Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review: "God Almighty Hisself: the Life and Legacy of Dick Allen"

Perhaps the single most controversial figure in the 133-season history of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise is the subject of a new book "God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen" by Villanova University law professor Mitchell Nathanson.
This is not a clumsy tome hastily thrown together to make a quick buck by giving fans some light summer reading.
Instead, Nathanson has produced a legitimate, first-class biography that tells the story of the 1960's superstar who made a somewhat triumphant return in the mid-70's to the city that once spurned him.
Allen was born and raised in and around Wampum, Pennsylvania, a one-square mile borough in Lawrence County on the western edge of the Commonwealth that can be found approximately 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and just 10 miles from the PA-Ohio border.
Though the town was overwhelmingly white in population and he was being raised in the racially charged America of the 1950's, Allen experienced few overt problems thanks largely to his athletic abilities.
He and brothers Hank and Ronnie became basketball stars at Wampum High School, leading the team to championships while each became All-State players.
Allen became a professional baseball player rather than a pro hoops star simply because America's pastime paid more, and Allen looked to provide a better life for himself and his family
, led by his mother, a God-loving and fearing Christian woman who worked hard to support her boys as a single parent.
He was also part of what Nathanson refers to as the "second generation of black players" who came after trailblazers such as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had begun integrating the game a decade or so earlier.
"This was Dick Allen's generation," writes Nathanson, "and their stories are, in fact, no less compelling, no less triumphant."
"But this generation, unlike Robinson's, did not end with an exclamation mark. Instead it bled slowly and imperceptibly into the modern game, where the racial double standard finally disappeared, and if you don't look for it, you're likely to miss it. But it's there. And Dick Allen, at times unwittingly, at times quite cunningly, is a large part of the reason it ultimately succeeded." ~ Nathanson
The racial and other societal challenges of the times were made a bit more difficult for Allen than even others in the game, as the Phillies were notoriously averse to bringing in black ball players.
The Phils would become the last major league team to integrate when John Kennedy made his debut on April 22nd, 1957 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ as a pinch runner in a game against the Dodgers.
But it was Allen who would become the franchise' first-ever black superstar during a time when Philadelphia was far less ethnically diverse than it has become today.
Over the first couple of chapters, Nathanson does an outstanding job of setting the stage for the rest of his book, for Allen's experiences in Philly, and for the slugger's 15-year big league career. In those pages he paints a clear picture of Allen's personal life, and of the game in those days.
Things were especially difficult in places like the Phillies' minor league affiliate at Little Rock, Arkansas, where Allen became the first-ever black player. 
"When the game was on, everybody was for you," Nathanson quotes Allen. "When the game was over, everybody walked away from you and you were on your own."
Nathanson covers the rise of the mid-60's contending Phillies with Allen starring as the club took a run at the 1964 NL Pennant, a run that every fan of the team knows ended in one of the most inglorious collapses in baseball history.


He pulls no punches in covering Allen's infamous pre-game locker room fight with teammate Frank Thomas, the deterioration of Connie Mack Stadium and its surrounding neighborhood, and other racial elements of the times surrounding the team in the 1960's in vivid, well-researched, and well-written detail.
He moves through Allen's deteriorating relationship with the media, and in some ways through them, the Phillies fans, and ultimately with the club's front office as the decade drew to a close.
"By opening night of the 1969 season, hostility was thick in the Philadelphia air; most of those who trudged toward the dilapidated ballpark in the dilapidated neighborhood did so for one reason: to boo Dick Allen."
Even as Allen finally escaped from Philadelphia in a trade to the Saint Louis Cardinals on October 7th, 1969, there was major controversy attached.
Allen was dealt by the Phils along with infielder Cookie Rojas and righty pitcher Jerry Johnson to Saint Louis in exchange for catcher Tim McCarver, closer Joe Hoerner, backup outfielder Byron Browne, and the centerpiece of the deal from the Philly perspective, a 31-year old outfielder named Curt Flood.
Flood was a 14-year big league veteran who had debuted at just age 18, and who had become a 3x NL All-Star with the Cardinals. The center fielder was riding a streak of seven consecutive Gold Gloves at the time of the trade, and had finished fourth in the 1968 NL MVP balloting.
But Flood refused to report to the Phillies, and would fight the trade in the single most important legal battle in the history of the sport.


Flood would ultimately lose his personal legal battle, but all players owe him a debt for setting the stage for the overturn of baseball's "reserve clause" and the onset of free agency. 
The Phils would be compensated in the end with the inclusion of Willie Montanez in the deal in place of Flood.
But of course, Flood had to have been dealt for Allen. The deal, its historic legal battle, and the reflection and impact on Allen and the Phillies are covered well by Nathanson.
Allen's career in Saint Louis would last one season, followed by a trade to the Dodgers. That stint would last one season, followed by a trade to the Chicago White Sox. 
Those single seasons came despite the fact that he produced, including making the NL All-Star team in 1970.
In Chicago, Allen took his game to another level, becoming the American League Most Valuable Player in 1972 at age 30. He would make the AL All-Star team in all three of his Chisox seasons.
"A month into the season (1972) he had decided that he had at last found a home", writes Nathanson. He quotes Allen during that MVP season: 
"I like it here in Chicago and I made up my mind that no matter what happens, this is the last club I'm going to play baseball with. I'm just too tired of moving around."
As the mid-70's approached, no one in baseball, least of all Allen, could ever foresee his returning to the Phillies, who had become perennial losers.


However, as those mid-70's unfolded, the Phils emerged as serious contenders once again sparked by a young core of players led by sluggers Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, and veterans like 2nd baseman Dave Cash and pitcher Steve Carlton.
In December of 1974, the White Sox dealt away a then 32-year old Allen to the Atlanta Braves. Holding to his earlier claim that Chicago would be his final stop, Allen balked at the deal for a number of reasons, both personal and professional.
Then in February of 1975, with Allen's career possibly ending, Phillies legend Richie Ashburn stepped in, paying a "clandestine" visit to Allen at his Pennsylvania farm.
Accompanied by Schmidt and Cash, the trio risked tampering charges to woo Allen into coming back to Philadelphia with the emerging "Yes We Can" Phillies.
It would take months to accomplish, but eventually the Phillies made a deal with Atlanta, while Allen finalized a deal with owner Ruly Carpenter. Like that, he was the Phils' starting 1st baseman.[teamnews align="right" topic="phillies" vertical="mlb"]
"From the very beginning, I didn't want to leave here. But I was kind of like pushed," Nathanson quotes Allen as saying at the news conference announcing his return.
 "I never got the chance to relate to the kids in North Philly the last time I was here. But I'm going to become involved this time."
Allen would hit for just a .233/.327/.385 slash line with a dozen homers over 481 plate appearances with the 1975 Phillies. However, he did drive in 62 runs and banged 21 doubles, while the team took a run at the NL East crown.
After tying for the division lead as late as August 18th, they ultimately would finish 86-76 and just 6.5 games behind the division-winning Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the team's best finish in a decade.
It would also mark them as serious contenders. The Phillies would go on to win the next three consecutive NL East crowns, and Allen was there to celebrate in 1976. However, his own skills were obviously eroding, especially the light-tower power that had been his calling card.
"In many ways, the 1976 season was a mirror image of the one that preceded it: the club ran away from the pack at last but everything surrounding Dick began to unravel," writes Nathanson.
"For the first few months of the season the fans and writers remained solidly behind him; the team's sparkling play overshadowed his diminishing skills."
In addition to those skills eroding, Allen was once again disgruntled with the organization, which he believed was underpaying him. 
He also felt that Tony Taylor, his 60's teammate with the Phils who was a bench player by this point, was deserving of a final shot at the postseason.
Allen threatened through the press that unless Taylor were included on the postseason roster, he himself would not play in the NLCS or World Series, if the club advanced.
"On the day the club clinched," writes Nathanson, "word filtered down to Dick that Taylor would not, after all, be added to the postseason roster. The Phils were scheduled to play the Expos in a Sunday doubleheader and needed to win only one of the two games that afternoon to wrap things up. They took care of that in the first game and celebrated their championship in the cramped Jarry Park locker room."
"Dick declined to join them, choosing instead to remain on the frosty bench accompanied only by his thoughts."
This preceded what would become, as described by Nathanson, the "Broom Closet Incident" in the bowels of Jarry Park that afternoon.
This sequence of events, which I'll leave for you to read in the chapter titled "No Apologies", highlighted a racial divide that was forming in the Phillies clubhouse, and which many believed was being fomented by Allen.
Allen went just 2-9 in the NLCS with three walks and one run scored, his only career postseason appearance. 
The 'Big Red Machine' swept the Phillies out in three straight games, coming from behind in all three contests. It would be the final ending to Allen's playing career in Philadelphia.


He signed as a free agent that off-season with the Oakland Athletics, finishing out his career as a part-timer in Oakland, where he hit the final five home runs of his career.
Allen finished with 351 home runs and 1,119 RBI over his career, with a .292/.378/.534 slash line. 
He was the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year with the Phillies, the 1972 AL MVP with the White Sox, a 7x All-Star, and had a half-dozen seasons with 30+ home runs.
In 1994, Allen became the 16th man to be enshrined by the Phillies on their Wall of Fame. Eight years later in 2002, Taylor would join him in also receiving that honor.
Nathanson closes this fantastic work with a glimpse at today's athletes, and the influence of Allen on their ability to both play the game and express their individuality.
"The athlete who goes his own way can no longer expect to be disparaged; he might even be worshiped for his steadfastness and resolve. Although many wouldn't know him if they passed him on the street, all of these athletes owe a debt to Dick Allen for making their lives easier and more prosperous, for going through everything he went through simply because he believed that if he wasn't himself he wasn't anybody. For making the sports establishment realize that it didn't matter so much after all what one did before or after the game provided he could perform at a peak level when it counted. They have reaped the benefits; Dick has paid the price." ~ Nathanson


Nathanson has written a book that I consider a vital work and a must-read for any fan of the Phillies, of baseball, and in fact anyone interested in the history of America in the second half of the 20th century.
This is the fourth baseball-themed book written or co-written by Nathanson, and is certainly going to lead to my seeking out the others for reading as well. You are surely going to find something else of his reviewed here in the future.

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