In the late 1980s, Dick Allen took part in an old-timer’s day event in St. Louis that featured such greats as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and others, including Negro League immortal Cool Papa Bell. Afterward, Allen excitedly related a conversation that he had with Bell. “He said I could have been one of them,” Allen recalled. “He said I had power and I could run, the two most important requirements in Negro League baseball. It’s funny. Back in their day, the Negro League players all wanted to be big leaguers. They felt deprived because they could never get in. And there I was, in my day, a big leaguer who felt like he lost out because he never got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues.” Dick Allen, Negro League immortal? It’s easy to imagine. If Allen had spent his career in the Negro Leagues—playing in a league full of people who could relate to the sort of trials Allen hadexperienced since birth—Dick’s life might have been quite a bit less stressful. But the rest of us would be the poorer for it.
When the Chicago White Sox acquired Dick Allen from the Los Angeles Dodgers in December of 1971 (for Tommy John, an outstanding pitcher, and scrub infielder Steve Huntz), I was one of many excited—and apprehensive—Sox fans. Allen was well-known for his prodigious talent with the bat, but the White Sox would be his fourth team in the last four seasons. Bill James described Allen as “the second-most controversial player in baseball history, behind Rogers Hornsby,” and it’s an apt comparison. While continuing to excel on the field, Hornsby had been shuffled from the Cardinals to the Giants to the Braves and then to the Cubs between 1926 and 1929. For Allen, it was from the Phillies—where he had been the first Black star for a franchise with an ugly racial history—to the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and finally the White Sox.
“Allen was labeled baseball’s biggest outlaw,” wrote Tim Whitaker, who collaborated with Dick on Allen’s wonderful autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. “He was undisciplined and outspoken, a free spirit who abided by no rules. He was accused of missing curfews, skipping spring training, drinking on the job, getting high, fighting with teammates, having managers fired, and even doodling cryptic messages on the infield dirt. He never did want to be bothered with sportswriters. He was as enigmatic as he was recalcitrant.”
Some of those accusations were true; many were not. As for Allen’s problems with sportswriters, how would you feel about people who refused to address you by the name his family had called you since birth? “Don’t call me Richie,” he would say. “My name is Dick.” But until he got to Chicago, he was “Richie Allen,” or sometimes “Rich” to writers and team officials and even on his baseball cards. (“Bob” Clemente could undoubtedly relate to this.) With the White Sox, Allen was finally referred to as Dick… at least by most people. Jerome Holtzman, the dean of Chicago sportswriters and future official MLB historian, was among the Allen antagonists who continued to call him “Richie.”
Whatever people called him—“Richie” being the mildest of insults hurled at this strong, unflinching Black man—we in Chicago quickly learned that Allen could play. In 1972, his first season with the White Sox, Allen led the American league in on-base percentage, slugging, home runs (a then-team record 37), and runs batted in while winning the league MVP award. In 1973, he was again among the league leaders when he suffered a broken leg in midseason; even this was steeped in controversy, as a White Sox physician insisted Allen could have returned. In 1974, Allen was again leading the league in home runs when he abruptly left the team in early September, announcing his retirement a few days later. He was so far ahead in the home run race that he still led the league, despite not playing a game after September 8.
There were wondrous moments, like a three-run pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth in June of 1972 to defeat the Yankees, 5-4 (I still have an audiotape of that game). There was the game against the Twins a month later that featured two inside-the-park home runs from Allen—a reminder of what a fearsome baserunner Dick Allen was. There was Allen’s 460-foot home run into Comiskey Park’s center-field bleachers—a drive that nearly hit Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who was doing the game from the bleachers that day. The ball was caught by young Mark Liptak, who later would become a leading White Sox historian.
But Allen being Allen, there were plenty of controversies as well. There was the special treatment—constantly harped upon by the Chicago press—given to Allen by Sox manager Chuck Tanner, who allowed Allen to skip batting practice and come late to the ballpark. Allen sometimes took advantage of that treatment. On at least one occasion, he missed the start of a game, with the White Sox covering his tracks by saying he was sick. There was the controversy over the extent of his injury in 1973 (Allen did attempt to return for one game, but was shut down after limping noticeably). His final year with the White Sox featured a season-long feud with new teammate Ron Santo; “I felt confused, disoriented, but mostly depressed,” Allen recalled about the 1974 season. Even Harry Caray, an early Allen supporter during their White Sox years together, turned on him, referring to Allen with the name that Dick hated. “Every time I try to compare Richie Allen to Stan Musial, I want to vomit,” Caray said. In those days when you lost Harry Caray, you lost Chicago.
Given an opportunity to return to his first team, the Phillies, under more positive circumstances, Allen reconsidered the retirement and finally met his goal of reaching the postseason in 1976. But his skills had diminished, he was bothered by injuries, and the second Philadelphia tenure ended unhappily as well, as did a brief finale with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (Dick Allen and Charlie Finley did not get along? Amazing!)
Allen is gone now, and the outpouring of love he received from former teammates after his December 7 passing make it clear that a lot of the things that people said about Dick Allen were clearly wrong. Prima donna? Bad teammate? Killer of clubhouse morale? Not according to guys like Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage and Larry Bowa and Jim Kaat and Steve Stone. All of these major stars not only respected Dick Allen; they revered him.
“I wonder how good I could have been,” Dick Allen said in perhaps his most famous quote. “It could have been a joy, a celebration. Instead, I played angry. In baseball, if a couple of things go wrong for you, and those things get misperceived, or distorted, you get a label. After a while, the label becomes you, and you become the label, whether that’s really you or not. I was labeled an outlaw, and after a while that’s what I became.”
Damn the labels. Richard Anthony Allen was a proud Black man in a sport, and a country, that has never felt comfortable with what Geoffrey C. Ward, biographer of the great boxer Jack Johnson, called “unforgivable blackness.” If Allen “played angry,” he had plenty of reason for doing so. He is at peace now, and remembered by many of us with deep affection. I felt privileged to watch a few years in the life of Dick Allen, and I mourn his passing.