Dick Allen’s Journey
Perhaps the late Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman said it best about Dick Allen: “They (the Phillies) sent him to Little Rock and lost him forever.”
The 1960s were not made for Dick (not Richie, a moniker he disliked) Allen. He was the Phillies first black superstar, and played in a racially tense era in front of hypercritical fans. A shy, sensitive boy of 18 when he left the quiet town of Wampum, PA to play professional baseball, he was to experience the ugly side of American attitudes towards race as the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Controversy and criticism – justified or not – seemed to accompany him through his career. He was later described as baseball’s “bad boy.”
His first major league manager Gene Mauch said: “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have walk up to a mirror, look at himself and say, ‘I’m going to take the next five years and do everything I can in baseball so I can do what I want to do the next forty years of my life. And he can do that. Five years of total dedication is not much of a price to pay for 40 years of comfort…I tried. I think my greatest feeling of inadequacy finally disappeared when I realized no one on earth could make him feel that way—except himself. He wants independence. Not family. Not job. Not accomplishment. Only independence. You just can’t be that way.”
Fifty years after he won the American League’s MVP award while with the Chicago White Sox, both Allen’s fans and detractors seem to believe he was his own worst enemy.
Allen grew up in a Western Pennsylvania town where most men went to work in either a steel mill or cement factory. His mother said he played ball until the sun went down. He would take a broom handle and use it to hit stones to practice his swing. He was an outstanding high school basketball player who helped his school win two state championships. But baseball was his first love, and he signed with the Phillies for a $70,000 bonus, the highest the Phillies had ever paid.
After signing, he was sent to Williamsport, PA, to play minor league baseball. After a few weeks, he was sent to another minor league team, the Miami Marlins. It was his first trip to the South, and his first experience with racism and segregation.
For many years, the Phillies AAA club had been in Buffalo, but they relocated it to Little Rock, AK for the 1963 season. When Allen stepped on the field for the team’s opening game, he was the first black to play professional baseball in the state. The Negro Leagues never fielded a team there. (A Negro League player said his team didn’t even want to drive through Arkansas.)
Allen and the team’s other black players stayed in a boarding house in the city’s “black” section.
One of his teammates was Ferguson Jenkins. In his memoir, he wrote: “We were the first black players at Little Rock, and this as much as anything else was the cause of Richie’s later attitude toward the press and the fans. At Williamsport, he had been friendly, outgoing and relaxed. He was happy playing ball in his home state of Pennsylvania. Then at Little Rock he was exposed for the first time to racism and it changed him greatly.
“Richie’s troubles started about a week after we arrived in Little Rock. He bought an old car, a 1953 Plymouth. After a workout, when we came out of the ballpark, we found the car covered with signs and scrawlings on the windows. One sign said, ‘Why don’t you ni—rs -go home.’ Another said, ‘We never had any ni—rs before you. You don’t belong.’ Some of the signs were obscene. We just ripped them off the car and drove home. I think the signs affected Richie more deeply than they did any of the rest of us.”
Dick Allen - June 28th, 1967
Allen also said he received death threats in the mail.
By the end of the season, however, Allen was voted Most Valuable Player by the Travelers’ fans, and wound up hitting .289 and leading the International League with 33 home runs and 97 RBIs. He was called up to the Phillies and made his major-league debut on September 3, 1963, in Milwaukee. Facing Denny Lemaster, Allen went 1-for-3 with a double. He played in ten games, but showed his power only once, in Los Angeles on September 28, going 3-for-4 with a triple and two RBIs to pace a 12-3 Phillies’ win.
Mauch decided that Allen, whom the team insisted on calling Richie, which he did not like, would play third base, a position he had never played regularly at any level. The reason was simple: The Phillies were a predominantly left-handed-hitting team. They needed his right-handed bat and power in the lineup. During the winter, the Phillies had traded their only right-handed power hitter, Dom Demeter to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Jim Bunning. Even though Allen had never played much third, Mauch reasoned Allen had good hands and could play the position well enough to get by: “I know his bat has to help,” the manager said.
Allen’s first full season was a triumph: He was voted rookie of the year, batted .318, hit 29 homeruns and led the league in other offensive categories. In late September, the team held a “Richie Allen Night” to honor him. Some thought it was a way to help the team snap out of its losing streak which cost the Phillies the pennant. Fans certainly blamed Mauch, but they also might have taken their anger out on Allen.
That collapse traumatized Philadelphia sports fans – who feel the effects to this day, even though some weren’t alive in 1964. They went on to throw snowballs at Santa Claus, cheered when Michael Irving was taken off the football field on a stretcher, booed Mike Schmidt, and always assumed the worst.
View of Philadelphia Phillies Dick Allen (15) warming up before game vs San Diego Padres at Connie Mack Stadium. Philadelphia, PA 6/3/1969 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Halfway through his second year with the Phillies, an event occurred that plagued Allen for the next five seasons.
Frank Thomas was acquired the year before to help the Phillies in the stretch drive, but broke his thumb in early September. In his memoir “Crash,” Allen described him as an “agitator” who played a trick on black ballplayers; when they went to shake his hand in a “black” grip, but Thomas then pushed the black player’s thumb back so far it hurt.
On July 3, 1965, the Phillies were taking batting practice. Outfielder Johnny Callison and Allen were standing by the third base bag while Thomas was in the cage. A fight ensued.
Here is how Allen described it: “So Callison waits until Thomas takes a big swing and a miss down at the batting cage. Then Callison says, ‘Why don’t you try to bunt instead.’ Callison’s jibe struck a nerve. But instead of answering Callison’s taunts, Thomas glared down the third base line at me and screams, ‘What are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay, always running your mouth off?’ Thomas knew it was Callison who had taunted him. The ‘Muhammad Clay’ remark was meant to say a lot, and it reminded me of how he would bend back a player’s thumb for laughs.”
When Allen came to the cage for his batting practice, he knocked Thomas down with a left hook. Thomas responded by hitting Allen in the right shoulder with his bat. Callison said it took five players to break them up.
In the game that night against San Francisco, Allen and Thomas both hit homeruns. Allen says he walked up to Thomas after the game and shook his hand. But Mauch, according to Allen, had had enough of Thomas and his picking on players. After the game, he told Thomas he was released. He also told the team to not talk about the fight.
Thomas told the media, “Some can take it, others can’t.” When the press asked Allen about the altercation, he said, “What fight?”
Callison said people assumed that Allen was the one who got Thomas kicked off the team, and fans (white fans) didn’t like that. Allen said angry fans called his home or sent threatening letters.
In another game against the Giants, Allen said one fan called him “darkie” and another fan nearby said to go back to a black neighborhood with “the rest of the monkeys.” When Allen entered the dugout between innings, a fan leaning over the dugout sucker punched him
In his next at-bat, he came to the plate with the bases loaded. Allen swung at the first pitch and launched a grand slam to left-center field. When he arrived at home plate, he saw the fans giving him a standing ovation. “Thirty seconds earlier I was a monkey. Now I was a hero. It was the ultimate mind game, and it was my mind they were playing with.”
It was at that moment Allen realized he would be judged differently, good or bad, because he was black.
There were other “incidents” with Allen during the next three seasons, including writing the word “boo” with his toe in the dirt near first base, drinking before games, and missing a team flight. When he severely injured his hand people believed he had hurt it in a fight with a jealous husband.
Allen had asked team owner Bob Carpenter to trade him, but the owner said no, he was too valuable. Until the end of the 1969 season, when he sent Allen to St. Louis. After one season he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who after one year traded him to the White Sox. Why was he traded after only a single season with each club, despite having solid offensive numbers?
In the case of St. Louis, General Manager Bing Devine said it was a numbers problem. The team’s second baseman, Julian Javier, was getting old, and the team needed a replacement. Plus, the Cardinals had a young first base prospect that showed power potential, and in another scenario it would have let third baseman Joe Torre play first, where he was better defensively, and was replaced at third by a better defensive player. Cards Manager Red Schoendienst, who initially was against acquiring Allen, was against trading him. St. Louis sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for second baseman Ted Sizemore (who was a rookie of the year winner) and a catching-outfield prospect.
In Los Angeles, Allen played well, but according to a biography by William Kashatus, Allen refused an edict by owner Walter O’Malley of mingling with stars who came to Dodger home games. O’Malley, Kashatus wrote, was angry by this refusal and had him traded to the Chicago White Sox.
During 1972, his first season in Chicago, Allen not only achieved some stability, but won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award when he hit 37 home runs and helped the White Sox nearly overtake the powerful Oakland A’s for the AL West title. 1973 was trouble from the beginning: Allen fractured his leg in spring training, and played only 70 games that season. In 1974, he said baseball wasn’t fun anymore. On September 14, when he was batting .302 and leading the American League in homeruns with 32, Allen told his teammates he was retiring.
Less than a year later, Allen un-retired and joined the Phillies. The team thought Allen’s bat would be the final piece the team needed to win the NL East. But Allen didn’t come close to approaching the numbers he had earlier in his career.
The Phillies won the NL East in 1976, and made their first postseason appearance since 1950.
Even though the Phillies won a then club record 101 games, they faced the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. Known as “The Big Red Machine” it was one of the best teams of all-time, led by future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench, as well as Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Sr., George Foster and Davey Concepcion. In game 2, with the Phillies leading 2-0, the Reds had the bases loaded. The Phillies had a pickoff play planned. Allen began to move behind the runner at first as the pitch was thrown. But the batter hit the ball fair past the bag at first. Allen, out of position, made a sweep of his glove hand to try to stab the ball, but he was in the wrong spot to do so.
The play was ruled an error on Allen, and once again he heard the boo-birds. That opened the floodgates for the Reds, who won that game and the third to sweep the Phillies.
Allen went 2 for 9 in the series, going 0-3 in the final game, his last as a Phillie. The team chose not to re-sign him after the season. He signed with the Oakland A’s.
He played well in the early part of the 1977 season. He went 4-for-8 in a three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins, and on April 25 was hitting .353 with four home runs. But things soon soured. Unknown to manager Jack McKeon, Allen had a contract condition that excused him from being a designated hitter. When McKeon penciled in him as the DH, Allen refused to play. He slumped in early May and was having shoulder problems.
Allen hit his final major-league home run on May 17, a game-tying blast in the ninth inning off the Yankees’ Ron Guidry. Still, his production continued to decline. On June 19, Allen struck out as a pinch hitter in the second game of a doubleheader in Chicago. The next night he left the bench during a game without permission. A’s owner Charlie Finley walked into the clubhouse, found Allen showering, and suspended him for a week. Allen decided that he had had enough and was through playing for the season. He returned to the A’s in 1978 spring training, but was released.
Allen joined the Phillies as a field instructor and community relations representative before his death. Last year, for the second time, he came within one vote of being elected into the Hall of Fame. His many fans hope he’ll eventually be inducted.