Wednesday delivers his 75th birthday, a rickety excuse for writing about No. 15 perhaps, but I suppose this whole exercise is a twisting baseball apology.
As spring training engages its comforting March rhythms, the game’s habituates often use this period to recalibrate their feelings about the sport’s cultural structures – its teams, players, history, future, and the ever-metastasizing impulse to frame the game as science rather than art.
I am not by nature a quantifier. Questions like, “Who is/was the best this/that/the other thing?” generally bounce off my suspect brain without a smudge. But when it comes to baseball, a handful of things have not only quantified, but calcified to the hardness of diamonds. Willie Mays is the best player I ever saw. Pete Rose was the smartest player I was ever around. And Dick Allen was in that same ultra-exclusive gallery of absolutes, even if I’ve never found the superlative that best frames him.
This is maybe one last try.
With Richard Anthony Allen, aka the Wampum Walloper, aka the Sultan of Sulk, aka many other things, the hunt for the proper superlative seems almost as fruitless as for the man himself. The locals along Route 18 where it slices through Lawrence County say he’s still in his mom’s house in Wampum part of the time, though not the day I turned up there, and in California and Florida the rest of the time, where he pursues a lifelong interest in horses.
“If a horse can’t eat it,” he once said famously of artificial turf. “I don’t want to play on it,” an unusual thing to say when you’re the man who hit the first non-exhibition homer on a real Astroturf field, April 12, 1965 in the Astrodome.
As deadline approached, it appeared unlikely Dick Allen would relent to any of my multiple recent requests for a chat, and that’s OK. Nothing I would have asked or he would have said was going to change his place in the game, for him or the people who watched him get there.
We’ll start with some numbers, because it’s baseball, and therefore it’s the law.
.834 – That’s the OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, for those still among the resistance) of the player many say was the most physically gifted outfielder of the 20th century, Roberto Clemente.
.888 – That’s the OPS for the man many tell you could hit a baseball farther than anyone in the game’s history not named Ruth, Willie Stargell.
.912 – That is Dick Allen’s career OPS.
When he was 22, Allen was called Richie Allen or Rich, a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies coming into a league choked with fearsome hitters – Mays, Clemente, Stargell, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, all headed to Cooperstown. Not of them had as many extra base hits that summer as Allen (80) or as many total bases (352), or scored as many runs (125).
“’Chiseled’ was the word we used back then,” Steve Blass said again this week to describe Allen’s singular interpretation of 5-11, 187. “An absolute specimen. His eyeballs looked strong. I watched him taking batting practice once from halfway between the mound and the plate, and I thought, ‘that’s not fair, to be that strong and that quick.’ I knew that if I ever missed with a slider, distance would become an issue.”
In his era, 1964 to 1977, few players generated more composite homerun distance or more issues for himself and his managers than Allen. In one attempt at finding the perfect superlative, I thought I’d settle on the notion that no one made the game look easier than this shy kid out of Wampum High School, but if no one made the game look easier, no one made getting to the game look harder.
Fined record amounts for either showing up late or not at all, Allen’s issues were often related to his chronic thirstiness. Sent home by three different Phillies managers for being in no condition to play, Allen endured weapons-grade vitriol from Phillies fans, none of whom, I’m sure, would ever abuse alcohol out of work-a-day frustration.
I say this as a reformed Phillies fan, but since alcohol abuse by people who were not yet 12 years old was frowned up in my environment, I instead stood in front of a mirror pretending to be Richie Allen, adjusting my helmet with my left hand as I stepped into the box, rocking gently back and forth on the balls of my feet, then moving that left hand to the bottom of a 40-ounce bat, OK the yellow whiffle ball bat, and starting a slow series of menacing practice swings that were not swings at all so much as terrifying chops. All of it while staring balefully toward an imaginary victim 60 feet, 6 inches yonder.
“I remember being intimidated by him,” said Blass. “McCovey was a big intimidating guy for me, and Aaron, in the most gentlemanly way possible, was intimidating, but Allen was different. He looked mean and he looked strong and he looked like he could beat you up. And he crushed the ball. I’ve heard other players say he might have been the strongest guy they ever saw. He hit it to a different level.”
One night with Allen leading off the bottom of the ninth in a tied game against the New York Mets, Mets broadcaster Lindsey Nelson began the inning’s play-by-play like this: “Allen will start the ninth for Philadelphia; here’s the pitch (crack!) and we’ll be back with the final totals and a recap after this.”
Dick Groat laughed at that story when I recalled it over lunch this week. The former National League MVP was with the Phillies for one season, 1966, his next to last year in the majors and probably Allen’s best in the National League. Allen hit .317, drilled 40 homers, drove in 110 runs, and led the league in slugging (.632) and OPS (1.027). He finished fourth in the MVP voting behind Clemente, Sandy Koufax, and Mays.
“He was really a complete player,” said Groat, the 1960 N.L. MVP. “He had good instincts. He was a great base runner, which today you don’t see that at all. With a man on second and nobody out, he’d hit behind the runner. He had marvelous power but he could handle the bat. He played the game the way it should be played. He knew what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. He could run like hell. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He didn’t have the greatest arm in the world but he worked at his defense.
“He was an enjoyable young man. You’d see him hit sometimes and it was like, ‘Man, the game isn’t supposed to be that easy.’”
The game was easy, the pregame was not, the postgame sometimes perilous with curfew violations.
“I never wanted to be a superstar,” Allen once told Philly writers. “You guys are the ones who write that trash. The only way I’d be really happy playing ball is if they keep the fans and the press out of the ballpark and let us players play a good game of ball.”
After his first two managers, Gene Mauch and Bob Skinner, had both been fired (with Skinner blaming Allen specifically), interim manager George Myatt was invited to try his luck. Meyer didn’t like his chances. “I believe God Almighty hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen.”
Allen finally escaped Philly in 1969, spent a year with the Cardinals, another with the Dodgers, and then found God Almighty Hisself. He was named Chuck Tanner.
Five years before he’d become manager of the Pirates, their last to visit and win a World Series, Tanner managed Allen with the 1972 Chicago White Sox, for whom the Walloper unleashed years of pent up frustration. He led the American League in homers, RBI, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. On 24 Hall of Fame ballots, he was at the top of 21.
Tanner theorized that since he’d grown up near Wampum, in New Castle, Allen’s mother had instructed Dick that maybe Tanner shouldn’t meet the fate of some of her son’s previous managers. Just a theory, but this is fact: When Tanner told Dick Allen stories, he would point to his forearms and say, ‘Look, look!’ And there the gooseflesh would stand at attention.
“Now I know why people boo Richie Allen,” Willie Stargell once said. “When he hits a homer, there is no souvenir.”
Maybe that’s the elusive superlative, simply that no one ever hit the ball harder, but we’ve got exit velocity for that now. You can look that stuff up. Knowing full well that you can find places on the internet that will lay out the history of frogs piloting the space shuttle, you can also find the contention that Allen hit more 500-foot homers than anyone except Ruth.
“It doesn’t even matter if it’s true,” said Blass. “That’s the image of him.”
Five years after Allen retired and he appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, he pulled less than four percent of the vote. In his 14 remaining years eligible, he never drew even 19 percent. But in 2014, his case referred to the Golden Era Committee, he fell just one vote short of induction. His next chance doesn’t come until 2020.
I feel bad for him, which doesn’t make sense because like more than 80 percent of the baseball writers, I didn’t vote for him. His 351 homers are not really Hall worthy and the airliner still hasn’t been built that could hold his baggage, but the elusive superlative seems close. Maybe he was just the most intriguing player I ever saw. Maybe it’s way simpler, too. Maybe he was just my favorite player, and maybe you shouldn’t have to apologize for that.
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