Dick Allen’s is a strange case. It’s generally accepted among those who care about such things that the former Phillies slugger is the most deserving player still without a plaque in Cooperstown, and just as generally accepted that this is a result of the fact that, hey, tough break for him being such a jerk and alienating voters and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Which, when you get a little deeper on it — Allen was a tough, defiant black dude playing in Philadelphia at a time when the city in general and its sports media in particular had some serious racial issues — is kind of fucked. Because born-at-age-62 jerk Bill Conlin doesn’t like your attitude you can put up numbers like these and get passed by the Jim Rices and Orlando Cepedas of the world?
That Allen’s alleged jerkiness is generally accepted as the reason for this fairly obvious injustice is weird enough, but kind of par for the course in baseball’s flagrantly subjective Hall of Fame discussion. But Wall Street Journal sportswriter Allen Barra isn’t buying it. Any of it — not the undeserving stats part, and not the jerkery part, either. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Barra re-opens the docket on Allen and finds a player who eminently deserves both a ticket to Cooperstown and a fresh look.
Let’s put his career in perspective: From 1964 through 1972, Allen was the best hitter in baseball. He may be more than just a player who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. At his peak, he might have been better than any other player – Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose not excepted – who doesn’t have a plaque in Cooperstown. He was a much better player than Jim Rice, who was voted in this year.
Unfortunately, Allen was also what William C. Kashatus, author of September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration, called “the wrong player in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The long, rancorous history of Allen’s relationships with an all-white Philadelphia press – most notably Bill Conlin and Larry Merchant, the latter regarded by many of the Phillies as a “throat-cutter” – was summed up best by Kashatus in comments to me: “Dick had a very undeserved reputation as a malcontent. For his first seven seasons, he clashed with the Philadelphia press, the toughest in the country, and the fans believed what they read. The fact is that nearly all of Allen’s teammates and managers liked him and regarded him as a hugely valuable player.”
The incident that most defined Allen’s war with the local press was his fight with teammate Frank Thomas in 1965, a clash sparked by Thomas’ racial gibes, which Philadelphia sportswriters, particularly Merchant, vehemently denied at the time. Thomas, an aging and unproductive player, was subsequently sold. No matter how well Allen played after that, he was subjected to lethal booing, not just in Philadelphia and much of it tinged with racial slurs.