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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Gross Racism that Cheated the Legacy of Dick Allen

Illustration for article titled The Gross Racism that Cheated the Legacy of Dick Allen
Photo: AP

Dick Allen was a seven-time All-Star, the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year, and the 1972 American League MVP. He won two home run titles, led his league in on-base percentage twice and OPS four times.

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One of the best hitters in baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the main reason that Allen isn’t in the Hall of Fame is institutional racism. Despite a statistical profile that puts him just below the average Hall of Fame third baseman, Allen never received more than 18.9 percent of the vote on the BBWAA ballot between 1983 and 1997.

Why? William C. Kashatus tackled the issue in 2005 for Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, a joint project of the history departments at Ohio State and Miami University.

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“When Allen was involved in a brawl (in 1965) with Frank Thomas, a popular white veteran, he was ordered by his manager not to discuss the incident with the press. The veteran was subsequently traded. Years later it was revealed that Thomas had been aiming racial slurs to many of his black teammates [and the fight between Thomas and Allen is generally agreed to have started because of a racist remark by Thomas]. But the Philadelphia fans blamed Allen for the incident.

“They booed him every night, threw pennies, bolts and beer bottles at him, and sent him hate mail. Sportswriters launched their own assault, portraying the beleaguered star as a malcontent who expected special treatment.”

The kind of “special treatment” that Allen wanted was being called Dick, while the Phillies insisted on using “Richie,” which was how it appeared on his early baseball cards. “To be truthful with you, I’d like to be called Dick. I don’t know how the Richie started. My name is Richard and they called me Dick in the minor leagues,” Allen said in 1964. “It makes me sound like I’m 10 years old. I’m 22.”

Illustration for article titled The Gross Racism that Cheated the Legacy of Dick Allen
Photo: AP
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They kept calling him “Richie” for another two years, and Allen wound up wearing his batting helmet in the field to protect himself from the various things fans threw at him from the stands. When Allen finally got his wish to be traded out of Philadelphia in 1969, part of the Phillies’ return was Curt Flood, whose refusal to report was largely about challenging the reserve clause and the belief that he shouldn’t have to go to a team against his will, but also about the racism of the City of Brotherly Love.

Today, Dick Allen is 78, and next month, on the 57th anniversary of his major league debut, the Phillies will drop their longstanding policy of only retiring the numbers of Hall of Famers to honor him and take his No. 15 out of circulation. They also plan to have a ceremony next year when fans can attend and finally give Allen at least some of the recognition he deserves.

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There’s a cynical reading of this that the Phillies are merely clearing the way to retire Chase Utley’s number if the Philadelphia demigod never makes it to Cooperstown, but really, the Phillies could have retired Utley’s number without retiring Allen’s and not gotten much, if any, blowback about it. So, credit the Phillies for getting it right here, and making Allen their first non-Hall of Famer (he still could and should eventually get in through the veterans committee) to have his number retired.

Honoring Allen now does not erase what he endured during his years with the Phillies, or that he came to be known as a troublemaker because he wanted to be treated with a basic level of humanity. It does not absolve the Phillies of the self-inflicted burden of historic racial problems. It does provide a chance to revisit that legacy, to deal with it, and to properly acknowledge the greatness of a player who deserved better when he was with the team, and in the way he’s been viewed for the last half a century. And all the better that Allen is still alive to receive the recognition that he so justly deserves.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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