November 23, 2010
He was not an American hero, and that was the way he wanted it.
The man who wished to be called Dick Allen, not Richie, had a career that bordered on Hall of Fame greatness—Rookie of the Year, MVP, two-time home run champion, RBI leader, four-time OPS leader, seven All-Star teams in 15 seasons, 351 homers, 1,119 RBI—but he never allowed anyone to paint him with the face of greatness.
He is known as one of the baddest of the bad in baseball, but that is not really the person Dick Allen was. Different? You bet.
But put a bat in his hands and he was the happiest man in the world. He may have missed batting practice, may not have gotten to the stadium until 20 minutes before a game, but it really didn’t matter. He didn’t ask for love, only a paycheck and some freedom.
He came along in 1964, really, although he had a brief stay in the bigs the previous season, and he put together a rookie season for the Phillies like few before him. He batted .318, led the National League in runs scored with 125, collected 201 hits, hit 29 homers, and legged out 13 triples. He also had an answer for those who were critical of him leading the league in strikeouts with 138, and that was that he also led the league in total bases with 352.
The problem was he came along at a time before the civil rights movement had taken hold, really just 17 years after black players had begun playing in the major leagues and, for the most part, at a time when they did not act against the establishment.
That wasn’t Allen’s way. He had always had cantankerous streak in him. As he came up in the minor leagues, he roomed with Pat Corrales, who went on to become a baseball lifer as a player, coach, and manager.
“Strongest man I ever saw,” said Corrales, who learned as a Mexican-American in Fresno, California, how to handle himself pretty well. “We’d wrestle in the room and he’d just turn me over.”
Former pitcher Jim Kaat tells the story of a fight that broke out when both were playing with the White Sox. They were in Kansas City when Stan Bahnsen hit John Mayberry with a pitch. Mayberry charged the mound as a melee broke out. Kaat came out to try and break up the fight only to get hit with a left hook from Mayberry that knocked him to the turn.
This is how Kaat remembers what happened next:
"I looked toward first base and there was Dick, who stood about 5-foot-11 and weighed 185, holding John Mayberry, who was about 6-5, 235, in a bear hug with John’s spikes about six inches off the ground. I only wish Allen had caught him before he clocked me.”
Allen was so strong that he swung a 42-ounce bat, which is among the heaviest in baseball history.
If it wasn’t one thing off the field with Allen it was another, though. He got into a fight with Phillies teammate Frank Thomas, another big, tough guy who hit home runs and used to amaze onlookers by catching anyone’s best fastball barehanded. Allen had another run-in, this with the Philadelphia police, who found him pushing his car up a hill. He claimed he cut his hand on the taillight.
Allen went from hero to villain in Philadelphia, ridden by the fans so badly one season that he took to sending them messages in the dirt at first base, drawing in large letters the word B-O-O. The Philadelphia fans, who once booed Santa Claus, weren’t about to pass up his offer. They were on him so hard, throwing things at him when not booing, that he took to wearing a batting helmet in the field for protection.
Allen had to go. He went to Cardinals in one of the most famous trades in baseball history, as he was dealt for Curt Flood, who failed to report to the Phillies and challenged baseball’s reserve clause in front of the Supreme Court. Allen went next to the Dodgers before he came across Chuck Tanner with the White Sox.
Tanner was the perfect manager for Allen. He didn’t care if he was late, didn’t care if he would sneak a nip out of the “aftershave” bottles that lined his locker. What’s more, Allen loved racehorses and in Tanner he had a manager with the same passion, as well at a teammate in Kaat. In 1972 with Tanner, Allen won the American League MVP Award while leading the league in home runs and RBI.
There was just so much talent there. Take the game where Kaat was pitching with the bases loaded, none out, and induced a 6-4-3 double play, only to have Allen flip the ball toward the first base umpire after the out, thinking the side was retired. The error allowed another run to score. Kaat remembers as they ran off the field Allen saying to him, “Old Timer, don’t worry. I’ll get those back for you.”
Allen did. He hit two home runs, drove in five runs and Kaat got his 200th victory.
Perhaps what Allen was all about showed in an incident that occurred on May 15, 1969. Allen was batting against a Reds rookie John Noriega, whom he never had seen before. On the first pitch, Noriega seemed to be looking into the Reds dugout at manager Dave Bristol before throwing one of the best knockdown pitches you have ever seen. Allen was infuriated and took it out on the next pitch, which hit off the third advertising sign in from the left-field foul line atop the roof of Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, a screaming line drive that is among the hardest balls hit anywhere at any time.
All the way around the bases, Allen screamed at Bristol in the dugout, not believing a knockdown pitch could be so obvious with Noreiga starting into the dugout. It wasn't until later that Allen found out that Noriega did it on every pitch, the result of being blind in one eye.