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Dick Allen doesn’t talk much to media these days. Can’t blame him. Reporters mostly want to ask the seven-time All-Star about getting snubbed by the Hall of Fame. Their calls don’t get returned. From where Allen stands, nothing good can come from poking that hornet’s nest.
I reached out to one of Allen’s best friends and assured him that I would steer clear of Cooperstown. I told the friend that I wanted to talk to Allen about being a leading figure in the second generation of African-American players in MLB. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby opened the door to black ballplayers but it’s laughable to think that it wasn’t slammed back closed with regularity, especially with spring training and much of the minor leagues based in the segregated south.
I said we could even just focus on Allen’s time in the minors with the Arkansas Travellers in Little Rock. Allen was the first black minor-leaguer to play in the state that was Ground Zero in the civil-rights movement, and he was targeted with a level of abuse that players in the majors didn’t have to face. He could read the hate in the signs that some fans brought into the stadium — “Don’t Negro-ize Baseball” being the least profane and one of the least grammatical. He heard all variations of unveiled threats and toxic epithets. And at the end of his single season with the Travellers, fans voted him the most popular player. It could be the story of his perseverance and personal triumph, I told Allen’s friend.
Allen still declined to do an interview.
Entirely understandable. There aren’t too many aspects of Dick Allen’s adult life you can talk about without his candidacy for the Hall of Fame hanging out there the whole time.
It’s not that Allen had a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career exactly. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1964. He won the AL MVP with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 and might have won another the following year if it weren’t for a broken leg he suffered in June. He retired at age 35 after 15 seasons in the bigs, not really long enough to get those gaudy lifetime numbers that guarantee a plaque. He had 351 career homers and more tape-measure jobs than anybody of the era — dozens clocked honestly at 500 feet, even 550 feet. He wielded a bat that weighed almost 41 ounces and the ball just rocketed off it. It had to for him to post those numbers — Allen played in parks that were forgiving to pitchers and turned 400-foot fly balls into warning-track outs.
If you looked at Dick Allen with an aesthetic eye, you saw possibly the most purely talented ballplayer of his time. The testimonials from teammates and opponents would strain the bandwidth, but Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage’s is fairly representative. In 2014, Gossage told USA Today: “I’ve been around the game a long time, and he’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen play in my life. He had the most amazing season  I’ve ever seen. He’s the smartest baseball man I’ve ever been around in my life. He taught me how to pitch from a hitter’s perspective, and taught me how to play the game right. There’s no telling the numbers this guy could have put up if all he worried about was stats. The guy belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Reduce his career to the numbers and Allen stands out as one of the most exceptional hitters of the 20th century. From 1964 to 1974 Allen had the best OPS in baseball — and of the next 10 batters on that list, nine are in the Hall of Fame—first-ballot types, including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey among others. Consider this from the Sporting News in December 2015: “Allen is most impressive as a candidate when allowances are made for the shortness of his career and the outstanding pitching era in which he played. For instance, among all non-Hall of Famers since 1901 with at least 3,000 plate appearances, Allen’s adjusted offensive production is tied for fifth-best with Joey Votto. Only Barry Bonds, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols are better. Votto and Pujols could both fall below Allen by the end of their careers, too.”
The combination of memories and numbers didn’t get Allen into the Hall of Fame. In fact, in all his 15 years on the ballot he maxed out at a mere 19 per cent of the BWAA voting, a long way from the 75 per cent required for election. And while some, including the Godfather of Sabremetrics, Bill James, have argued that Allen didn’t meet Cooperstown standards on the field, it was the perception of Allen through the prism of race that really killed his shot.
In the ’60s, Allen was seen to be MLB’s unhappiest camper, a surly son of a bitch who got into clubhouse fights and mounted fines by showing up to the ballpark late or, worse, allegedly drunk. Every little detail was reported and sometimes enhanced in the Philly press by reporters who didn’t disguise their hate. Bill Conlin, long the dean of baseball beat writers in Philadelphia and an influential national figure in the media, described Allen as “baseball’s No. 1 Rebel, a title he holds unchallenged. Amid a growing crowd of athletes who attract more notice for grousing than playing, Allen emerged during the summer as the Sultan of Sulk.”
In New York during the same period, the foibles of Mickey Mantle and others were hushed and covered up by reporters who knew far worse tales than Allen’s missteps. The double standard was plain to everyone except the public. “That’s always been there for the black player,” Allen wrote in his memoir Crash in 1989. “Through the years, in the underground, with little whispers around the dugout, we thought that was a way baseball kept black players under control.”
Among all fan bases, Philadelphia’s has a well-earned reputation for being the hardest on the home team. This is the city where Wilt Chamberlain and Mike Schmidt were booed, but no Philadelphia player in any sport took the flak that Allen did in the late ’60s — and it was literally flak. Because of cans and bottles and other projectiles hurled his way from the stands, Allen had to wear his batting helmet into the field, thus earning the nickname “Crash.” And even when he suffered their scorn in silence, he acknowledged it, famously scratching “BOO” in the infield dirt. Another time his message was “OCT 2,” his projection of his last game in a Phillies uniform. He was a lightning rod who looked to start a thunderstorm.
Based mostly on those years in Philadelphia, sabremetrician James set aside statistics and offered a purely empirical assessment of Allen’s reputation: He ranked Allen as the second-most controversial player in MLB history, behind Rogers Hornsby but ahead of some characters ranging from questionable to loathsome, including Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.
When Allen was traded out of Philadelphia to St Louis, a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He might have been at the top of his game with the Phillies but he was happier at his other stops — with the Cards, the White Sox, the Dodgers and the A’s. He had come up with the Phillies going by “Richie” but switched to “Dick” once he was traded away, like he was leaving his troubled past behind. The seeming turn in Allen’s attitude was so dramatic that the Phillies put the bad old days behind them and brought him back for two seasons in the mid-’70s. Those in management came around late to the line of the thinking espoused by those who played with Allen, who would concede he was a free spirit, a wild card and a rebel but emphasize that he was a good teammate and a fierce competitor.
The members of the BWAA who voted on Allen’s candidacy were mostly men who’d covered him in both the NL and AL. Those who’d cultivated Allen’s image as major league baseball’s angry young man didn’t shake their sense of grievance, and they voted accordingly.
Then in 2014, the 16 members of the Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee weighed Allen’s candidacy for the first time. Twelve votes from the Committee are required for election. Allen fell one short — tied with Tony Oliva. Nobody on that ballot made the grade. The committee convenes every three years at MLB’s winter meetings so Dick Allen, now 74, might get a phone call in December. If a plaque in the Hall of Fame means something to him then his silence is understandable: He doesn’t want to say anything controversial, anything that could be construed the wrong way, anything that might poison the well.
Or he might simply be sick and tired of it all.
Dick Allen’s years playing in the minor leagues in Arkansas should help his case with the Committee. While his experiences in Philadelphia shaped his image in the media, his time in Little Rock has to stand at some level as an ultimate test of his character, one that shaped him more than he knew in his playing days.
“I wonder how good I could have been,” Allen wrote in his memoir. “It could have been a joy, a celebration. Instead, I played angry. In baseball, if a couple things go wrong for you, and those things get misperceived, or distorted, you get a label. I was labeled an outlaw, and after a while that’s what I became.”
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