m a lug nut.

That last passage is just a little too much of a stretch if you know the story of Hal Chase, the single most corrupt individual who ever played major league baseball, whose gambling and game-throwing probably did more than even Dick Allen ever did to keep his teams from winning. Or, if you know the subsequent story of Barry Bonds, who fostered so tens a clubhouse atmosphere that his teams either pulled up short of a World Series berth or couldn’t win the Series, when they won at all.

Prior to the foregoing passages, James cited such incidents as the 1965 pre-game fight into which Allen got with Frank Thomas, a veteran who’d come to the Phillies from the Mets for the 1964 stretch drive. (Bothered all season by injuries as it was, Thomas played well enough before suffering a hand injury that sidelined him on the threshold of the fold.) Most accounts have since blamed Thomas for instigating the incident, but at the time the blame—very publicly—fell on Allen, especially after Thomas was put on waivers following that night’s game.

Erstwhile Met (and Brave, Cub, Red, and Pirate) Frank Thomas joined the Phillies for the '64 stretch, got hurt, then picked the wrong fight with the wrong Phillie in '65.

What actually did happen? Thomas had been known as a needler, both with the Phillies and in previous major league stops. The day after he missed three stabs at a bunt with men on first and third before striking out at last, Allen was taking pre-game infield practise at third. Johnny Callison—whom Allen once credited with doing the most to teach him how to be a major leaguer in 1964—joined him. The center fielder suggested that they stick the needle into Thomas in the batting cage, since both Callison and Allen had often borne the brunt of some of Thomas’s ridicule.

Thomas took a big cut in the cage and missed and Callison fired the first shot: “Hey Donkey! (Thomas’s nickname was the Big Donkey.) Why don’t you try bunting?” Thomas, according to William C. Kashatus in his marvelous September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration, didn’t answer Callison—he glared up the line at Allen and hollered: “What are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay, always running your mouth off?” (Surely you don’t need me to tell you what the “Muhammad Clay” reference means, do you?)

Other Phillies, white and black alike, have since testified to Thomas’s incessant needling of some of the Phillies’ black players. Pat Corrales, a Chicano with native American blood, would remember the trigger a little differently: Allen kidded Thomas about hitting one past him at third, but Thomas replied by calling him “Richie X”—referencing the recently murdered Malcolm X—and Allen hollered that he, Allen, would quit calling Thomas “Donkey” if Thomas would quit with the “Richie X”—at which point Thomas rifled a liner right past the young third baseman, hollering, “Hey, Richie X, how come you didn’t catch that one?”

Whichever was the accurate recollection, this much seems to be agreed: Thomas clearly responded to ordinary ballplayer needling with racially-based remarks; it seems to have been an established pattern with him. Allen ran down the line to the batting cage and flattened Thomas with a single punch, and Thomas retaliated by smacking Allen in the left shoulder with a bat.

The Phillies played the Dodgers that night. Allen tripled twice in the game; Thomas pinch-hit an inning after that second triple and drove one over the fence. All for naught; the Phillies ended up losing the game, 10-8. But in a classic case of terrible timing, Thomas was put on waivers after the game. Allen, for his part, was ordered to keep quiet about the affair (there are stories he was threatened with a $5,000 fine if he didn’t), other than telling a reporter he wouldn’t get into details because he didn’t want to hurt Thomas’s chances of catching on with another club. Kashatus has recorded that Allen—mindful that Thomas had a large family to support—actually begged manager Gene Mauch to intercede on Thomas’s behalf.

Thomas had become a Philadelphia fan favourite with his play after arriving in 1964, including 21 RBIs in 38 games before he broke a thumb diving back to second base, taking him out of the lineup before the fold. When Thomas was sent out of town, it looked as though Allen had pulled a power play, costing a veteran player his job, and he took a ferocious beating in the press and from the worst elements of Philadelphia’s notorious boo-birds over it. (Enough fans got obnoxious enough to throw objects toward Allen on the field that he took to wearing his batting helmet when playing his field position, leading teammates to nickname him Crash.) This may—may—have been the real beginning of Allen’s genuine unhappiness in Philadelphia.

In short order, the double standards around the city’s racial growing pains and among some of the team took irrevocable root, and Allen began trying any and everything he could think of, often couched in battles against racism but often enough not, to provoke a trade. Concurrently, the Allen battles began dividing a team who never again contended for a pennant so long as Allen was there. Or did they?

Kashatus noted many trades the Phillies made from 1965-68 sent several promising players (of all races but often as not black and other non-white) out of Philadelphia in exchange for aging veterans whose best play was almost entirely behind them. Many of those younger players had been mentored by Allen, who had grown up in a region where racism wasn’t half as prevalent as—to his absolute shock—it proved in Little Rock. One of those disciples went on to a Hall of Fame pitching career: Ferguson Jenkins.

On the other hand, one white player who came to the Phillies in one of those deals, flaky catcher Bob Uecker, became fast friends with Allen, luring him into clowning routines that broke their teammates up in the clubhouse and on the team bus. Perhaps a few more such teammates and things might—might—have broken a little differently for Allen.

Mauch had stood by Allen in the Thomas contretemps, perhaps clumsily. (I had to choose between a 36-year-old veteran who was hitting .250 and a 23-year-old power hitter who was hitting .348, the kind of player you see once in a lifetime.) In time, he would admit, “Thomas was going to go anyway. I should have shipped him sooner. Instead, the press came down on Richie’s head. If he did one little thing wrong, they would see it as so much worse because, in their heads, he was a bad guy.”

By early 1966, however, Mauch was completely frustrated by the team’s inability to remain competitive. (Former outfielder Wes Covington, one veteran who was shipped out of town after he ripped team management at 1965’s end, said he couldn’t help seeing a big difference between the 1964 and 1965 editions: on the 1964 team, “one guy would break his back for the other.”) He began ripping his own players mercilessly and subjecting them to other storming clubhouse tantrums. Blend that to upper management swapping the organisation’s best prospects and young major leaguers for veterans on the threshold of the end (unless they proved a little too uppity, as did future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, a growing influence in the budding players’ union), mix in the Phillies’ inability to cauterise the brutal treatment of their bona-fide superstar, and that’s the story of the 1960s’ Phillies collapse.

It isn’t exactly fair to hang the entire thing on Dick Allen’s head. He didn’t always know how to handle the Philadelphia racial growing pains; he didn’t always know how to handle the structure of major league baseball; he didn’t always know who his real friends or real enemies were; he did pull a number of staggering stunts to force his way out of Philadelphia in an era in which baseball players had no choice as to their employers.

But he wasn’t the sole reason why the 1960s Phillies never really contended again after the 1964 pennant collapse. Weighing all the known evidence, you would have to conclude objectively that a combination of the Phillies’ foolish trading, Mauch’s foolish tirading and inability to shepherd a one-for-all clubhouse culture after 1964, , and the contentious Philadelphia sports press of the time stirring a few too many pots—with few exceptions, they seem to have taken an almost fetishistic interest in playing the race cards—were the major reasons.

Clay Dalrymple, a catcher on those Phillies teams, who finally got to play in a World Series with the 1969 Baltimore Orioles, claimed to Kashatus that the Philadelphia Daily Newswas the biggest such instigator. Kashatus himself wrote this, tellingly, to finish the chapter “Seasons of Frustration”: Whether or not they consciously stirred controversy, the Philadelphia press was partially responsible for the negative attitude and behaviour of the fans after 1964. The chipmunk writers’ constant emphasis on racial division within the Phillies clubhouse became a self-fulfilling prophecy by 1968, as Allen’s rebellious behaviour to force a trade fragmented the team.

In June 1968, according to Kashatus, infielder Cookie Rojas called a team meeting and ripped Allen a new one for coming and going as he pleased and for a lack of field hustle, while Dalrymple, the white catcher who also hoped for a trade, tried to console Allen afterward by telling him he was smart with leadership quality if he could find a way to let it come forward. Mauch was dumped for Bob Skinner, and Allen ran into trouble in 1969 when he infuriated Skinner by setting up a private clubhouse dressing area.

Allen won an MVP in Chicago and seemed happy with the White Sox, for awhile . . .

Allen later said he did it to keep his teammates out of trouble because of his own act, desperate by now to force a trade out of Philadelphia. Skinner would resign before the season ended, leaving coach George Myatt to run the team. At long last, after the 1969 season finished, Allen got his wish. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, in the deal that made Phillies out of catcher (and future Hall of Fame broadcaster) Tim McCarver and relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, while making a Cardinal out of Rojas as well. This was also the trade that was supposed to make a Phillie of Curt Flood, except that Flood refused to report and challenged the reserve clause when he learned of the trade. To Flood the trade exemplified slavery; to Allen, the trade meant liberation.

Allen would play a season each in St. Louis and Los Angeles before turning up with the White Sox and stunning baseball when he yanked the White Sox into pennant contention—they’d finish twelve games better than the previous season—and took home the American League’s MVP award for 1972. But in 1973, Allen suffered a leg fracture and missed most of the rest of the season. In 1974, he feuded with White Sox manager Chuck Tanner, an old family friend, and with a few teammates—including Ron Santo, freshly acquired from the Cubs but foolishly trying to over-assert himself as a team leader—before leaving the team at season’s end. 

Then, Allen returned to the Phillies, who lured him out of retirement after he’d decided to hang it up rather than play for Atlanta, to whom the White Sox dealt him after 1974. This time, he wasn’t quite the player he had been—the leg fracture and layoff during his White Sox days finally took a toll, though he still had flashes of his once-stupefying long ball power. (He jolted Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego with a blast that traveled to the high side of the upper deck in August 1975.)

But he helped mentor a young team who’d capture the National League East in 1976, particularly a youthful third baseman named Mike Schmidt. “Mike, you’ve got to relax,” Schmidt (in his own memoir) would remember Allen advising him. “You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.” Otherwise, Allen reportedly blasted the omission of another teammate from the Phillies’ postseason roster and fostered such an atmosphere that the Phillies’ NL East celebration became separate clinching parties, with Allen’s allies celebrating apart from the rest of the club.

Forgiveness has worked both ways for Dick Allen so far . . .

If you want a telling final word, however, let it come from the man himself, with the benefit of decades worth of perspective:

At the time, I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.

Let it be said, too, that Dick Allen today is one of the Phillies’ most popular community relations representatives, and that he has long since made peace with Philadelphia fans, even if many now are too young to remember when the mere mention of his name—whether as Richie Allen (in his first Phillies tour, a name he despised for its childishness) or as Dick Allen—was enough to cause temperatures to run the scale.

That may not be enough to get Allen a plaque in Cooperstown when all is said and done. But it may be enough to help put the turmoil of his career into more proper perspective. When the late Whitney Houston once described herself as “I’m my own best friend and my own worst enemy,” she could—could—have been quoting from Dick Allen.

Bill James once thought Allen was the second most controversial player in baseball history, behind Rogers Hornsby. I’d sooner say that Allen was the most controversial player of the 1960s and early 1970s, but you can name a lot of players who were rather more controversial than him. Eliminate the press notoriety and ask yourself whether names like Michael Barrett, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Milton Bradley, Ben Chapman, Hal Chase, Ty Cobb, Leo Durocher, Chick Gandil, Rickey Henderson, Rogers Hornsby, Denny McLain, Manny Ramirez, Swede Risberg, and Ted Williams ring more than a few bells.

And I’ll bet you Dick Allen on his worst day never forced a suspension that provoked a teammates’ strike that compelled his team, in turn, to dredge up a team of sandlot players just to make a scheduled game—a group that proceeded to get the living daylights beaten so far out of them it took the Mars probe to find them decades later.

FORGOTTEN WISDOM: If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.—Dick Allen (who once bred horses after his baseball career ended, until his stables burned down completely in 1979), on artificial turf.

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