Last week’s column detailed the life and career of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and compared him to baseball star Dick Allen. Both are 70 years old, were childhood heroes of mine and found significance in March 8th – Allen’s birthday and the anniversary of Ali’s most celebrated fight. Today’s column examines the parallel life of Allen, the equally iconoclastic White Sox slugger.
Allen’s story is much less known. To be fair, the story of any human being of that generation is not as well known as Ali’s. Ali and Allen’s careers mirrored each other chronologically. While Ali was winning his gold medal in Rome, Allen inked a contract with a large ($70,000) signing bonus with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. The bonus became the subject of a historic tax case when Allen gave $40,000 to his mother and was not able to make a trade or business deduction for the amount. The courts ruled against Allen in the case.
In 1963, while Ali was performing magic in the ring and on the Ed Sullivan Show, Allen was making magic on the field in Little Rock, Arkansas. He led the team in hitting at .290 and the league in home runs (thirty-three), runs batted in (ninety-seven) and triples (twelve). Allen was also facing racial protests from home fans of the Philadelphia Phillies farm team as the Little Rock Travelers first black player.
In 1964, when Ali was defeating Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship, Allen had one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history for a team that had one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. He led the National League in runs, triples, extra base hits and total bases. He finished in the top five in batting average, slugging average, hits and doubles and won Rookie of the Year.
Allen followed his amazing rookie season with three straight All-Star selections including 1967 when he homered. Off the field, Allen faced controversy after a fight with teammate Frank Thomas who hit Allen with a baseball bat. Not so shy Philadelphia fans took to abusing their star physically and verbally. Obscenities and racist jeers accompanied objects being thrown at Allen on the field. He took to wearing a batting helmet on the field for protection.
After single seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, Allen was traded to my Chicago White Sox in 1972 for Tommy John. He was a shooting star in Chicago. Allen only played three seasons for the White Sox, but mad a huge impression on me and many other Chicagoans. He was the first superstar the White Sox had during my lifetime.
New Sox manager Chuck Tanner, who grew up 11 miles from Allen’s hometown in Pennsylvania, had a great relationship with the slugger. Under Tanner’s low key style of handling players, Allen flourished, twice leading the league in homers and winning the American League MVP in 1972.
The season was marked by three very special Dick Allen moments. The first was June 4th at a sold out bat day doubleheader that I attended with my dad and brother. The Sox beat the Yankees in game one and Allen came off the bench in the bottom of the 9th in game two with two out and two on to pinch hit with the Sox down 4-2. The Yankees brought in ace closer Sparky Lyle. Allen proceeded to launch a walk off, come from behind three run blast that made the crowd delirious that remains one of my greatest childhood memories.
Allen moment number two in 1972 came on July 31st when he became only the seventh player in MLB history to hit two inside the park homers in the same game.
A few weeks later, Allen provided the third memorable moment of 1972. Allen’s prodigious (500 foot plus) home runs are legend in Philadelphia and on Chicago’s south side. Allen routinely rocketed balls over Comiskey Park’s left field roof and on August 23rdwith Harry Caray broadcasting from the center field bleachers, he delivered a ball well beyond the 455 foot marker that Harry nearly caught in his famous fish net.
Allen announced his first retirement after his third season with the White Sox. He did return for a couple undistinguished efforts in ensuing years including a final go with the Oakland A’s in 1977. I saw him play a game for the A’s at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium in the Blue Jays inaugural season. He was still a hero for me, because he walked to the beat of his own drummer. Still a feared hitter, he batted cleanup that game while wearing his hometown and high school class, “Wampum 60”, on the back of his uniform in place of his familiar “Allen 15”. Allen was hitless that day and soon retired for good. His charisma, independence and talent inspire me to this day.
His shortened career - 14 years - is used to argue against those that say he belongs in the Hall of Fame. As is his reputation for flaunting authority including a habit of smoking in the dugout for both the Phillies and the White Sox. Others argue that he is the best player not in the Hall of Fame. Until 2006, he had the best slugging percentage of anyone not in the Hall of Fame and better than many that are in the Hall of Fame.
He will likely never be enshrined with the other baseball immortals, however. Not because he doesn’t belong – he very much does - but because those voting were put off by him. A controversial black man perceived to be bitter and with a chip on his shoulder in the 1960s was not a recipe for making friends in high places. Allen’s Hall of Fame fate rested with the baseball writers who covered him in the 1960s and 70s and voted for enshrinement in the 80s and 90s. Each of his 15 years of eligibility saw him come up short. The Veterans Committee now has the ability to select him. It is dominated, however, by players and executives that didn’t agree with Allen’s views or approach on or off the field – with the exception of ex-White Sox GM Roland Hemond .
Outsiders like baseball stat guru Bill James call him a clubhouse cancer. His former teammates Rich Gossage and Mike Schmidt praise Allen as the ultimate team leader and would welcome him into their Hall of Fame club as does Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell and Allen’s White Sox Manager Chuck Tanner. Here is their testimony:
“In 1972, I had the privilege of playing with Dick Allen. I didn't know it at the time, but in retrospect, he was the greatest player I ever played with. That's quite a statement because I played with a lot of great ones. He taught me how to pitch from a hitter's perspective. He took me under his wing and we would talk for hours on end about pitching. It was amazing.”
Rich Gossage in his Hall of Fame induction speech
"The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse."
Mike Schmidt in his autobiography Clearing the Bases
"Now I know why they boo Richie all the time. When he hits a home run, there's no souvenir." – Willie Stargell, after Allen once hit a home run over the left-center field roof of Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium
Hall of Famer Willie Stargell
"Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth."
Chicago White Sox Manager Chuck Tanner
Allen wasn’t as quotable as Ali, but he does have a few memorable quotations:
"If a horse won't eat it, I don't want to play on it." – His own quote on artificial turf.
"Bob Gibson was so mean he would knock you down and then meet you at home plate to see if you wanted to make something of it."
"I can play anywhere; First, Third, Left field, anywhere but Philadelphia."
Like Ali, who suffers from Parkinson Disease, Allen has had his share of tough times following retirement. His uninsured home and horse farm burned down. His marriage fell apart and everything he had left including the rights to his baseball pension went to his ex-wife. I saw Ali on his ABC birthday special in January. He sat in silence confined to a wheel chair on the stage, while the party took place around him. He was no longer the gallant, outspoken life of the party who grew up in my living room on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
I choose to remember both Allen and Ali in their youth. When I close my eyes and see them, I see the strong minded, strong bodied athletes that dominated their sports. As big as their lives were, the men I see in my memory are bigger than life. They are the greatest iconoclastic sluggers of their generation.
The White Sox are planning to honor Allen at a game this June 24th agaainst the Milwaukee Brewers to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his 1972 MVP Award. I will be there.