Dick Allen deserves a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame

B.G. Kelley

is a Philadelphia writer

File photoDick Allen was a target of Phillies fans his rookie year.

The iconic, enigmatic, sometimes misunderstood Dick Allen, trim as trout at 71 years of age, will be inducted into the Philadelphia Hall of Fame on Thursday, yet, curiously, he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Why?

Is it his career stats - .292 batting average, 351 home runs, 1,119 RBIs? The bad-boy image - drinking before games, showing up late or not at all for games, smoking in the dugout, a batting-cage fight with a teammate, punching out his car's headlights in rage, disagreeing with managers? Those troubled years (1963-'69) in Philly weren't entirely Allen's making. The stormy racial climate played a part.

Phillies fans booed him unmercifully in 1964, his first full season, when he was a third-base rookie. Of course, that was the year of the greatest collapse in baseball, when the Boys of Bummer, as that Phillies team was subsequently tagged, led the National League by 61/2 games with 12 to play, and promptly were sucked into a vortex of defeat, losing 10 straight - and the pennant. It was also the summer of the race riots in Philly, and Dick Allen, a black player in a city roiled in racial tension, became a target of Philly fans.

"Allen was playing during a troubled social period in Philly," according to Bruce Kuklick, a Penn history professor and author of To Every Thing A Season, a wonderfully trenchant book on the economic, political, social, and sports culture of the Swampoodle neighborhood around the old Connie Mack Stadium. "When the Phillies came home for the last homestand in l964, 50 cops surrounded Connie Mack Stadium in the aftermath of the riots, 100 more patrolled the neighborhood, and 1,000 more were in all of North Philly. Allen felt he was right in the middle of the issue of race, and was tortured by this. . . . He was acutely aware that baseball in Philadelphia was white and he was black."

It wasn't the first time he had been targeted. When Allen was signed in l960, he was the first black player sent to the Phillies' minor-league affiliate in Little Rock.

"I look back to what I went through, and there was nobody in the game I could turn to," Allen told me in 1976. "To be honest, I really don't know if I could go through it again. From the time I left home it was a struggle, in the minors, when I first came here. I thank my mother for her guiding prayers."

From the beginning, Allen mesmerized fans with his prodigious power, sending balls so far out of Connie Mack they seemed headed for the moon. Alas, that wasn't enough for Phillies fans. After six moody seasons, Allen and management believed a change was in order.

He was traded to the Cardinals in l969, to the Dodgers in '71, and to the White Sox the next year. The Phillies brought him back in l975. That's when I met him. I spent the summers of '75 and '76 in the Phillies' clubhouse writing stories for a magazine.

During that time I saw Allen's humanity.

At the time, the clubhouse maintenance man was an older white gentleman. He was invisible to the team's stars but not to Allen. Every day when that man passed by his locker, Allen would ask, "How you doing today? How's your family?" That stuck to my memory the way a first home run sticks to your bat.

The Phillies of the mid-'70s were loaded with young baseball studs. Allen said upon his re-arrival: "I want to be the person the young players here can come to for help and guidance. I want to bring the fundamentals of the game to the attention of the kids." He did. He was revered as a leader of that team, even though he was no longer the batter he'd been.

Unfortunately, his relations with baseball writers - who help decide who gets to Cooperstown - were not as warm.

Once Dick Allen was a polarizing figure in Philadelphia; now, paradoxically, he is beloved, one of the most compelling baseball players ever to play in this city. He deserves to be in Philly's Hall of Fame, but he also deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

E-mail B.G. Kelley at bgklly@yahoo.com.