Baseball great Dick Allen passed away on Monday. If you know me, you know I am a huge baseball fan. When I hear of the death of my favorite players, especially those from my youth, I often post something to mark their passing. About Allen, I feel like saying a little more than I usually do.
Then known as Richie Allen, he burst onto the scene in 1964, the first year I followed baseball closely. As a rookie his brilliant play had the usually hapless Phillies in first place. Richie Allen was what was happening and the buzz was all about him. Philly was going crazy, and so were fans all around the country. He became my first baseball hero. Though the Phils were not my team, I checked out the Phillies box score first every morning to see what Allen had done.
Early in his career I had read an article about racist abuse directed at Allen, but as the years went by, that aspect of his story seemed to disappear from the narrative.
Over the years, Allen became controversial. He had disagreements with management. He behaved oddly. In Philly he quickly went from beloved to booed. Over the years the media labeled him a bad teammate, a player who thought only of himself. Early in his career I had read an article about racist abuse directed at Allen, but as the years went by, that aspect of his story seemed to disappear from the narrative.
By the time I got to college, now known as Dick Allen, he played for the White Sox. He was having perhaps his best year, but at least in the media, perhaps less among fans, the negative image endured. In college, I remember having an argument with a classmate, who was criticizing Allen. He didn't think team rules applied to him, he wanted special treatment. I defended Allen, because, hey, he'd been my guy since age 9. But even in defending him I thought, does my classmate have a point? I mean, I value being a good teammate. I don't think anyone on a team should expect special treatment. I guess I had accepted that there must be something to the media characterizations.
In direct contradiction of Allen's negative image, both Gibson and Jackson agreed that Allen was held in much esteem.
Years later, I read a baseball book, set up as a conversation between two greats, pitcher Bob Gibson, and slugger Reggie Jackson. The book was marketed as a close examination of the pitcher-batter confrontation, portraying what each was thinking at each moment of an at-bat, but their conversation also covered anecdotes and their opinions about other players. In direct contradiction of Allen's negative image, both Gibson and Jackson agreed that Allen was held in much esteem. Allen knew baseball as well as any player and was always generous with advice, but he was much more than that. Players sought his counsel on dealing with fame, with racism, and for just real sound guidance about life itself. Far from a bad teammate, he was a great teammate, and, according to Bob and Reggie, that was his reputation in baseball.
This September, just three months ago, the Phillies honored Dick Allen, retiring his number. On Monday, I watched a clip of the ceremony. The Phillies organization was honoring him, but let's not kid ourselves, they were also apologizing.
HOFer Mike Schmidt, probably the greatest Philly ever, whose career was just starting as Allen's career ended, spoke at the ceremony. Schmidt described Allen as a mentor, as a great teammate, but he had more to say, and did not mince words -
"Dick was a sensitive Black man who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen. . .[he] played in front of home fans that were products of that racist era [with] racist teammates and different rules for whites and Blacks. Fans threw stuff at him and thus Dick wore a batting helmet throughout the whole game. They yelled degrading racial slurs. They dumped trash in his front yard at his home. In general, he was tormented and it came from all directions. And Dick rebelled."
"Imagine what Dick could've accomplished as a player in another era, on another team, left alone to hone his skills, to be confident, to come to the ballpark every day and just play baseball."
It is about racism, as American as baseball and apple pie.
The most obvious lesson here is nothing new. It is about racism, as American as baseball and apple pie. Can we finally get to the point in this country where every person is, figuratively speaking, left alone, allowed to hone their skills, be confident, and just do what they do? And, much respect to Mike Schmidt for telling it like it is, but have we truly made it to that other era implicit in his comments?
There is something else here and it's about labels. We are so quick to throw labels at people, and then the label becomes the only truth. With celebrities, athletes, famous people we feel free to view them as we wish. If our snap judgments might not comport with the facts, they can laugh it off, I suppose we think. Laugh all the way to the bank. Probably better practice not to end up like the Phillies, saying sorry fifty years too late.
There has long been a debate about whether Dick Allen should be in the Hall of Fame or not. By traditional measures, the argument is that his stats fall just short. Now we see the analysts proclaim that advanced modern statistical measurements have him right there with others in the HOF. So, seems more likely now than ever that he'll get in. I hope he does. How about for the next Dick Allen, we get it done while he's still alive.
- Brian Sawyer is OBC blogger emeritus currently waxing his cross country skis waiting for the snow to accumulate