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Is Baseball Ready to Love Dick Allen?

This is Shakeia Taylor’s fourth and final piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro).

“I believe God Almighty hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen.”

–Phillies interim manager George Myatt, 1969

Despite a somewhat itinerant career and a relative lack of notoriety, there’s some evidence to suggest that Richard Anthony Allen was among the best players of his era. From the moment he debuted, Dick Allen made an impact, nearly helping the Phillies win their first National League title since 1950 in his rookie season. His professional baseball resume features a .292 career batting average, including seven seasons of .300 or better. He won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award and the 1972 MVP award. He posted a .534 career slugging percentage, which ranks second best among qualified players during his career. During the period in which he was active, Allen also produced the eighth-highest WAR among all position players — more wins than Hall of Famers Lou Brock or Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell recorded during the same timeframe, despite all benefiting from more plate appearances than Allen.

While Allen was noted for his talent, he also developed a reputation as one of the most controversial players in the game. He arrived for games hungover and would smoke in the dugout. He was often fined for showing up late or not showing up at all. He was known as a “divisive clubhouse guy.” His attitude would shape future perceptions of him, changing the way fans viewed him as a player.

As the years have passed, though — and as his Hall of Fame case has been evaluated and re-evaluated — those perceptions have shifted, giving way to a more complete understanding of what he endured. Many attribute his “bad attitude” to the racism and mistreatment he suffered in the minor leagues, an unfortunate trend that would follow him to the Phillies clubhouse.

Allen suffered through more unfortunate chapters that I can recount here, but perhaps the defining one came before a game on July 3, 1965, when Allen got into a brawl with Phillies teammate Frank Thomas. According to late Daily News writer Bill Conlin, the fight stemmed from an incident a week earlier when Thomas jokingly asked Allen, “Hey, boy, can you carry my bags to the lobby?” The fight solidified Allen’s bad reputation; his life in Philadelphia became hell. The city was still dealing with the effects of the 1964 racial riots and many white people sided with Thomas. The team put Thomas on irrevocable waivers. Fans began to boo loudly after Thomas, in a radio interview, said that Allen should’ve been punished, too. Allen’s left shoulder was injured in the fight with Thomas, making it difficult to play third base. He was moved to left field. The booing turned to death threats, which turned into fans throwing things at Allen on the field. He began to wear a helmet in the outfield to protect himself from further injury.

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The Underappreciated Legacy of Larry Doby

This is Shakeia Taylor’s third piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.

A statue of Doby outside Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

Larry Doby entered the league 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut, making him the second Black player in Major League Baseball. Ever. The second person to do something is often forgotten. This past weekend, MLB’s 30 teams celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, marking Robinson’s debut in 1947. No such day is designated to celebrate Doby’s career. Indeed, Doby’s legacy has often been overshadowed by Jackie’s, but it is one that deserves to be remembered on its own.

Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13th in Camden, South Carolina. As is common for many born in that time, it is unclear precisely in what year he was born, 1923 or 1924. His birthday is listed differently depending on the source. In what this writer would like to think was the universe acting on his behalf, Larry’s father, David, met his future wife, Etta, while playing baseball on the street in front of her home. During his early years, Doby spent much of his time with his grandmother due to his parents’ marital issues. When Larry was eight years old, his father died. Four years later, Etta and her young son moved to Paterson, New Jersey.

In Paterson, Doby was a multi-sport athlete, achieving success in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He even played baseball for the Smart Sets, a Black semi-pro team, during summer breaks from school. As a senior in high school, he accepted a basketball scholarship at Long Island University-Brooklyn. But before he enrolled, at age 17, he joined Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles.

Many speculated during his Negro Leagues career that it would possibly be Doby, and not Jackie, who would break the color barrier. Jackie bested him by three months, but Doby circumvented the minor leagues entirely. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck finalized a deal for Doby with Effa Manley, the Eagles’ business manager, on July 3, 1947. He paid her a total of $15,000 — $10,000 for taking him from the Eagles and another $5,000 once it was determined he would stay with Cleveland for at least 30 days.

Doby was regarded as “a Negro good enough to play major league ball,” writes Dr. Louis Moore in an article titled “Doby Does It! Larry Doby, Race, and American Democracy in Post World-War II America” from the Journal of Sport History. On July 5, with Cleveland on the road in Chicago, he made his debut against the White Sox in the first game of a doubleheader. In his only at-bat of the game, he struck out. Though he started the second game of the double-header, he would not start another the rest of the season. While good play is no guard against a determined racist — Robinson enjoyed a successful debut and still received terrible treatment from fans and players — Doby’s struggles brought out white opposition. Like Jackie, Doby wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his team. He was subjected to racial slurs from fans, opposing players, and even teammates. He was called “coon,” “jigaboo,” and “nigger.” Opposing players would spit in his face when he slid into second base.

Moore notes that,

[b]y the end of the year, his batting average dipped to a dismal .156, and many white fans claimed Doby did not have the goods. For whites, he became a symbol of the limitations of economic integration in post-World War II America. In other words, Doby took work away from a white man.

By all accounts, including his own, Doby took the racism he faced and channeled it into aggression on the field. He admitted that sometimes that aggression meant he swung too hard and missed a pitch. Despite his place in history, Doby felt lonely and isolated. “There’s something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget,” Doby told the New York Post in 1999. “Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget.” However, he was undeterred.

Doby went on to have a successful major-league career. In attempt to make Doby more comfortable in his second season, Veeck removed five players from the team who had been “discourteous” to him. Doby played the outfield full time and batted .301, becoming a major contributor to Cleveland’s pennant victory. He was the first African-American to hit a home run in the World Series, a series that Cleveland went on to win. Doby ultimately became a seven-time All-Star and put together five 100-RBI and eight 20-home-run seasons. In 1978, the same man who gave him his shot as a player in the major leagues hired him to manage his Chicago White Sox, making Doby just the second African-American manager in major-league history.

Doby recalled in a 1997 New York Times interview:

When Mr. Veeck signed me, he sat me down and told me some of the do’s and don’ts. He said, ‘Lawrence’ — he’s the only person who called me Lawrence — ‘you are going to be part of history.’ Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball. I mean, I was young. I didn’t quite realize then what all this meant. I saw it simply as an opportunity to get ahead. Mr. Veeck told me: ‘No arguing with umpires, don’t even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players; either of those might start a race riot. No associating with female Caucasians’ — not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn’t succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.”

In the summer of 2014, Cleveland unveiled a statue of Jim Thome before one was erected for Larry Doby. It was an act many Cleveland fans — and some baseball fans outside of Ohio — viewed as an injustice, not because Thome is undeserving, but because Doby’s should’ve come first. According to Moore, Doby was not just a symbol of hope for Clevelanders, or a good player, but a “reflection of the struggle for economic opportunities.” Black Cleveland residents were fighting for the passage of a Fair Employment Practice Committee law at the same time Doby joined the local ball club.

The FEPC was created after World War II by executive order. It was meant to be an organization in charge of ensuring that private companies that received government contracts for military work did not discriminate on the basis of color. But companies that failed to comply received relatively light penalties that only applied to military spending. Cleveland’s Black population had grown tremendously after the Second Great Migration, and the fight there centered around a desire for more FEPC legislation at federal, state, and local levels. After Doby was signed, local legislators agreed to support FEPC legislation and sent a letter to Veeck for his acquisition of the young outfielder. One could say Doby helped advance with the progress of civil rights in Cleveland both on and off the field.

An unsigned editorial that ran on page 14 of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday, July 4, 1947 titled, “Pulling for Larry Doby” read:

President Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians made news again yesterday by buying the clever infielder, Larry Doby, from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Veeck is the first American League owner to sign a Negro player. The Brooklyn Dodgers established the precedent by bringing up Jackie Robinson this year from Montreal. Manager Lou Boudreau, we believe, expressed the sentiments of Cleveland fans by saying that “creed, race or color are not factors in baseball success — ability and character are the only things that count. Negroes have risen to stardom in the other sports. If given the opportunity they will do so in baseball. Veeck deserves to be congratulated. The fans will be pulling for Larry Doby to make good.

“He said he never got booed in Cleveland,” Larry Doby Jr. told an interviewer. Not only was Cleveland important to Larry, but Larry was, and is, important to Cleveland.

Robinson broke the color barrier alone, but men like Doby joined the fight for acceptance and respect, and a place for those who would follow them. No telling of baseball’s story is complete until legacies like his are remembered. Larry Doby died of cancer in Montclair, New Jersey, on June 18, 2003. Despite being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. “Jack and I had very similar experiences,” Doby told the Times in 1997. “And I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t want people to remember my participation.” It is essential to the health of major-league Baseball, even today, that we honor Doby’s wish.

The White Sox Cap and Hip-Hop Culture

This is Shakeia Taylor’s second piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Given the racial makeup of Major League Baseball, it might seem like baseball’s culture would be largely distinct from hip hop’s, but it isn’t really. Many players warm up to hip-hop music and use its songs as their walk-ups. In 1993, Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr. chose Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” as his walk-up song. The song would eventually become his personal anthem. Roc Nation, Jay Z’s entertainment company, represents baseball players, including Robinson Cano and Yoenis Cespedes.

And the game’s influence has been felt in hip hop, as well. Baseball caps, also known as fitteds, have become a mainstay in hip-hop culture. In a game that can at times feel dominated by pop country music, hip hop’s prominence in baseball — and baseball’s presence in hip hop — offers a foothold for fans of both who wish to see their interests intersect.

The relationship between baseball and hip hop is particularly deep in Chicago. Jay-Z has his Yankees cap, but 90s rap videos were all about the White Sox fitted. It became a symbol of the culture at a time when rap was going mainstream and rappers from both coasts were gaining popularity. The design and color scheme of the cap are simple, yet timeless.

The most ubiquitous White Sox cap design — which is also the club’s current cap design — is actually drawn from the 1948 White Sox logo, and was designed by the grandson of White Sox founding owner Charles Comiskey, Chuck.

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Diversity in Baseball Begins in Little League

This is Shakeia Taylor’s first piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Sports, for all their faults, are important for many. They’re important in a way we sometimes don’t talk about. One of my friends recently said to me, “Playing baseball as a kid probably saved my life.” It’s been on my mind ever since he said it, because I understand the sentiment. There are kids in many cities and towns across America who would say the same.

My friend, who grew up in a tough urban neighborhood, said baseball saved his life because it gave him something to do. It gave him something to focus on; it kept him off the street. Those statements hold true for many other kids.

I had complained about the lack of diversity in baseball for a long time. I had talked about how people of color and women and girls need better representation in the sport, and I’d done so until I reached a point of exhaustion. Then one day, I decided I would stop talking and try to do something about it.

It started with a Google search for the Little League regional office for my local area. Then came an email to that office with one request:

Hi there, I am interested in helping a Chicago Little League team who may be in need of additional support in the way of equipment and monetary donations. I am hoping you can put me in touch with a coach or two in the city who could use the assistance. I’m happy to answer any and all questions. Thank you in advance!”

My email was answered by Carlton Jones.

Jones is the district administrator for the North and West parts of Chicago, as well as parts of the South side. Jones also serves as the liaison between the leagues, the Central Region Little League HQ, and the International Headquarters in Williamsport. He has been involved with Little League since 2010, but he has served as a coach, manager, or board member in youth baseball since 2003.

“I wanted children from the North Side of Chicago to have the opportunity to enjoy little league baseball and compete in the LLWS tournament, which has five phases, the last two of which are televised.”

Jones’ district, Illinois Little League District 12, or IL-12, has a large geographical footprint. Literally every neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago is serviced. For the West Side, it’s everything north of Cermak. On the South Side, it includes Englewood, Bronzeville, the South Loop, Oakwood, Kenwood, and Morgan Park.

When asked about the current state of Chicago Little League, Jones tells me that “Chicago Little League is a Special Needs league that provides baseball opportunities for players 4-18 and 19-25 that would not be able to play without special accommodations. It was part of Horner Park North-West Little League until it became large enough to be its own league.”

According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, 9 million kids between the ages of seven and 17 played baseball in the United States in 2002, but by 2013, that figure had dropped by more than 41%. With participation on the decline, teams and leagues have been forced to either shut down or merge, further constricting access for poorer families and making the sport whiter and more affluent. Baseball is expensive, and that expense is having an adverse effect on the participation of Black and Latino Americans. You need equipment and uniforms. You need fees. You need money for transportation. Teams in economically disadvantaged areas are often forced to apply for grants and fundraise heavily in order to support kids who want to play.

“Our Little Leagues cost anywhere from $25-$50 for basic programming up to $300 for teams that play over a 30-game season,” Carlton explained. “Your typical travel team will cost a minimum of $800, although $1,500 is closer to reality. Include private lessons and special overnight tournaments, and travel ball for a 12-and-under will easily cost in the $3,000-$5,000 range.”

The burden of that expense contributes to the ethnic and racial disparity we see in professional baseball today. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball reveals the game to be overwhelmingly white. Among the players present on last season’s Opening Day active rosters, 31.9% were Latino and just 7.7% were African-American or African-Canadian. And while those levels are consistent with 201 6– and while the overall participation of non-white players is at an all-time high — they represent a marked drop from the peak of African-American participation in the sport in the mid-1970s, when approximately 27% of players were African-American.

The disparity extends to those who watch the game. As of 2013, 83% of MLB television viewers were white; just 9% were Black. Of that same group, 50% were 50 years or older. Seeing oneself reflected in the game isn’t the only reason people engage with baseball, but it creates an important, lasting link to the sport. And with the current viewing audience increasingly composed of a white and aging demographic, it is vital to the future health of the sport that kids of color and girls develop an interest the game and are able to sustain that interest.

MLB recognizes this and in 2017, along with USA Baseball, established the Dream Series. The objective of the Dream Series is not only to prepare young players for a future in baseball, but to increase diversity across the sport, particularly among pitchers and catchers. The 2017 season saw baseball’s 30 organizations opening the season with just 54 African-American pitchers and five African-American catchers in the minors. The multi-day event coincides with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, and players receive presentations on entering baseball out of high school and through college. Registration is free.

In recent years, the Dream Series has featured top prospects like Hunter Greene, who was taken second overall by the Reds in last year’s amateur draft. It is an important step, but it can’t serve everyone. Many of the players who are invited are well past Little League. MLB has endeavored to support youth baseball and softball in cities with its RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), but the need for programming targeted at communities of color persists, especially in neighborhoods like those served by Jones’ district.

After I reached out, Jones arranged a meeting with Vanessa Munoz of the Horner Park Thundercats and Luis Medina of Amundsen Park Little League, two administrators for teams that could use a lot of help. For the 2018 season, Horner Park has about 50 softball players in the 12-and-under group, and over 200 players in the high school aged group. For the Amundsen Park team, Jones and Medina are estimating 100-150 players. Both leagues are comprised primarily of Black and Latinx children.

For the last eight weeks, I have shared the stories of these two teams on Facebook and Twitter. Each needs to raise at least $1,000 to cover their charter and insurance fees. Translating that cost into equipment is difficult, as funding to pay for fees, as well as field equipment is needed. Initially, the response was one of excitement, but that hasn’t translated into significant donations. Money has been coming in slowly, but with the season fast approaching, both teams could use an influx of cash. To make the fundraising easier for those interested in donating, Vanessa and Luis have been using the cash app. The process has underscored the challenges these teams and communities face: scattered individual efforts and determined administrators like Carlton Jones, trying to stretch resources to serve as many as children as possible.

Despite the lack of funding, Jones remains hopeful for the future of Little League baseball in Chicago. “Little League is a leadership program that uses the vehicle of baseball and softball to mold the children of today into the future leaders of tomorrow,” he says. “The pride of wearing the LL Patch, representing your park during the tourney season, and being able to play with your friends means the world to these children, as the sport is their life and refuge during the summer. For the parents and community contributing to neighborhood and having something to bond together with is tremendous. One day, one of these leagues will go far in the tournament and make the city proud.”

I hope he is right, and that these teams can find the support they need to flourish. I think about my friend, whose life was perhaps saved by a game. I think about what it means for young kids of color to be able to look up at the majors and see faces that look like theirs. I wonder how long they’ll sustain that connection if the current demographic trends continue. I wonder how long baseball can sustain itself as costs mount, and the audience at home ages. I hope others will try to get more diversity on the field. The health of baseball in the US might depend on it, and a few young lives, too.