Friday, November 28, 2014

Philography: Dick Allen

Dick Allen belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Let's get that out of the way with right off the bat. I'm one of them, the growing list of supporters for this man to be enshrined there as a player.

He is a finalist on the 'Golden Era' ballot, which selects an old-timer once every three years. The results for that slot will be announced in a little over a week from now.

Allen was born on March 8th, 1942 in the middle of World War II out in Wampum, Pennsylvania, a tiny borough less than an hour from Pittsburgh, not far from the west-central state line.

Raised in a rural part of the state, Allen developed a love of horses early in life from his father. It would be a love that he would carry into and through adulthood, right up to the present day.

One of five boys raised in a mostly white town, he doesn't remember much personal experience with prejudice, despite the 1950's still being a time of segregation in much of the country.
Allen and his brothers were tremendous athletes, helping their local school sports programs become regional powers, which went a long way towards their being accepted.

Dick and his brothers were especially talented as basketball players, and two of those brothers, Hank and Ron, would each earn college basketball scholarships before eventually turning to baseball and each briefly reaching the Majors themselves.

Dick became a baseball fan and player after watching some of the top Negro League games and players in his early years as a boy, and then following the career of the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, his first real baseball idol.

After an aggressive push by one of their scouts, Allen signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, but almost immediately had problems with the organization when they decided, without his input, to begin referring to him in official organizational materials as "Richie" Allen.

His own pro baseball career would begin at just age 18, with Elmira in the NY-Penn League, and over the next couple of years his prodigious power allowed him to quickly rise through the Phils minor league system. In 1963, after a salary power play with Phils GM John Quinn failed, Allen was shipped to Arkansas for another year in the minors, and here he was subjected to his first real taste of extended racism from fans.

After destroying minor league pitching for 33 homeruns in that 1963 season, Allen eventually won over many of the fans who had begun the year vilifying him. He finally got the call up to the big club in September of that year. Playing in parts of 10 games, he got to experience being a part of the best Phillies team in a decade. The club finished that year with 87 wins, good for 4th place in the National League.

The 1964 season dawned with great optimism in Philadelphia. The Phils had already shown they were becoming competitive the previous year, and now would be adding the mega-hyped rookie Allen for a full season for the first time. His powerful presence in the lineup was felt immediately.

In that '64 campaign, Allen produced a season that would result in his being named the NL Rookie of the Year. He also would come in 7th in the NL MVP voting for a season in which he hit .318 with a .382 on-base percentage, crushed 29 homers, 38 doubles, knocked in 91 runs, and scored 125 runs.

Unfortunately, that 1964 season is largely remembered in Philadelphia for the historic losing skid by the team at the end of the year. Holding a 6 1/2 game lead in the NL Pennant race with just 10 games remaining, the Phils blew it all. The collapse was no fault of Allen's, however. He hit .442 with 3 homers, 12 runs, and 11 rbi in those final 10 games. But it wasn't enough to halt the team's unforgettable collapse.

Over the next three seasons, Allen continued to develop his game, becoming one of the most domainant and feared hitters in all of baseball. He was an NL All-Star each season from 1965-67. He received MVP votes each of those years as well, finishing as high as 4th in the 1966 balloting.

Allen tailed off a bit in 1968 and '69, likely still recovering from a freak career-threatening hand injury that ended his 1967 season early. He had hurt the hand while fixing his car one day. Still, his power remained, and he topped the 30 homerun mark in each year.

In his first 6+ seasons in a Phillies uniform, from his September callup in '63 through the 1969 season, Allen hit for an even .300 batting average with a .380 on-base percentage. He had 966 hits, 177 homeruns, 544 rbi, and 591 runs. And he was just entering his prime years, as the 1970 season would see him turn 28 years old.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, he wouldn't play any of his prime here in the City of Brotherly Love. Following that near-miss campaign of 1964, the Phillies did not contend again. From 1965-67 they continued to record winning records, but never finished higher than 4th.

In 1968, the club slid back to 76-86, the franchise' first losing record in years. Many in the town's fan base turned on it's enigmatic slugger as a symbol of their frustrations, and frankly there was still an element of the team's fan base that could be described as nothing less than racist in that late-60's civil rights era.

Some of the fans in the left field bleachers at old Connie Mack Stadium took to throwing pennies, even batteries, at him. He began to wear a batting helmet in the field, a practice that would follow him throughout the rest of his career.

In 1969, Allen was off to a hot start, but then in June of that season he was suspended by new manager Bob Skinner for showing up late to a game. For Allen, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. During his down time, he had purchased horses for his growing stable on a farm in Bucks County. Happy to get away from the abusive fans and what he felt was some unfair treatment by the team, Allen told the Phillies that he wouldn't return from suspension.

Fearful of losing a prized asset in the prime of his career at the peak of his trade value without compensation, GM Bob Carpenter talked Allen into returning with a promise that he would be traded at the end of the season. Allen returned, and while the team was pitiful, he finished out another strong individual season.

The trade came on October 7th, 1969 as the Phillies sent Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson to the Saint Louis Cardinals in exchange for outfielders Curt Flood and Byron Browne, catcher Tim McCarver, and pitcher Joe Hoerner. But as with seemingly everything involving Allen at the time, even his trade would not come without major controversy.

These were the days before free agency, when baseball's "reserve clause" was still in effect, basically binding players to a team unless they were traded. Flood wanted no parts of going to a losing situation in Philly, and balked at reporting. In the end, he would not only refuse the trade, he would take on all of baseball in fighting for the elimination of that reserve clause.

Curt Flood chose to challenge baseball's reserve system after trade for Allen

Though Flood's fight would ultimately prove of major historical importance for all Major League Baseball players, it didn't help the Phillies at all. The young outfielder was considered a key piece in the deal from their perspective. Saint Louis would ultimately send along Willie Montanez as compensation to complete the deal.

His stay in Saint Louis would prove short, just one season, but it was a highly productive season. Allen returned to his place among the game's top stars. He was voted the starter at 1st base for the NL in the All-Star Game, his 4th All-Star appearance. He hit 34 homers and drove in 101 runs. And still, again there was controversy.

A series of late-season injuries, including a torn hamstring, ended his season early while the Cards were still in contention. It would prove to be a fatal blow for the team. But also, Allen chose to recover at his home near Philadelphia, rather than back in Saint Louis where the team could monitor him, a decision with which Cardinal management was not happy.

Almost immediately after the season concluded, the Cards dealt him away to the Los Angeles Dodgers for 2nd baseman Ted Sizemore and catcher Bob Stinson. The deal appeared to be a steal for LA, and Allen did indeed produce for the Dodgers, but it was again only a one year performance. In that one season out west, Allen hit .295, slugged 23 homers, knocked in 90 runs, and nearly led the Dodgers to an NL West crown.

Still, he was gone in the off-season, this time to the Chicago White Sox in a deal in which the Dodgers in return received a talented southpaw pitcher by the name of Tommy John. It would be Allen's first time in the American League, and it would prove to be a perfect fit for player and franchise.

The AL West seemed up for grabs behind the Oakland A's, who had become the team to beat in the division after winning the 1971 World Series. To challenge them in '72, the Sox believed that Allen's power was just what they needed. They were right, as Chicago battled Oakland all year, leading the race as late as late-August.

Allen became the AL Most Valuable Player with Chicago in 1972

Though Oakland would eventually inch slowly away to an eventual 5 1/2 game division victory, the 2nd place 87-win season was a big step in the right direction for the Sox. The step forward was indeed led by Dick Allen. He was named the American League Most Valuable Player after hitting .308 and leading the AL in on-base percentage (.420), Walks (99), Homeruns (37) and RBI (113) in what was the first of 3 consecutive AL All-Star seasons.

The success would not repeat in 1973 due to injury. In late-June, Allen was in the midst of another big campaign when he broke his leg in a 1st base collision. At the time of the injury he was hitting .310 with 16 homers and 41 rbi, and he was voted to another All-Star Game appearance. He would only return for parts of 3 more games that year. The Sox, tied for first at the end of June, faded to a 5th place finish.

The 1974 season saw Allen return healthy, but also saw yet another controversy develop. Future Hall of Famer Ron Santo arrived from the cross-town Cubs. A Chicago baseball icon, Santo was basically playing out the final season of his career. A clubhouse power struggle ensued between the two, and by the end of the year, Allen confided that he was retiring. He left the team in mid-September and would not return.

Realizing that he was discontented, the Sox sought to get a return for their powerful 1st baseman while they could still get some value. He had shown that he still had that power with a 32 homer season in a 1974 during which he also hit .301 on the year. In December of '74 they dealt him to the Atlanta Braves, but Allen remained retired and never played in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, back in his old Philly stomping grounds, the Fightin' Phils were indeed beginning to fight their way back up the standings once again. Allen was courted by a number of current Phillies including Mike Schmidt, as well as old-timers such as Richie Ashburn and his former teammate Robin Roberts. They convinced him that things had changed in Philly, both on and off the field, and Allen relented to a return.

The Braves traded Allen's rights to the Phils, and on May 14th, 1975, Dick Allen returned to the Philadelphia Phillies lineup for the first time in a half dozen years. He played 7 innings at 1st base that night at Veteran's Stadium, going 1-3 with a single as the Phils shutout the Cincinnati Reds 4-0 behind a Steve Carlton complete game.

In that 1975 season, Allen helped the Phillies young sluggers Schmidt and Greg Luzinski in their development while providing a veteran slugging presence behind them in the batting order. He only hit a dozen homers, but drove in 62 runs in just 488 plate appearances.

Allen returned to the Phillies and helped the club win the NL East in 1976

The 1976 season opened with a ton of excitement around the team. They were expected to challenge the Pirates for the NL East crown, the All-Star Game would be held in Philly that year, and the nation would be celebrating it's Bicentennial, with many of the important festivities centered in the city.

1976 would not play out as a healthy year for Allen. Two separate injuries at the end of April and the end of July cost him a month each time. Still, despite just 298 plate appearances, basically half a season, he managed to bomb 15 homers and drive in 49 runs. And the team did indeed finally win the NL East, setting a franchise record with 101 wins and pulling away in September to a 9-game victory in the division.

The 1976 playoffs would be the only postseason appearance of Allen's career. The Phillies were matched up with the defending World Series champions, 'The Big Red Machine' era Cincinnati Reds. It would prove to be a quick knockout for the champs, as the Reds swept the Phils with 6-3, 6-2, and 7-6 wins. Allen went 2-9 with a run scored. It was mostly uneventful for the veteran slugger, except for his Game 2 error that led to the ultimate winning run.

That off-season, for the first time in his career, Dick Allen was a free agent. Unfortunately for him, it would not result in the kinds of big paydays that future free agents would enjoy. He was now 35-years old, clearly at the end of his career. Allen signed with the Oakland Athletics during Spring Training of 1977, but despite getting regular playing time through June, Allen was not happy.

Following a June 19th doubleheader in Chicago against the White Sox team for whom he had enjoyed success just a few years earlier, Allen retired. In his final at-bat, as a pinch-hitter in the top of the 7th inning, Allen struck out. In what was a more complete story to the goodbye, he had started the opener for the A's at 1st base and gone 2-4.

Dick Allen retired having played in parts of 15 seasons. Just 11 of those were full seasons due to either youth, age, or injury. He had blasted 351 homeruns, drove in 1,119 runs and had a career .292 average. He had been the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year, and the 1972 AL Most Valuable Player, as well as a 7-time All-Star.

Allen's retirement years were difficult. He went through a divorce that included a major financial settlement against him, and then suffered further with a destructive fire at his home which also destroyed his horse stables. Having said he would never be a coach in the game, he would indeed return as a hitting instructor with both organizations for which he had his most career success, the White Sox and Phillies.

In retirement there have been few players whose Hall of Fame credentials have been more vigorously debated. Many of his detractors point to two main negatives: that he was a "clubhouse lawyer" type who sowed discord behind closed doors and caused friction that hurt his teams. Also, that he simply didn't produce over a long enough period of time.

However, almost every major player and coach who was a part of Allen's career has stepped forward to refute the claims of his negativity in the clubhouse, including two of the game's greatest managers, Chuck Tanner and Gene Mauch. Among players, no less than the greatest 3rd baseman and greatest Phillie in history, Mike Schmidt, has called Allen a mentor.

A reasonable evaluation of the dominance of the numbers produced by Dick Allen, largely during that decade of the 1960's that is universally regarded as having been historically dominated by pitching, is absolutely worthy of his enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If there is any justice in this great game, in a little more than a week Dick Allen will get a phone call that is long overdue. That call will be one letting him know that he has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that in the summer of 2015, he will finally get his long-deserved day in the Cooperstown sun

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