Dick Allen had a big personality, a big mouth, and a bat big enough to back it all up.
The MLB veteran, who died Monday at 78 years old, played for six teams from 1963 to 1977. He finished with a .292 career batting average, 351 homers and 1,119 RBI. He was a seven-time All Star whose best years came with the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he won the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year Award, and Chicago White Sox, where was named American League MVP in 1972. On his merits, he should probably be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that sort of voting isn’t always done on merit, especially where outspoken black players are concerned.
And for all the dingers and awards, Allen was reliably as likely to make news with his words as with his swing. His reputation for mouthiness was mostly fed by columnists with ancient axes to grind, but found its most memorable expression in his mid-1960s campaign against Astroturf, the then-newfangled plastic surface installed at the Houston Astrodome, after the owners of MLB’s first indoor stadium realized grass wouldn’t grow there. Players knew the plastic stuff being pitched as the future of sports was far more dangerous to their health than the real thing they’d always played on. But Allen, unlike his peers, didn’t keep his thoughts to himself.
“If a horse can’t eat it,” he said, “I don’t want to play on it.” (Allen knew exactly what horses fed on: He and his brother, fellow former MLB player Hank Allen, owned and trained stables of thoroughbreds during and after their baseball careers.)
His turf line now seems jocular, but this was at a time when anything but stoicism from black athletes, let alone a large and confident black man playing in a city that had never had a famous black player before, could be considered radical and career threatening. Allen also spoke out about salary inequities and racism in society and even his own clubhouse: A profile in The Undefeated recounted Allen’s brawl with Phillies teammate Frank Thomas after slurs were hurled his way during batting practice.
In a 1972 profile in Sports Illustrated, Allen was hailed as “the first black man, and indeed the only contemporary man of any color, to assert himself in baseball with something like the unaccommodating force of Muhammad Ali in boxing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in basketball and Jim Brown in football.”
The same SI piece contained a simple explanation of why Allen could tell it like it is: “Allen once hit five center-field home runs in five days, the shortest of which went 430 feet. He has hit home runs estimated at up to 600 feet. Off-balance, he once hit a low changeup 500 feet.”
Allen’s death comes just as the Hall of Fame election that had evaded him for so long seemed to be back in play. He’d come up just one vote short of induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014. But in Philadelphia, where back in the day the locals hurled racial insults and even rocks at him for speaking out, fans and the Phillies organization mounted campaigns this year that called attention to his importance to the game. The team retired Allen’s jersey in a ceremony at Citizens Bank Park in September 2020, 43 years after he left the game. And last month, Philly superfan Mark Carfagno bought space on a billboard on Interstate 76 near the stadium for pushing the slogan “Dick Allen Belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Those events were designed to help get Allen over the HOF hump. Another vote on his candidacy was set to take place this month, and given the recent spate of publicity this would have been wondrous timing for Allen. But right around the time his retirement ceremony was announced by the Phillies, MLB disclosed a decision to postpone the next HOF poll of the so-called Golden Days Committee, the body now considering Allen’s eligibility, until 2021. The move was attributed to COVID concerns.
Another sign that Allen’s accomplishments outlived his controversies: Upon his death, two of America’s biggest baseball cities claimed the star as their own upon. The Chicago Tribune obit was headlined, “Chicago White Sox Legend Dies At 78,” while the Philly CBS affiliate’s appreciation ran under “Philadelphia Phillies Legend Dick Allen Dies at 78.” It’s not the Hall of Fame, but that’s a pretty nice way to go out.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Dick Allen won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1962. He won the award in 1964.