Book excerpt: The magical mystery arc of Dick Allen’s playing career

Bill James once described Allen as someone who ‘did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.’ On the surface, Allen’s actions down the stretch in 1976 might appear to at least suggest as much. But beneath it, when focusing on actions that hindered the club’s potential, one wonders if anything Allen might have done in ’76 could match the organization’s long-standing reluctance to embrace and encourage the development of black ballplayers in Philadelphia in the decades leading up to that season. Viewed through this lens, perhaps the succession of events that transpired during the club’s ’76 stretch run caused the organization to finally confront a demon it mistakenly thought it had slayed through its relocation to the Vet and the transition in ownership from father to son. As such, perhaps it was Dick Allen, more than any other factor, who finally compelled the organization to modernize its approach to black athletes at last.”

Mitchell Nathanson

When a player bio starts out with a quote within a quote, it’s probably not too surprising to find out that Dick Allen was one of the most interesting and divisive characters in the history of baseball.

As is noted above, Bill James was famously harsh in his criticism of Allen, but in the years since, there has been a pushback to James’ comments, a sentiment that, while it may not go as far as to call Allen the world’s best teammate, is a far cry from the stand that James (and a lot of the media from Allen’s time) took. More on that in second, however.

With his appearance on this Starting IX, Allen makes his third stint with the team, as he began his career in Philly, playing with the squad from 1963-1969 before a return from 1975-1976. During his two stints with the team, Allen had an OPS+ of 153, and hit over 200 home runs despite playing in an offense-depleted era. Today the mighty slugger is best known for his relationship with the city, media, and fans than his on-field achievements, though. When you have never received more than 20 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame,1 but have an entire “Baseball Research Journal” dedicated to busting the myths around how you are remembered, the on-field stuff tends to fall by the wayside.

The case that James made against Allen was that Allen tore the locker room apart wherever he went, and was entirely handicapped by his immaturity. From the modern perspective, there’s a lot more evidence against this claim than for it.

For one, the team’s winning percentages with and without Allen paint a clear picture of a team that needed Allen more than the other way around. From 1964-1967, with Allen playing the Phillies had a .542 winning percentage, but without him they had just a .469 winning percentage. In terms of the bigger picture, Philly’s winning percentage for the six years before Allen: .433; then with Allen: .499; and after Allen: .452. Granted there were other factors, but still, those numbers are hard to deny.

Don’t like numbers? How about testimonials from those teammates and coaches that he supposedly tore apart? In the 1995 edition of Baseball Research Journal, Craig R. Wright interviewed many teammates and mangers of Allen, all of whom said that not only was he never a divisive member of the clubhouse, but he also was a player that they would have traded for (had he not already been on the team) in an instant thanks to his incredible talent. The only complaint many had was that he was notoriously tardy, but all those who mentioned that negative also noted that it never affected his on-field performance ever, with the exception of one game to which he was late because he had not realized the time of the game had been moved up. Chuck Tanner (Allen’s manager in Chicago) said of Bill James’ take on Allen, “[James] is full of shit and you be sure to tell him that.”

The biggest black mark on Allen’s name came in 1965, when Allen was just establishing himself as a super-star in Philadelphia. Veteran teammate, Frank Thomas, made a comment that Allen perceived as racist, and when Allen confronted Thomas, the two came to blows, with Allen punching Thomas in the face before Thomas hit Allen in the shoulder with a bat. The incident had numerous repercussions. The most immediate was that the Phillies cut the 36-year old veteran Thomas the next day, a casualty that Phillie fans would hold against Allen for the remainder of his time in Philadelphia. The incident didn’t just impact Allen’s off-field legacy, however, as the injury greatly hindered Allen’s defensive abilities at third base, and he eventually had to make the move to the far less demanding first base spot he fills here. One could even make the “Butterfly Effect” argument that without that incident, Allen would have played his whole career in Philadelphia and gone down as one of the franchise’s most beloved players. Of course, Allen was indeed a volatile man, and Philadelphia was a city in the midst of some incredibly nasty race riots when Allen – a black man – played for the team, so maybe it was only a matter of time until the relationship between this headstrong man and headstrong city crumbled. And boy did it crumble. Allen took to wearing a helmet when playing in the field to protect himself from projectiles from the crowd… In his home stadium. He said of the city, “I can play anywhere, first base, third base, left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

By the end of his time with the club, it was pretty clear that the fans didn’t want him there – although they cheered pretty loud when he hit them home runs which he did with the best of them – and that Allen didn’t want to be there either. He would trace, with his cleat, “Boo” and “Oct. 2,” the date of his final game under contract with Philadelphia, into the infield dirt in front of his first base position.

Throughout this time, the local media often portrayed Allen in his surliest moments, choosing to focus on the fact that he wanted to leave town2 instead of the loyal work he put in, playing through numerous injuries during his time in our nation’s first capital. There was also the fact that Allen was absolutely demolishing American League pitching, and helping to single-handedly make the Phillies a respectable offense. In 1968 – the year of the pitcher – Allen drove in 90 runs, while no other Phillie drove in more than 48. Remember, this is when he was supposed to be forcing his way out of town as a malcontent.

Eventually both Allen and the Phillies got their way, and if the two were a couple, Allen was the girlfriend who took up yoga, dropped 15 pounds and completely won the break up. The Phillies were the boyfriend who thought he was going to go out and kill it, and then realized he had the same unused condom in his wallet eight months after the break up. Allen won the MVP for the White Sox in 1972 with one of the best seasons in MLB history, a near Triple Crown that saw him lead the league in plethora of offensive categories.

As is almost always the case, it wasn’t too long before the ex wanted the suddenly-much-more-attractive ex-girlfriend back, and Phillie announcer, Richie Ashburn spear-headed the cause to get Allen back in Philadelphia. One would be fair to wonder how on earth Allen ended up back in Philadelphia just five years after their acrimonious divorce, but lo and behold the two were indeed reunited in 1975. Of course, like any relapse, even though it started out all right, it was doomed from the get go. To make a long story3 short, sooner than later the clubhouse was splintered and Allen had seemingly once again worked his “magic” on an up-and-coming team. Some folks went so far as to say that Allen had managed to poison Mike Schmidt, making him the man who could never really lead the Phillies into a 1980s dynasty.

Of course the mere fact that Philadelphia was so willing to take Allen back seems like a pretty succinct argument to the claim that Allen, “did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.” Unless the Phillie owners were really into S&M, why bring a guy like that back? Occam’s Razor would certainly seem to imply that he really wasn’t a cancer, and that the idea of him as one was an illusion created by the fans and media about a man who once said one of the saddest and most telling quotes I have ever heard when he said, “I had been hearing I was a bum for so long that I began to think maybe that’s just what I was.”

Allen eventually retired in 1977 after half a season in Oakland as injuries wore him down and forced him to step away from baseball at the relatively young age of 35, an under-appreciated and often misremembered part of baseball history.

1 Allen’s potential spot in the Hall of Fame is a whole nother matter that won’t be covered in this section, but has been laid out in certain spots online, including a strong piece by Christopher Williams on Older but not Wiser.

2 With his own fans throwing stuff at him, could you blame him? If you are the Philadelphia media, yes.

3 And it is a very interesting long story, written by Mitchell Nathanson in the 2013 edition of The National Pastime