The Allenated Self

January 11, 2021

God Almighty Hisself: the Life and Legacy of Dick Allen by Mitchell Nathanson. U. of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 2016. 393 pp.  Good luck buying this book on Amazon.

 

 

I think I’ve figured out why my articles for BJOL often start off with a long digression. It’s not a characteristic of the non-BJOL journalism I’ve published, where I usually try to get off to a fast, direct start and keep going until I run out of material, and it’s the diametric opposite to my fiction, where I believe very strongly that writers absolutely need, like a guppy needs water, to open with a powerful first few paragraphs. Your lede is just no place to be screwing around—the reader has options, and most of them are far more attractive than reading your blather, is what I used to tell my creative-writing students, whom I miss like a trout misses the frying pan. (That fulfills my quota for fish similes for 2021.) Personally, I’ll give a short story very little room to lose my attention—I get the New Yorker every week, and I’ve noticed that I’ll often plug away at non-fiction pieces for a little while to let them pull me in, but if a short story loses me in its opening lines, that’s it. I’m lost for good.

I do it here, though, because I often have a few extraneous ideas floating around in my head when I set out to write a piece, and I jot down one or two of these notes so I don’t forget them before I start writing my lede. Sometimes, I’ll do what I set out to do, write that attention-gripping lede and then come back to my jotting to fit in these extraneous points, but other times, I just elaborate on one of the jottings and find I have quite a bit to say on this subject. I think the electronic format of this column encourages me—I’m not working towards some word-count that I must fulfill, and I have no editor to tell me "Hey, cut out this shit, it doesn’t belong in this piece" so if I find a smooth transition to my main point, it’s easier to let the piece start out on a digressive point. For example, I didn’t set out to write about "digressions"—I wanted to begin my review of the Dick Allen bio bang-zoom but I had this insight into my BJOL digressive ledes and wanted to make a quick note of it before I got started reviewing God Almighty Hisself by Mitchell Nathanson.

The digressive point I did have in my head, however, in writing that review had to do with Spike Lee’s movie biography of Malcolm X, which I’m watching this week for the first time. (Do you watch movies straight-through, start to finish, in one sitting anymore? I tend to treat movies like books, now that I have them all recorded on my DVR—watch a little, do something outdoors, watch more, have lunch, watch the rest.) I’ve never seen the Malcolm X biopic before, and the coincidence of watching it (still not finished—he’s just pulling up to the Audubon Ballroom as I write) while reading this book reminded me of the similarity of his life and Dick Allen’s life.

I first became aware of both of them around the same time, 1964, and I didn’t have a favorable response to either one, Malcolm because black nationalism, and his overtly belligerent way of expressing his ideas, frightened me as a young idealistic white kid. I wanted to think that black people would appreciate my help in their struggle, and here he was, telling me that blacks didn’t need my help, didn’t want it, and that I was a blue-eyed devil, which I felt was a little personal: why did my eye-color disqualify me from working for civil rights? (In the movie, there’s actually a scene where a young white asks Malcolm X what whites can do to help, and he says brusquely "Nothing," and brushes on ahead. This is particularly memorable to me because that scene was filmed in front of the building I took most of my classes in at college.)  So I felt hostility for Malcolm X, for all black nationalists: You know, "Screw you, then, if you don’t want my help, then I won’t offer it!"

Which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but still makes more sense than disliking Allen simply because he was a Phillie and I was a Mets fan. We needed other bad NL teams to develop good rookies like a swordfish needs a scabbard. (Hey, working on 2022 quota already!)  The 1963 Phillies were a crappy team, not nearly as crappy as the 1963 Mets but if they were getting better players, we would  have a harder time for years to come, which they did and which we did. So I disliked him as well.

Turns out, there were far more similarities to come: Allen in his own fashion was as radical as Malcolm X in his sense of independence. It wasn’t a humble type of independence, not a cooperative "Leave me alone, let me do my job, and I’ll let you do yours" kind of thing, but rather a hostile sort of "Get out of my face before I punch yours in, and if you think I’m not serious, just try me" attitude. And the punching would soon commence.

Literally, in Allen’s case. My introduction to his personality took place towards the end of his sophomore season, 1965, when he and Frank Thomas, whom the Mets had just traded to the Phillies, started punching each other out after exchanging racial epithets. ("May I present you with this fine embroidered sampler, Mister Allen, describing your mother’s heritage?"  "Why, thank you, sir. And might I offer you, my dear Mister Thomas, this calligraphed declaration of where I would like you and all your extended family to spend eternity?" is sort of how that exchange would go in a more nearly ideal world.)

There are plenty of other biographical connections that could be drawn between Allen and Malcolm X (and major biographical divergences, mainly their differing levels of interest in ideology and in public speaking) such as their upbringings in large, impoverished single-mother households and the great difficulty white America had in accepting the names they preferred to be called by. (As well as Muhammad Ali, of course.) Nathanson discusses the "Richie/Dick" controversy in Chapter 8 (though Chapter 11 is entitled "Dick, Not Richie"), attributing the diminutive form of Allen’s name ("it makes me sound like I’m eleven years old") to a misguided attempt by the Phillies and the press to link him to the club’s last superstar, Richie Ashburn.  (Ashburn’s nickname, "Whitey," was obviously a non-starter.)  A lot of the Phillies’ policies regarding Allen seem consistently misguided, insensitive, or inept. The club president, R. R. M. "Bob" Carpenter, Jr. is revealed to be an all-but-avowed racist, a villain of the first order, though far less publicized than his Boston counterpart Tom Yawkey, who showed no interest in signing black players for a decade after Jackie Robinson’s debut. After Phillies’ scouts concluded "that no player in the Negro Leagues this past summer was good enough to be admitted to the Phillies system, even for one of their farm teams," Carpenter justified this asinine policy by declaring a lack of interest in "human relations." In later decades, this lack of interest might have been expressed as a disdain for "political correctness." Carpenter went on to opine that his baseball team was not a business and therefore had no need for black patrons’ money.

These similarities between Allen and Malcolm X (who had to endure the mockery of reporters addressing him as "Mr. X," as if he were the Mystery Guest on "What’s My Line?") mostly occur to me in retrospect as I remember becoming aware of them at the same time, in 1964. It also occurs to me that a controversial figure in a different sport, Joe Namath, also entered my consciousness in 1964, his senior year at Alabama, when he was drafted by the New York Jets, a team I followed (in the same stadium) with the devotion I followed the Mets with.  Namath had grown up in the same part of western Pennsylvania at the same time as Allen, born the spring after the one Allen was born in, and they were rivals in high school football, a point I wish Nathanson had developed a bit further.  Both Allen and Namath were gifted in three sports, baseball, football, and basketball, and both received multiple offers to play professionally the two sports that they ultimately walked away from. As a ballhandling guard, Allen was favorably compared to Celtics’ Bob Cousy, and Namath received offers from several baseball clubs, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose strong-armed rightfielder Roberto Clemente was his personal idol.  (Clemente also had some issues being called by his first name instead of the diminutive "Bob.") But Allen and Namath drew the same types of controversies as rookies, brimming with sheer talent and determined to play their games, and live their lives, as they saw fit and not as the sporting press wanted them to do. Allen caught non-stop flak for his escapades, while Namath was mostly admired in the press.

Reflecting back on my wasted youth (it hardly seems possible to have devoted the attention I gave to sports when I was eleven), I was struck by one fact that Nathanson’s book brought to my attention: the early Mets could have drafted Allen easily when they got started. According to Nathanson, quoting Mets GM Johnny Murphy, Allen was left unprotected by the Phils, and the Mets, perhaps aware of his reputation as a troublemaking, malcontent Negro, declined to select him. I’m imagining Allen making the early Mets’ 3B problems into their strongest feature, starting not in 1964, when Allen broke through as the best of the best crop of rookies ever, but even earlier, since Nathanson also makes the strong case that Allen’s stellar minor league season in 1962 fully qualified him for immediate promotion to the bigs, if not for the Phillies’ muddled assessments of his gifts.

I’m not absolutely sure how the expansion draft of 1962 actually worked, and if the Mets really blew a golden opportunity, although Johnny Murphy’s remarks quoted here seem to support Nathanson’s understanding: "As I recall, the scouting report on him were very bad….OK, we didn’t take him. But the Phillies put him on the [unprotected] list."  It’s my strong impression that the only players that the Mets (and the Houston Colt .45s) could draft were from the group of players that the eight established NL teams left unprotected on their 40-man rosters, not from their entire major- and minor-league systems. After all, the Mets drafted the dregs of these 40-man rosters, often washed-up players years beyond their primes, which weren’t so prime to begin with, and virtually none of the players either the Mets or Colts drafted were in the other teams’ minor league systems. They were all MLB scrubinees, lame-armed pitchers, superannuated pinch-hitters, occupying the 24th or 25th roster spots. If this weren’t the case, I’d imagine I would have heard both expansion teams’ draft strategies routinely derided as thoroughly boneheaded, that they passed up drafting promising youngsters but chose instead to draft mediocre players in their 30s, and that is one of the very few criticisms I have never heard expressed.

To the contrary, I recall Casey Stengel sarcastically thanking the other National League teams for so generously giving them their pick of such wonderful players as they did. I can’t see how the eight teams would have willingly exposed their minor leaguers to the expansion draft—all you need do is to think of all the great young players, apart from Dick Allen, who debuted in the National League after 1962. Did the Mets and Colts really prefer the Choo Choo Colemans and the Jim Umbrichts of the worlds to the Pete Roses, Tony Perezes, Jesus Alous, Rico Cartys, Jim Ray Harts, and Tim McCarvers? If the eight clubs had somehow presciently protected all their minor league talent from the draft, then they would have had to expose more of their current front-line major league talent. Something here doesn’t quite add up.  I’m always on the lookout to blame another dumb move on the early Mets’ inept management, but I have a hard time pinning this one on their chests.

The Phillies, however, are another story. No shortage of "Dumb-Ass Self-Defeating Policy Medals" here: Nathanson’s book begins with a hypothetical about an imaginary ballplayer who preceded Allen on the Phillies roster, also a black man and a skillful ballplayer. In his rookie year of 1960, this player (whose name Nathanson invents as "Tony Curry") plays well enough to be named the third Topps All-Star Rookie outfielder alongside Dodgers rookie stars Tommy Davis and Frank Howard, but gets into a salary dispute in the off-season, and ends up with only 9 more hits in his major league career.

At this point, I should share with you the truth that Tony Curry is a real person, and that the facts above are all accurate. I thought Nathanson was pulling my leg with this Tony Curry story because I thought I knew every NL ballplayer in the 1960s, and certainly knew every one skillful enough to get named alongside of Hondo and Tommy D., but no.  His point is not only that Curry’s history has been obliterated from even hard-core fans’ minds, but how and why it was obliterated. The Phillies responded to this talented rookie’s season by offering him a second-year contract that was not only not a raise from the MLB minimum at the time, but was actually below the major league minimum.

Batting .478 in spring training camp, Curry pointed out the blatant impropriety of offering him (a black Bahamian) a contract paying less than the MLB minimum but the Phillies GM John Quinn "refused to budge off his number." Curry walked out of camp.

Quinn and the Phillies called this incident a "misunderstanding," but it’s hard to see how they weren’t hoping to get something over on the rookie Curry. The Phillies sure seemed to have a lot of misunderstandings like this, and especially where their black players were concerned, so many that you have to wonder if they weren’t misunderstanding intentionally. At the most generous, they seem to have made consistent errors of judgment where Allen’s career was concerned, although Allen has taken the brunt of criticism for these errors.

Let’s talk about literal errors: Allen seems not to have been very skilled as a fielder, wherever he was placed around the diamond. That’s just a fact, although the Phillies did whatever they could to exacerbate that fact by placing him every whichaway they could around the diamond, as quickly and as inexplicably as humanly possible. Allen had a strong arm, and when he entered professional ball in 1960, he played shortstop, which (like most players) was his position playing among amateurs. (We always played our best fielder at shortstop, growing up—didn’t you? And our fastest fielder in center-field. That was simply a rule of life, no brains required.) He didn’t last long at shortstop: as he moved up through the Phillies’ minor league system, Allen was switched to centerfield, then to second base, then to left field, and finally when he arrived in Philly, he was told he was now a third baseman, despite never having played that position in his life. Then the Philly fans began their campaign of booing him as he made error after error at third base.

He was smacking the bejezus out of the ball at every stop along the way, so you’d suppose that some smart guy in the Phillies’ system would have proposed, "Listen, this Allen dude could be a franchise-best slugger, so how about we figure out a good position for him, and get him some serious coaching at that position, because you will want his bat in the lineup as often as you can get it."  Instead, they followed the opposite policy: "Listen, let’s screw this guy up as badly we can, and make him play a brand-new position every season and, because he seems to be a withdrawn kind of guy who keeps to himself, let’s also put some extra pressure onto him—maybe that will bring him out of his shell."

Those extra pressures included where they Phillies made him play his final year of Triple-A ball—in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Up until then, the Phillies’ top AAA club was in Buffalo, New York, as close as you can get to Canada without saying "ey" at the end of every sentence, but they had in 1963 arranged to play instead in a city that was far less friendly to black baseball players. Allen was asked to integrate a city, in effect, that didn’t want to be integrated. Further, he wasn’t Jackie Robinson. Not even close to Jackie Robinson.

Nathanson paints a vivid picture of race relations in Little Rock in 1963, and it ain’t a pretty landscape. (In summary, he cites Arkansas native Lou Brock’s comment on the state motto, "Land of Opportunity": Brock said he took the first opportunity to get the hell out.) The ballpark, among much else in Little Rock, was not friendly to Allen, particularly left field, his new position that season. Nicknamed "the dump," left field "had all sorts of potholes all over the place. It was a disgrace of a baseball field," a local reporter said. A visiting reporter from Philadelphia added, "If you can play in Little Rock, with the rubble of an outfield slanting upwards towards a tin fence, and the rabble in the bleachers shouting insults at you, you can play anywhere."

For Allen’s part, he wanted no part of it. "I didn’t want to be a crusader. I kept thinking, ‘Why me? Why do I have to be the first black ballplayer in Little Rock?’" The Phillies had another black ballplayer on their Little Rock roster, but seem to have felt that eventual Hall-of-Famer Ferguson Jenkins wasn’t quite ready to play at the AAA level yet, so Allen was further deprived of Jenkin’s company and his sharing of Allen’s misery. (Sent down to Miami, Jenkins’ own experience was probably no better than that in Little Rock, just lonelier.) Soon enough, of course, Jenkins would be ejected from the Phillies organization altogether, yet another black mark on their mis-evaluation of its African-American (in Jenkins’ case, African-Canadian) talent.

The case that Nathanson makes for Allen is not that he handled himself well, or behaved admirably, or anything like that, but that he made a point of rebelling against treatment that was routinely granted to white ballplayers who shared some of his traits. The comparison that comes to mind, and which Nathanson makes a few times, is to Mickey Mantle, a heavy drinker at times and a man who routinely disregarded various regulations about curfews, off-season training, and the like, but who was lionized in the press, often by the same writers who sniped at Allen whenever he stuck his head unnecessarily into the firing line. Closer to home, Philadelphia’s Johnny Callison was deemed equal or even superior to Allen, despite significantly lesser statistical achievements, especially as their careers extended themselves. Callison got a head start on his career, and got off to an excellent start, but by 1966 he had faded badly in comparison to Allen while still being far more popular in the eyes of Phillies’ fans and Phillies’ management. Mantle and Callison were, of course, good ol’ boys from Oklahoma.

(I must note here one complaint about Nathanson’s book that is directed to his publishers more than to Nathanson himself: the indexing is less than useful. Ferguson Jenkins doesn’t appear in the index at all, and Mantle, though referred to several times, is cited only on a single page—there are other lapses in the indexing that I noted at the time, such as the absence of Bob Cousy, whose ball-handing skills Allen’s are compared to on page 226, but I just assumed that I had misremembered something. After Jenkins and Mantle and Cousy, though, I think I was probably remembering fine the references to unindexed players.)

In many ways, Allen was a pioneer, though not in the Jackie Robinson mold. He was a contrarian, and he defied authority as a matter of course, which might well go unnoticed in the 21st century, but which was a big problem in the mid-20th, particularly in Philadelphia, and especially on a team managed by the authoritarian Gene Mauch, who "understood the rules better than anyone, he was a good teacher of fundamentals," as future Phillies manager and then-teammate of Allen’s Dallas Green put it, "but he was an ogre when it came to handling people."

Mauch would hit Allen with fines when he felt his star player was out of line, but Allen took a contrarian attitude towards the fines, which were obviously intended to force him into his modifying his behavior. Instead, Allen would take the fine as an incentive to misbehave again, to show Mauch that he would behave as he pleased, and that he didn’t care if it cost him money. The fines, he felt, were the price he paid for his own self-respect, a commodity he was prepared to have at any cost.

What Allen would do, after paying thousands of dollars back to the Phillies in fines every season, was to make sure (as far as ballplayers could) that he was paid much more than the Phillies wanted to pay him. He seemed prepared to quit baseball annually if his salary needs weren’t met, and his talents were so disproportionate to that of his teammates that the Phillies usually gave in rather than lose Allen for the season, or even the first month or so, thereby ensuring him that he would have the cash on hand to pay for the fines that would inevitably ensue. I was reminded of a wise observation that Bill James made long ago, about the clauses in Dave Parker’s contract concerning financial incentives for Parker to keep his weight down: now that the exact cost of being overweight was quantified, Parker was free to weigh whatever he liked, as long as he was willing to pay the price, literally, for being overweight. As long as Mauch’s fines were, to Allen, merely a necessary cost of doing business as he chose, they were ineffectual, the precise opposite of what Mauch intended the fines to be.

The Phillies also tried explaining to their other ballplayers that they would have to accept being paid less than they were worth because Allen’s salary was so high, an explanation designed of course to make Allen’s teammates resent him, which oddly (it now seems to us very odd indeed) was how it worked out.  The concept of an absolutely fixed size to the team’s budget for salaries is ludicrous, and the cost of encouraging teammates to resent one another seems absurdly high to us now, but in those days, the 1960s, that was the way it was.  Allen was ahead of his time, and though not a crusader or a terribly articulate voicer of his analyses, he plainly saw inequities all over the place that he simply would not tolerate. Nowadays, players (or their agents) would laugh off any attempt to pay one player less than his value on the open market because they had overpaid (or properly paid) one of the players’ teammates, and rather than resenting one another, players’ responses to their teammates’ salaries is simply, "Right on! Now gimme mine."

Throughout God Almighty Hisself, comparisons between Allen and other ballplayers keep suggesting theysselves, and keep failing: I’ve already mentioned Allen and Mantle, Allen and Jackie Robinson, Allen and Namath, Allen and Johnny Callison, but there are many others, such as Curt Flood (for whom Allen of course was once famously swapped out, horseflesh for horseflesh) or Reggie Jackson, a slightly younger version of a slugging superstar who had sharp disputes with the owners of the several organizations he belonged to, all of which valued his talents while denigrating those talents at the same time.  What all these comparisons have in common, finally, is that they all fail. Allen was like each of them in a very specific (but very different) way, but in all other ways, not like each of them at all.

One obvious contemporary figure to compare Allen to is Jim Bouton, the other subject of a Nathanson biography, and the obvious category of comparison is that they were each rebels to MLB’s code of conduct. But what different sort of rebels! Bouton was a rules-defier, like Allen a man who bristled at being told what he could and couldn’t do, but who articulated his precise complaints about what he was told, at length and in fine detail: you could not shut the man up, while Allen simply ignored the rules, and you could go to hell, for all he cared, in trying to figure out why he defied the rules he did.

He never seemed to have a clear policy, for example, about why he was often absent from spring training or daily batting practice. Sometimes it was disputes about money, or disdain for his teammates, or a love for the racetrack, or just sheer orneriness, but however he explained his refusal to obey norms today, he would give contradictory reasons tomorrow. Traded to the Dodgers in 1971, for example, he announced with a straight face, "Spring training is a serious thing. This is your job and you have to tear yourself away from the rest of the world for six weeks. If you care anything about what you’re doing, it’s worth it." This, after spending most of the previous decade asserting that he needed spring training like a hippopotamus needs horn-rimmed spectacles.

Naturally, a few weeks into 1971 spring training, he decided he needed to train less ("I probably did more than was good for me") and took a few days off. The issue that cropped up with the Dodgers’ organization more than with Allen’s previous employers was "public relations," a field that the Dodgers placed great importance on but whose existence Allen declined to acknowledge. Here, the comparison is between Allen and Steve Garvey, that exemplar of public relations for Dodgers in the 1970s. Garvey, by the way, shared the 3B job with Allen in 1971, Garvey’s rookie year and Allen’s only year with the Dodgers. They were equally unsuited for 3B. Neither of them could be placed at his best (least challenging) position, which was 1B, because the Dodgers had a Gold Glover at that position in Wes Parker, whose bat could not be compared to either Allen’s or Garvey’s, raising the question of why the Dodgers had traded for someone they had no position for.

An answer to that question is that the Cardinals were giving Allen away, and you’d have to be a fool not to take a superstar batter for the asking price of a few baubles, which in this case were a popgun hitter named Ted Sizemore. "They traded him for nothing," was Jose Cardenal’s assessment of the deal. (Cardenal of the Cardinals was Allen’s teammate and friend.) "I have nothing against Ted Sizemore, but how do you trade a power hitter like [Dick] for a singles hitter? I think they just wanted to get rid of him." Ya think, Jose?

For all their avowed love of good public relations, the Dodgers practiced the same penurious salary policies as other teams did in those days, that of alienating its players by informing them (often misinforming them) about their teammates’ salaries, and how there was now no money left to pay them properly because, in this case, of Allen’s outrageous but necessary salary demands. Dodger captain Maury Wills was told, for example, in 1971 that he would have to take a pay cut because of the bareness of the team’s cupboard after Allen’s high-priced arrival. Wills, incidentally, expressed an astute analysis of the relationship of the Dodger organization to its players: "The Dodgers are like a woman….to be loved…not understood." Needless to say, that love would prove an inevitably costly commodity.

When he was traded from the Dodgers after his one season there, the team’s explanation was as self-serving and as illogical as any woman’s explanation of her emotions: he was being traded because Wes Parker was blocking him, defensively speaking, which makes no sense on any number of levels, including Parker’s almost immediate retirement. (He retired from baseball after the 1972 season, having hit a total of four HRs that year as their full-time first baseman.) His newest team, the White Sox, showed him all the love that his previous teams had withheld from him: they announced immediately that they would be happy to call him "Dick" rather than "Richie" (which had been a surprisingly contentious issue up to this point in his career—you would think any club would be happy to call a hitter like Allen "Generalissimo," if that’s his preference, or "Your Majesty") and that they would pay him 5% above what his contract with the Dodgers had called for.

As it happened, that 5% raise was insufficient. Instead of the $110,000 or so that the offer represented, Allen sulked in his tent (comparison to Achilles here, if you’re keeping track) and demanded $120,000. The White Sox’ instant response was "$120,000? Done!"

Unhappily, Allen’s characteristic response to the White Sox’s response was to reject their offer as inadequate, "in effect, spurning his own demand." After a few more weeks of further sulking, Allen arrived in White Sox camp, forty-one days late—the day the Players’ Association went on strike. He signed his new contract for $135,000, which presumably had a certain amount in it earmarked for paying fines when they would inevitably be imposed on him.

Only they weren’t. He was the AL’s overwhelming MVP in 1972 (21 out of 24 first-place votes) and got along swimmingly with his new manager Chuck Tanner, whose response to reporters’ questions about Allen’s absence from spring training set the tone for his unconditional support of Allen throughout the year. ("I don’t even want him down there," he asserted, and defended his principle of having different rules for different players: "This is what I think is best for Dick and I don’t care what anybody else thinks.") A new comparison arose during Allen’s spring-training holdout in 1972, that of Allen and Vida Blue, the previous season’s AL MVP, who was holding out for a salary commensurate with his recently displayed skills. His team’s owner, Charlie O. Finley, was insisting that Blue merely be paid commensurately with other excellent 21-year-old players, not other MVPs. This irreconcilable point of contention was at the heart of Allen’s difficult salary negotiations in his early career, and eventually became written into the standard player’s agreement, which codified the early point (not early enough for youthful superstars like Blue and Allen) that their salaries would be on a parity with comparable performers regardless of age or MLB experience.

So in this environment for a textbook-perfect situation for Allen, he managed to go a full season, 1972, and parts of two others, before Allen became once again alienated, which perhaps should be spelled "allenated" by this point.  By 1974, the slavishly supportive Tanner, for example, was described by Allen as "nothing but a big flunky" who couldn’t even play the game himself.  In disgust, Allen announced that he was retiring after the 1974 season, but didn’t file official retirement papers, leaving the White Sox confused as to his actual status. This confusion seems to have carried as far as Nathanson, who writes at the end of Chapter 12, "the Sox dealt his rights to the Atlanta Braves in early December," but without further mention of the Braves, opens Chapter 13 with a complicated discussion of Allen being traded by the White Sox back to the Philadelphia Phillies, which never actually transpired. Nathanson had gotten ahead of his chronology: the Sox-Phillies discussion had taken place in November, and eventually Allen, out of options, did un-retire and asked to be placed on the active roster of the White Sox, who informed that he now was a member of the Atlanta Braves, who acquired his rights in return for Jim Essian, a backup catcher of very limited abilities. Maybe if this chronology had been explained more clearly, it would make more sense, but maybe not. I got a headache from trying to follow the muddled reasoning of everyone involved, from Allen to the White Sox’s GM Roland Hemond to the Phillies’ GM Paul Owens to the Braves’ execs and those of every other club in organized baseball who struggled to make sense of Allen’s status and the desirability of acquiring him. "He’s a fabulous talent that any team would be happy to have," was the approximate thinking, "but I wouldn’t take him for all the beef in Texas." Finally, in May, the Phillies acquired him in a trade for Jim Essian (don’t ask—I couldn’t untangle either Essian’s status or Allen’s, or the question of whether they’d been traded twice in five months for each other or only once.)

The Phillies were now being run by Ruly Carpenter, the son of Allen’s nemesis in his previous stint in Philadelphia, R. R. M. "Bob" Carpenter, Jr., who decided that the Phillies could use the services of the un-Ruly star.  Now, if I was a Carpenter, I might anticipate a little controversy from Dick Allen, who accepted a 20% pay cut to play for the Phillies with no corresponding decrease in controversy.  His reception by the press in Philadelphia was more hostile than it had been in his previous stops, while the players greeted Allen more warmly. The only remaining teammate from the 1964 club was Tony Taylor, who treated him like a returning hero, and other players, like the young Mike Schmidt, who reminded him of a young Dick Allen, were downright worshipful. His body breaking down, the 33-year-old Allen had a miserable season, his first below-100 OPS+ ever, and followed it up with a more successful 1976, when he hit for a 133 OPS+ and helped the Phillies get as far as the NLCS against the current (and future) World Champion Reds, but as ever he engendered dissension, this time by insisting that his friend, and first roommate, the even older Tony Taylor, be activated despite being 40 years old and having only 6 hits on the season. After the 1976 season, Allen was granted his first (and last) free agency which he used to sign for a final, career-worst year (89 OPS+) with the Oakland A’s, the only club to bid on him, giving owner Charlie Finley complete leverage over Allen, which Finley delighted in using. Strangely (for any other player), Allen on his last legs in 1977 refused to DH, which surprised his final manager, Jack McKeon, who learned that Finley had granted Allen’s request never to DH only after penciling "Allen –DH" on a lineup card.  

Like E. A. Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, Richard Anthony "Sleepy" "Crash" Allen was born at the wrong time, but (final malapropos analogy coming, folks) unlike Cheevy, he was born too soon, not too late. If Allen had played in the 1980s and 1990s, instead of the 1960s and 1970s, how would his behavior set him apart from his contemporaries? His unmovable negotiating principle ("Pay me what I’m worth, not what you claim you can afford, or what others are getting") was, by 1980, universally accepted on both sides of the table. By 1985, Jose Gonzalez Uribe had changed his name to just-plain Jose Uribe, the only result of which was a running gag about him being known as the ultimate player to be named later. As early as the mid-1970s, the battlin’ A’s and the Bronxzoo Yanks were taking too many punches at teammates for me to begin listing them all—every colossal controversy of Allen’s career, in short, had become routine almost immediately upon his leaving MLB.

In a very real sense, the argument about Allen’s admission to the Hall-of-Fame, a topic I’d hoped I might get through this review without mentioning, is better informed by making it a positive argument about his off-the-field contributions to the game, rather than a negative argument about those contributions coupled with a positive one about his achievements on-the-field. His greatest contribution, beyond the lifetime 351 HRs and 156 OPS+, may rest on his pioneering outrageous personal behavior that almost immediately became practically boring. Mitchell Nathanson delineates a life and legacy that was remarkably consistent in its inconsistency, and keeps his focus not so much on the baseball career as it does on Allen’s stubborn determination to be true to himself, as defined by himself alone.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
I just idly decided to see if I could figure out what "batting .478 in spring training" meant in terms of actual hits and at-bats, and I hit it the first shot out of the box. 11-for-23 is .478.
18 hours ago
 
Steven Goldleaf
from Mitch Nathanson via Twitter:

The name that preceded the bracket was Ted Sizemore so I wanted to clarify that Cardenal was referring to Allen and not Sizemore (Cardenal said "him" which I replaced with "Dick"). I didn't change any quotes from "Richie" to "Dick."
10:03 AM Jan 17th
 
Manushfan
Steve did you like watching Dick Allen play? did you ever watch him on TV or in person?
10:26 AM Jan 13th
 
DaveNJnews
I'll have to read it but I seem to remember the response to his return to Philly in 1975 was quite positive - he was seen as the returning veteran who could help lift a young, talented team over the top.​
10:36 PM Jan 12th
 
DaveNJnews
I've tried to twice to make it through this book but haven't gotten very far - the tone of the writing annoys me and I put it down for something else. I do expect I'll make it through at some point.
10:31 PM Jan 12th
 
steve161
Yeah, could be "him"--unnecessarily. Whom else would he be talking about?

Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, the overuse of bracketed material to clarify the already clear.
5:57 PM Jan 12th
 
Jack
RexLittle wrote: "Tony Curry's rookie season was not particularly impressive: .261/.308/.408 in 265 PAs."

I have to disagree here. Curry jumped from A ball to the majors, in MLB's last 16-team season (that is to say, before whatever diluting effects expansion might have had), and at age 22 posted an OPS+ of 96.

Messing around with Bill's Favorite Toy, I come up with a reasonable career projection for Curry of 1734 games played, .272 average with 1276 hits, including 155 homeruns (from 12 to 18 per season over ten seasons in what would have been his prime).

Not saying he would have been an All Star or anything, but Curry could have been a pretty solid third or fourth outfielder, posting two or three WAR per season through his twenties. He'd have been worth more to the 1964 Phillies than was that team's fourth outfielder, Danny Cater, who batted an empty .296 (one homerun, .388 slugging percentage) and posted a 0.1 WAR in 160 PA.
2:42 PM Jan 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
In fairness to me, I was six years old when the 1960 season started, and didn't become a baseball fan until the next season. I know about pre-1961 baseball only by reading about it--I do think that Tony Curry is the most accomplished baseball player of the 1960s I'd literally never heard about.
8:46 PM Jan 11th
 
RexLittle
In fairness to the Phillies, Tony Curry's rookie season was not particularly impressive: .261/.308/.408 in 265 PAs. Not a great year for rookie outfielders, apparently.

6:59 PM Jan 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Actually, "him"?
5:18 PM Jan 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
"he"?
5:17 PM Jan 11th
 
steve161
The best thing about Nathanson's excellent book is that it manages to tell us what happened without dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. He doesn't apologize for Allen's lack of decorum, but he also doesn't slavishly repeat the standard "cancer in the clubhouse" narrative of too many writers, including (I regret to say) Bill James.

Reading this review, I was reminded of being bemused by the brackets in the Cardenal quote, wondering "how do you trade a power hitter like [Dick] for a singles hitter?" This is original Nathanson, from an interview with Cardenal, and I speculated at the time that Cardenal had actually called him "Richie" and that Nathanson was censoring him. I can't know this, of course, but what else could the bracketed name be a substitute for?
4:48 PM Jan 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sorry, MWeddell, no can help--haven't read it. But this one is plenty good.
2:17 PM Jan 11th
 
MWeddell
If anyone has read both this book and the Dick Allen biography too from 2017 by Kashatus & Schmidt, let us know which one you would recommend.
12:32 PM Jan 11th
 
doncoffin
Amazon seems to have it in hardcover or paperback for around $25 and as an ebook for around $15. Online used book sellers are also around $25.
10:56 AM Jan 11th
 
 
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