God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Mar 4, 2016 - Biography & Autobiography - 408 pages
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When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Dick Allen in 1960, fans of the franchise envisioned bearing witness to feats never before accomplished by a Phillies player. A half-century later, they're still trying to make sense of what they saw.

Carrying to the plate baseball's heaviest and loudest bat as well as the burden of being the club's first African American superstar, Allen found both hits and controversy with ease and regularity as he established himself as the premier individualist in a game that prided itself on conformity. As one of his managers observed, "I believe God Almighty hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen." A brutal pregame fight with teammate Frank Thomas, a dogged determination to be compensated on par with the game's elite, an insistence on living life on his own terms and not management's: what did it all mean? Journalists and fans alike took sides with ferocity, and they take sides still.

Despite talent that earned him Rookie of the Year and MVP honors as well as a reputation as one of his era's most feared power hitters, many remember Allen as one of the game's most destructive and divisive forces, while supporters insist that he is the best player not in the Hall of Fame. God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen explains why.

Mitchell Nathanson presents Allen's life against the backdrop of organized baseball's continuing desegregation process. Drawing out the larger generational and business shifts in the game, he shows how Allen's career exposed not only the racial double standard that had become entrenched in the wake of the game's integration a generation earlier but also the forces that were bent on preserving the status quo. In the process, God Almighty Hisself unveils the strange and maddening career of a man who somehow managed to fulfill and frustrate expectations all at once.

 

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Contents

Prologue Baseballs Way
1
The Individualist
9
The Double Standard
36
A Job Not a Game
53
What Fight?
72
Rules
92
Seniority Dont Drive in Runs
106
When I Dont Like Something I Rebel
134
Public Relations Men Not Ballplayers
204
Dick Not Richie
226
The System
251
The Return
275
No Apologies
293
Free Agent
314
Epilogue His Way
330
Notes
339

A Threat to the Game
156
I Am My Own Man
184

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Prologue
Baseball''s Way

"I wouldn''t say that I hate Whitey, but deep down in my heart, I just can''t stand Whitey''s ways, man." Dick Allen, in repose, at last, with a reporter of all people, spoke freely and held nothing back. A confluence of factors unburdened him for what seemed like the first time in years, maybe the first time ever, or at least since anybody outside of Wampum, Pennsylvania, had become aware of the bespectacled Superman with the seemingly never-ending litany of first names (Dick? Rich? Richie? Sleepy?). He was finally rid of both Philadelphia and the Phillies after six-plus years of torment on both sides of the equation, having settled tranquilly (although not wholly without incident) in St. Louis with the Cardinals, an organization known as much for its acceptance of its black ballplayers as its on-field success. He was now just one of the guys on a team replete with future Hall of Famers, such as Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Steve Carlton, and no longer the athletic fulcrum of an entire city. And he was rapping with a member of the black media for a change--speaking with someone who perhaps was more likely to understand who he was and where had been--someone who knew what it took to have to deal with those who assumed that the issue of equality had been solved years before with the abolition of "separate but equal" and the segregated lunch counters and water fountains that went with it. For a moment at least, Dick Allen was at peace.

The Ebony reporter tried to get it all down as Allen went on: "I get to reading those novels and things and get right mad." Here now a revelation--Dick Allen, the man reviled by so many in Philadelphia, the man thought by so many in the stands as well as a share of the media to be witless and clueless, saw truth in fiction, saw himself and all that he had been subjected to, in the characters and progression of a novel. "I just got through reading--what was it--[The] Greengage Affair, I think it was, about the life of a black cat who lived in Mississippi." Written by Linda Du Breuil, who would later be known as the Queen of Pornography for such sex-soaked paperbacks as The Teeny-Boffer, Peter Powers, and Sex on St. James Street (written under one of her many noms de plume, D. Barry Linder), The Greengage Affair was something else altogether--outside of a solitary (albeit simmering) sex scene, a meditation on race relations in both the Deep South as well as the supposedly more enlightened North.

Chronicling the emergence of black consciousness in Lex Morrow, the novel''s protagonist, The Greengage Affair resonated with Dick for its asides on the ugly truth of contemporary race relations, be they in the backwater of the fictional Greengage, Mississippi, the real-world Little Rock, Arkansas, where Dick endured a minor league trial by fire in 1963, or the large, allegedly progressive northern cities such as Detroit or even Philadelphia. "It''s a good book," Allen continued, sharing a thought that would no doubt get lost, get jumbled, get misconstrued by a different audience, "but, you see, all this type of stuff makes me mad. And then I''m really aware of Whitey, man, really aware of Whitey. Philly taught me that people can be the cruelest things in the world." Philly wasn''t Little Rock, but as Lex''s father explained in The Greengage Affair, that wasn''t saying all that much if you really thought about it: "Sure, they ain''t no signs up in the rest rooms, ain''t no WHITE LADIES tacked on the restroom door and COLORED WOMEN on the others but . . . they don''t need signs up here. We got Negro juke joints and Negro restaurants and Negro churches and Negro schools. Ain''t a bit of difference. Not when you get right down to the gritty end, they ain''t."

"In Philly," Dick remarked, "white barbers won''t even let you in their shops, and [then] whites were hollering from the stands, ''Get your hair cut!''" Confusion and mixed messages seemingly reigned throughout his tenure in the city, but eventually Dick became resigned to it: "Even if they gave me an opportunity to tell all of my side of the story, I wouldn''t take it because I just don''t trust the white press in general. There may be some exceptions, but I don''t trust the white press in general." And so he took a different path, one he saw reflected in The Greengage Affair. As Lex Morrow put it, "there''s a difference between [simply] wanting to get out of something and refusing to participate." A subtle, yet strongly defiant message is sent when the former route--perhaps the easier, clearer route--is forsaken for the latter. Something is said through the mere act of refusal that cannot be uttered otherwise, something that brings a measure of dignity to what might otherwise be a situation devoid of any. And so Dick Allen refused to participate, first in little ways and then in greater ones. And a message was delivered. And a message was, ultimately, received.

Through the course of his major league career, Dick Allen was without doubt recognized for doing a lot of things. He was the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player. His 351 home runs are more than those of Hall of Famer Ron Santo and trail those of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda by only 28 despite the fact that he accumulated nearly 1,400 fewer plate appearances than Cepeda. His three slugging titles dwarf the lone title claimed by the prototypical slugger of the era, Harmon Killebrew, and his lifetime .292 batting average tops Killebrew''s by 36 points. And for those who pray to the altar of sabermetrics, his "adjusted OPS+" is higher than that of the greatest slugger of all time, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Because of all that he did, the MLB Network in 2012 ranked him as a member of its "Top Ten Not in the Hall of Fame" (he placed ninth). However, despite all that he did, Dick Allen is remembered more often for the myriad ways he refused to participate: in pregame batting and fielding practice most obviously, but in other ways more subtly. He refused to pander to the media, refused to accept management''s time-honored methods for determining the value of a ballplayer, and, most explosively, refused to go along with and kowtow to the racial double standard that had evolved within Major League Baseball in the wake of the game''s integration in 1947.

Because of all that he did as well as all that he refused to do, Dick became one of the most controversial players in the history of a game replete with them. As Sports Illustrated summed him up in 1970, "He is known as a man who hits a baseball even harder than he hits the bottle. . . . Allen shakes the game''s Establishment and stirs up its followers as no other player can." Accordingly, nearly every baseball fan with an opinion had a strong one when it came to Dick Allen and today, many still do.

Throughout the arc of his productive yet strange and oftentimes maddening career, and in the decades thereafter, the debate over who was ultimately to blame for the controversy that seemingly followed him wherever he went raged on, and rages still. Was Dick the cause of his problems or merely misunderstood? Were they contrived by a media and fan base that resented what was perceived as his assertion of Black Power, or were they grounded in and simply the inevitable fallout from a player who just refused to be a team player in the most basic sense of the term? Who is responsible for the tragedy that was Dick Allen? For all of his talent, and despite how much his teammates seemed to like him wherever he went, who is to blame for the fact that no matter where his travels took him over the arc of his fifteen-year career--Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia again, and Oakland--disharmony, dissension, disagreement, and disruption invariably came along for the ride? Why is it that one of the most talented players of his generation was ranked by the preeminent baseball historian Bill James as not only the second most controversial player in baseball history (behind only Rogers Hornsby, an accused wife-beater, inveterate gambler, and all-around deadbeat who was continually dragged into court for his failure to pay his taxes and other debts) but someone who "did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball"? Good questions all.

Unfortunately, much of the reason why these questions have never been satisfactorily answered is because they''re the wrong ones. Instead, the foundational question raised by Dick Allen''s mercurial career is this: 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? Unquestionably, Dick both expected and demanded treatment that was not accorded to his teammates, but in so doing he was not alone; for decades, temperamental baseball superstars such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and others made similar demands, and, more often than not, their demands were met by a compliant media and public that were more than willing to ignore or explain away transgressions and repeated instances of bad behavior in their zeal to immortalize and purify their heroes. Despite the newly ravenous media that emerged in the 1960s, this pattern persisted, with players such as Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski likewise reaping the benefits of the game''s treatment of its luminaries irrespective of their personal foibles.

But with Dick Allen things were different. Yearning to be the beneficiary of the hallowed double standard accorded to the game''s superstar elite, Dick found himself instead the victim of another double standard, one that enforced a code of conduct upon the game''s black players, even black superstars, that

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