The book: “God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen”
The author: Mitchell Nathanson
The vital statistics: University of Pennsylvania Press, 416 pages, $34.95. (Released March 23)
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publisher’s website
The pitch: Despite more than a few scholarly pieces that would seem to have clearly helped his cause, not to mention a website dedicated to collecting material in his favor (and not even related to his “official” site), Dick Allen came up one vote short in December, 2014 of getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This was the 16-man committee of his peers who were on the Golden Era Committee, considering players from 1947-72.
Allen, as well as Gil Hodges, Maury Wills, Minnie Minoso, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, will be up for consideration again in 2017. Yet those voters can only submit four names per ballot.
All kinds of charts can be created to show Allen’s statistical superiority over a career that superseded several who’ve already been celebrated and inducted. Yet Allen, a seven-time All Star signed by the Phillies in 1960, who put in 15 seasons, including one with the Dodgers, and ended up as a DH for Oakland in 1977, sits right on the cusp of Fame material, according to the crunching done by Baseball-Reference.com.
But while numbers don’t always lie, opinions of character issues can be changed. If so, the voters of the committee who pick up this dissertation of Allen’s life and times might finally be persuaded to generate that one extra vote by the time the next balloting takes place.
At least, that seems to be more than the implied intent of Nathanson, a Villanova sports law professor who we first were aware of from his version of “A People’s History Of Baseball” in 2012.
Much of the groundwork for the book was put out in 2013 by Nathanson in a piece he did for the Society for American Baseball Research. Nathanson’s website also keeps a constant dialogue about Allen’s career.
It’s one thing to say Allen’s career home run totals are more than Ron Santo’s, his slugging titles are more than Harmon Killebrew’s, and his “adjusted OPS+” even exceeds Hank Aaron.
Allen’s name still evokes strong opinion one way or another, no matter the person at the pulpit delivering the plea.
It was, in fact, a 1969 quote from the interim manager and longtime coach of the Phillies, George Myatt, that led to the book title: “I believe God Almighty Hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen.”
Handling this testimony about Allen, however, is much easier and efficient.
We connected right away with a blurb on the back cover from David Maraniss, who authored the Roberto Clemente biography in 2006: “I loved Dick Allen for reasons that I could never totally explain. Maybe it was his big bat and electric presence at the plate; maybe it was his individualism and outspokenness … Now with Mitchell Nathanson’s penetrating and revelatory book, I appreciate the full dimensions of this mysterious baseball rebel.”
There was also this pop from Keith Olbermann: “An excellent and unflinching examination of the tragedy that ensued when the first baseball superstar insisted on full racial equality joined one of the last baseball teams to integrate.”
From our prism, Allen was the Dodger who came and left before we knew what happened.
Al Campanis, despite saying a year ealier he had no interest in Allen, agreed in the 1970 off season to a trade with St. Louis (Allen was already once removed from Philadelphia) for Ted Sizemore and Bob Stinson. Bob Hunter of the L.A. Herald Examiner wrote: “Perhaps it will be … Rich Allen who, at long last, changes the image of the Dodgers” as a team that relied on pitching, singles and stolen bases to generate wins, just a few years removed from the retirements of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
After a season in which he hit .295 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs, while misused as a third baseman and left fielder to allow Wes Parker to keep his job as the Gold Glover at first base, and also had some “miscommunication” with manager Walter Alston, Allen was gone. As was his huge $105,000 salary.
The Dodgers were content on sending him to Chicago White Sox for Tommy John, a player that would write a whole different chapter in team and MLB history.
The fact that Allen, the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year, went on to become the AL MVP in ’72 in Chicago (after a 41-day spring training holdout), made even less sense to a kid wondering how the world really worked.
We live and learn, and read books like this to help us do both at once.
Nathanson’s research goes beyond simply combing through Allen’s 1989 autobiography, “Crash.” He is compelled to re-interviews with many of the media people who chronicled Allen’s career and get a different perspective. Among those most critical in this process is A.S. Doc Young, a syndicated columnist based at the Los Angeles Sentinel who also wrote for Ebony magazine and had an interesting relationship with Allen.
In Chapter 10’s “Public Relations Men, Not Ballplayers” (pages 204-225), chronicling Allen’s year in L.A., we get a thin slice of the total story but one definitely worth examining for Southern California baseball historians.
We’re intrigued by a notation of a Los Angeles Times editorial that ran in 1972, a year after the Dodgers let him go only to see his MVP awarded in Chicago, that “eviscerated both the Dodgers and the venerated ‘Dodger Way’ ”
The editorial said in part: “They trade a 30-year-old first baseman to the Chicago White Sox on the grounds he was a nonconformist whose ways hurt team discipline … Under the Dodgers-style reasons, the Lakers should have traded Wilt Chamberlain and the New York Jets should have unloaded Joe Namath.”
Allen contends, as the chapter title says, that the Dodgers were more interested in players who could do the PR meet-and-greets, which Allen shied away from. There’s also compelling documentation of how Times’ Dodgers beat writer Ross Newhan admits he refrained from using a quote he got from Dodgers club president Peter O’Malley at mid-season that appeared to be blaming Allen for the team’s problems. Newhan did not believe that to be the case, saying there were a “myriad” of other on-field and front-office decisions that was more troublesome than Allen.
According to Nathanson’s notes, Newhan told this to him in an interview in 2013. Nathanson also noted that in an interview for the book, O’Malley “denied making that statement to Newhan.”
To Nathanson’s initial disappointment, Allen refused to be interviewed for this book. That may have been a blessing in disguise as it forced Nathanson to do more interviews and forced different questions to be asked.
He wasn’t so much intrigued by things like: “Was Allen the cause of his own problems or was he just misunderstood?”
Instead Nathanson answers: “Why wasn’t a black superstar such as Dick, as difficult as he could be at times, accorded the same deference by the working press and fan base as were the white superstars of his era?” Allen was part of the black generation of post-Jackie Robinson players, not trumpeted for breaking into the game (along with Aaron, Mays, Banks, etc.) but this was a group “that did not end with an exclamation mark.”
Allen was, in maybe a passive aggressive way, fighting for equal treatment among those equally talented. The fans and media seemed ready to accept this. Baseball establishment wasn’t.
“Herein lies an attempt to clarify the walking dichotomy that was Dick Allen, a man who was introverted in the extreme but who spoke out frequently nonetheless” and was to baseball what perhaps Muhammad Ali was to boxing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was to basketball and Jim Brown was to football, according to author Roy Blount Jr.
On a personal note, I had a chance to talk for a long while with Allen in 2004 prior to his enshrinement in the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.
He signed my copy of “Crash” with the inscription: “Really nice talking with you .. enjoyed the interview .. best wishes and kindest regards. Sincerely, Dick Allen.”
Maybe sometime in 2018, we’ll do a follow up conversation, and many of the things in this book will come up again, regarding whether or not he cared about whether or not he made it to Cooperstown on this go-around.
Someday, that speech before the baseball immortals will be something to hear.