Dick Allen: What Could Have Been

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Dick Allen: What Could Have Been

Every so often in sports there comes along an athlete whose talent far surpasses that of any of his peers.

 

Mickey Mantle was that way for the Yankees in the '50s. He was born to play center field and had a supreme blend of power and speed that has been unmatched by any player in history.

 

Same with his in-state rival, Willie Mays, who played the same position for the same time with the Giants.

 

Bo Jackson was that way for the NFL's L.A. Raiders in the mid-1980s. As a running back, experts swear Bo could have rushed for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns had he been surrounded by a solid quarterback and offensive line.

 

In the NBA, it was Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 50 points per game for an entire season when the runner-up would score in the low 20s.

 

With this in mind, it's always a shame to see a guy come along with so much talent but have it overshadowed by injuries, racism, off-field issues, and the works.

 

Welcome to the world of Dick Allen, one of the finest yet most controversial players ever to wear a Philadelphia uniform.

 

Allen broke into the major leagues in 1964 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Allen fielded a world of potential, more potential than just about anyone who ever lived. As a pure hitter, there have only been a handful of ballplayers who have been blessed with this kind of talent.

 

Baseball historian Bill James—possibly my favorite baseball man of all time—rates Allen as one of the top four pure power hitters in baseball history, in a category with Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

 

Anytime you are grouped with those three players, you're doing something right.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell said the following about Allen: “Now I know why they boo Richie all the time. When he hits a home run, there's no souvenir.”

 

Certainly true.

 

Allen swung a 44-ounce bat, one of the heaviest in major league history, and he used it to pound the ball like few players who have ever lived. There are stories of him hitting home runs well over 500 feet.

 

No athlete in franchise history has hit home runs like Allen did. Not Mike Schmidt. Not Scott Rolen or Pat Burrell. Not even Ryan Howard.

 

Allen had so much raw talent in him that I believe had he been able to clear his head and focus only on baseball, he could have hit 600 home runs.

 

Put him in this current era, and he might be the all-time home run king.

 

He had that much potential.

 

As it stands, Allen is not in the Hall of Fame. In my eyes, he is the most deserving player currently not enshrined. He had a world of talent and didn't produce as he could have, but too much of the blame goes to Allen and not enough to his teammates, managers, the fans, media, etc.

 

Allen's career numbers won't make your jaw drop, but they are pretty impressive.

 

He hit 351 home runs in a pitching era, leading the league twice. He batted .292 for his career, including seven seasons of a .300 mark. He won a Rookie of the Year award and an MVP award.

 

Certainly very respectable statistics, but I get the feeling they could have been better. I KNOW they could have been better. Allen had the potential to hit 500 or 600 home runs. He probably could have won several MVP awards and maybe a World Championship.

 

And he would most definitely be in Cooperstown.

 

So what went wrong?

 

Well, Allen entered the major leagues as a young and angry individual. He had been mistreated frequently during his stint in the minors. He was booed as the team's first black player and the subject of heavy ridicule and racism.

 

Allen was greeted with signs that said “N*gger go home.” Fans wrote messages on his windshield saying, “Don't come back again, n*gger.”

 

While he had always been respected for his play on the field—even through his journey in the minor leagues, when Allen's talent was evident—he kept to himself. Allen was a troubled player living in a difficult environment.

 

Oh, what could have been.

 

In his book, The Great Philadelphia Sports Debate, Glen Macnow calls Allen the “all-time what could have been player” in franchise history.

 

When Allen broke into the major leagues for good in 1964, it was a year to remember. In many ways, it summed up his career in the major leagues.

 

Allen batted .431 in April with five home runs. The Phillies were in first place just three years removed from a season in which the team finished last in the major leagues. And they were being carried by a rookie.

 

For the season, Allen batted .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in. He led the entire National League in multiple offensive categories, including runs scored (125), triples (13), extra-base hits (80), and total bases (352), and he won the NL Rookie of the Year award.

 

His season was faced with much scrutiny from the media and fans of Philadelphia, however. Allen did have some flaws in his play—he led the league with 138 strikeouts and a whopping 41 errors at third base.

 

And he received a lot of criticism for the Phillies' historic collapse—blowing a 6.5-game lead with just 12 games to play in the season.

 

Unfair criticism.

 

Allen batted .341 in the final month of the season with a .618 slugging percentage. He hit five home runs, and his 76 total bases were far greater than his total in any other month. He batted .385 in close and late situations for the season, coming through frequently when the team needed him the most.

 

He even turned his play up in the final 12 games of the season, hitting .438 with three home runs and 11 RBI. During the team's now infamous 10-game losing streak, Allen collected 17 hits.

 

Heading into the final game of the season, the Phillies were one game behind the Cardinals for first place in the National League. For the Phillies to force a three-game playoff, they would have to win and the Mets would have to beat the Cardinals.

 

Allen did his part, carrying the team to a 10-0 victory behind his double, two home runs, and four RBI, but it was too late, as the Mets lost to the Cardinals.

 

Simply put, the collapse was not Allen's fault. But it cost him the National League MVP award and damaged his reputation in Philly, where the fans booed him from game one, when he slipped in a puddle trying to catch a pop-up, to game 162, when his two home runs weren't enough to beat the Cardinals.

 

Allen was arguably the best hitter in the league from '65 through '67, making three straight All-Star teams. He hit .308 during that span, averaging 27 home runs, 90 RBI, and 15 stolen bases per season. His adjusted OPS for those three years was 166.

 

Compare that to some of the other stars in the league in the mid-'60s. Willie Mays, who won the Most Valuable Player award in '65, finished third in '66, and made three straight All-Star teams for the National League, had an adjusted OPS of 154, 12 points less than Allen.

 

Hank Aaron's OPS was 156. Roberto Clemente—the league MVP in 1966—had an OPS of 150. Orlando Cepeda—the league MVP in 1967—was just 144.

 

Allen was that good, and not many people realized it. He had a way of overshadowing his play on the field with his off-field issues.

 

Halfway through 1965—Allen's second full season with the team—Allen got into a feud with teammate Frank Thomas. Although it was actually teammate Johnny Callison's remarks that pushed Thomas over the edge, Thomas retaliated against Allen, swinging his bat into Allen's shoulder.

 

The next day, the Phillies released Thomas. Allen was threatened with a $2,000 fine if he discussed the story with the media.

 

Eventually, however, the story leaked, and the fans began to boo Allen constantly. The fans and media chose to blame Allen, a black player, for the release of Thomas, a white player. This furthered the distance between Allen and the fans.

 

What was ironic was that Allen had actually publicly supported Thomas, begging manager Gene Mauch not to release Thomas. Mauch didn't listen, and Thomas played the role of the victim.

 

The incident deeply affected Allen, who hit .348 before Thomas' release and just .271 afterwards.

 

Philadelphia, a city that had been one of the last teams to integrate black players into the team, struggled to accept Allen, and he, in return, struggled to accept the city back. The city just wasn't ready for a black star—especially a rebellious one with a chip on his shoulder.

 

It's a shame really, because I think if Allen could play in today's game on a team with Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, he would be a fan favorite.

 

Allen's woes continued with his name. Allen, who preferred to be called Dick, was referenced as Richie by the local media. His Topps baseball card called him Rich.

 

Furthermore, Allen earned himself a nickname with the Philadelphia crowd—Crash—for his insistence on wearing his batting helmet in the field. This was to protect himself from the fruit, ice, bottles, and other objects constantly thrown at him, but it was perceived negatively by the media.

 

By the late '60s, Allen had worn out his welcome with the team. His off-field issues overwhelmed him.

 

He was an alcoholic, showing up to games unable to even talk without slurring. At times, he was sent home by Mauch. Allen later stated that drinking was the only way he could deal with his problems.

 

In today's game, he would most likely be treated with counseling or the substance abuse program, but no such thing existed 40 years ago. Allen was considered a bum.

 

Allen's problems were frequent and often overhyped. In '67, he severed the ulna nerve in his right wrist pushing his car up a hill during a storm. Allen's wrist required a five-hour surgery, and doctors gave him just a 50-50 chance of ever playing ball again.

 

Allen courageously returned to the game, but false rumors leaked that he had injured his hand in a bar fight, and he began to receive constant hate mail. His children were even harassed in school.

 

By that time, Allen had been labeled a bum by the media and decided to play the role.

 

In '69, Allen was late returning to Shea Stadium for the second half of a doubleheader and fined $2,500. He was later fined for failing to hustle on the basepaths. It got so Allen began to get fined several times a week, the standard being $500 for missing batting practice, $1,000 for drinking, and $1,500 for showing up late to a game.

 

In July of '69, Allen skipped the second half of a doubleheader to attend a horse race. He heard on the radio that he was suspended and stayed away from the team for 26 days before begrudgingly returning.

 

And Allen didn't make any friends with his famous remark: “I can play anywhere. First, third, left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

 

It got so Allen begged to be traded, particularly to the Mets. There was no such thing as free agency back then, so Allen was stuck with the Phillies. He began to scribble messages in the dirt at first base, saying, “BOO” and “Oct. 2,” which marked the end of the season.

 

MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Allen to stop, so Allen wrote, “Why?” and “No.” An umpire eventually ordered Allen to stop, so he responded by writing, “Mom.” This was Allen's way of saying his mother was the only one who could tell him what to do.

 

Ironically, during the six-game span in which he wrote messages in the dirt, Allen hit five home runs.

 

Following the '69 season, in which the Phillies finished 37 games out of first place, Allen was mercifully traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Following a solid season with the Cardinals—.279 average, 34 home runs, 101 RBI—Allen was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

 

He had a solid season with them, hitting 23 home runs with 90 runs batted in, before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for the '72 season.

 

Allen then enjoyed the finest season of his career. He batted .308 and led the entire American League in home runs (37), RBI (113), walks (99), on-base percentage (.420), slugging percentage (.603), OPS (1.023), and adjusted OPS (199). For his efforts, Allen was awarded as the AL MVP.

 

Allen is often credited with saving the White Sox, as the franchise was rumored to have been destined for Seattle. Allen stayed three years with the Sox, leading the league in home runs again in '74, before he was traded to the Braves.

 

He refused to report to Atlanta, retiring instead. The Phillies managed to coax him out of retirement, where he played two years back in the city he had once called home.

 

Allen didn't quite have the skills he possessed in his first stint with the team back in the '60s, as he hit just .248 with 27 total home runs in his two years. But he proved to be a positive influence on a young Phillies club that captured the NL East title in '76.

 

The Philly crowd forgave Allen for his attitude and problems a decade prior, and he seemed to enjoy playing in the city. It was fitting that Allen could come back to the city and make peace with its fans, who had treated him poorly for so many years.

 

Allen became a hero in Philadelphia and was cheered on a regular basis, even for the most routine of plays. The conditions were perfect in Philly, and Allen was a role model, helping to tutor future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, the National League home run king in 1976.

 

Allen has always stated that Schmidt reminded him a lot of himself. Both were quiet players who kept to themselves and had difficulty fitting in with their teammates and the fans. Both were power hitters who struck out a lot and had the potential to contend for the MVP award in any given season.

 

Things got a little rough at the end of the season. As the Phillies' front office was preparing its postseason roster, it became apparent the team planned to leave off 42-year old Tony Taylor, a second baseman who had played for the Phillies for over 15 years.

 

As Taylor was Allen's closest friend on the team and former roommate, Allen announced he would not be playing in the postseason unless the team made a roster spot for Taylor.

 

The Phillies eventually gave in, and when the team clinched the NL East title, there were two separate celebrations—one for the majority of the team and a private one for Schmidt, Allen, Taylor, Garry Maddox, and Dave Cash.

 

Allen was released by the team after the first round playoff exit, seeing as his best days were behind him. He played one final season as a DH in Oakland before hanging up his cleats for good.

 

No player in history has been as misunderstood as much as Allen. He was unfairly blamed on numerous occasions. He was portrayed by the media as a selfish, me-first kind of player, when in reality, Allen wanted nothing more than to be close to his teammates. He longed for support from the fans and his managers.

 

As it currently stands, Allen works in the Phillies' front office as a public relations man.

 

When the dust settled after Allen's career and it came time to evaluate his Hall of Fame chances, voters were unsure just how to factor in Allen's off-the-field controversial issues. Allen hovered around 15 to 20 percent each year, far less than the 75 percent needed for induction to Cooperstown.

 

Allen was a player who hit 40 home runs just once but probably should have topped that mark half a dozen times. He drove in 100 runs three times but probably should have done that 10 times or more.

 

His defense sure wasn't his strong suit. He played every position on the field at one time or another (except pitcher and catcher) but never could find a permanent position that could minimize his iron glove. He also struck out far too much and grounded into quite a few double plays,

 

However, Allen's career slugging percentage of .534 is one of the highest among eligible players not in the Hall of Fame. He never won a World Series ring as a player but certainly made enough of a positive impact on a number of teams.

 

He was a diverse hitter who at one point or another led the league in runs scored, triples, home runs, runs batted in, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.

 

His career adjusted OPS of 156 is 19th on the all-time list, higher than the career marks of noted Hall of Fame sluggers such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, and Mel Ott. He is also tied for seventh all-time for most career walk-off home runs (10).

 

What is holding him back is his attitude on and off the field, but even his managers, when asked if Allen's attitude negatively affected the team, replied with, “Never.”

 

Simply put, Allen was a heck of a hitter, a better-than-noted team player, and a man with all the talent in the world.

 

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