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.

Remembering Allen just as an angry ballplayer — even a very good angry ballplayer — does little justice to the person as a whole. He was also, for example, a soul singer. In the 1989 book Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen, co-author Tim Whitaker mentions that Allen had a love of doo-wop music. “Back in his playing days, he would often harmonize before a game in the clubhouse with the grounds crew to get loose,” Whitaker describes.

In 1968, he formed a doo-wop group called The Ebonistics. The group performed in night clubs all over Philadelphia. Their song “Echoes of November” became a hit in the Philadelphia area. They even performed at halftime of a Philadelphia 76ers game in January 1969. A review of the performance by the Philadelphia Inquirer read:

“Here came Rich Allen. Flowered shirt. Tie six-inches (152 mm) wide. Hiphugger bell-bottomed pants. A microphone in his hands. Rich Allen the most booed man in Philadelphia from April to October, when Eagles coach Joe Kuharich takes over, walked out in front of 9,557 people at the Spectrum last night to sing with his group, The Ebonistics, and a most predictable thing happened. He was booed. Two songs later though, a most unpredictable thing happened. They cheered Rich Allen. They cheered him as warmly as they have ever cheered him for a game winning home run.”

This was about as much success as Dick Allen’s musical career yielded, but it offers a microcosm for the public’s fickle relationship with the player and man, alternating between between boos and applause.

Even years after the episode with Thomas, some Philly fans’ reaction to Allen remained rooted in their biased perception of the fight. “I don’t think there’s any question the Thomas affair was a turning point in Allen’s career,” Larry Merchant, former Daily News columnist said. “It revealed some sensitivities in him that perhaps he was able to mask. When you hit home runs, it takes care of everything. But nobody hits home runs every day. When the difficulties came, he really didn’t know how to cope.”

Four years after his fight with Thomas, Allen was traded. The Phillies weren’t very good and his behavior didn’t improve. Despite the MVP award in 1972, he bounced from team to team, including a second shot with the Phillies, but by 1975, Allen’s professional baseball career was over. He was 35. The injuries, the mysterious absences, and the controversy from the fight had lingered on, cutting short the career of a man who was known for his hitting in an era when pitching dominated.

“I still love baseball, I do,” Allen told Sports Illustrated in 1993. “But once you’re done with the game, the game is done with you.” Almost 20 years after his departure from professional baseball, Allen was seemingly still dealing with the anger and bitterness that had plagued him during his career. He said that, after the death of his daughter in 1991, he approached several teams about getting jobs, but was told to send a rèsumè. He balked at the idea that he should need a rèsumè when teams could simply look at the back of one his bubblegum cards.

But as time has gone on, opinions of Dick Allen seem to have softened. Or perhaps fans and writers have become more understanding of what he dealt with during his playing days. In 1994, Allen began working for the Philadelphia Phillies as a fan development and community representative. In 2012, 38 years after leaving Chicago, Allen was welcomed back when the Chicago Baseball Museum had a tribute to the 1972 White Sox team. The Phillies made Allen a club ambassador after the 2017 season.

Stories of his mentorship of Mike Schmidt and his camaraderie now sit next to accounts of the fight and Allen’s troubled moods. A broader context exists for his experience; analysts and fans acknowledge just how difficult the time was, the indignities and threats, small and very serious, which he suffered. We remember that he liked doo-wop, and came to reach out to the community on behalf of the club he once demanded to leave. He was more than just angry, though he was also justified in that anger in a way writers of the time didn’t recognize or acknowledge. He was a star who swung a 40-ounce bat, only his time refused to celebrate him as one.

Though eliminated from annual consideration by baseball writers in 1997, and narrowly missing the vote for the Hall in 2014 when he was considered by the “Golden Era” Veterans Committee, Dick Allen may still have a chance. In 2016, the Hall restructured the committee into two voting groups: Modern Baseball (1970-1987), which voted in 2017, and Golden Days (1950-1969), which won’t vote until 2020. Allen’s career splits between both voting groups. Even though he did not make the modern baseball’s vote in 2017, there is a chance he could make the Hall with the Golden Days’ 2020 vote.

Maybe the game isn’t done with Dick Allen just yet.

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Shakeia Taylor is an avid sports fan, bibliophile and budding vinyl collector who owns too many pairs of shoes. She can be found sitting in a pile of books or on Twitter. Follow her there @curlyfro.

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Brian Reinhart
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Thanks for this one. This has been an amazing FG residency and I enjoyed every story. It’s a great model of how the residency can help open up the site to new angles and new ways of looking at & learning about & loving the sport.

Now, here is an important audio clip, captured by our own Cistulli, of Dick Allen and Bob Uecker singing a duet: https://www.fangraphs.com/not/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Uecker-and-Allen1.mp3