By Paul Hagen
He was a seven-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year, an AL MVP. His career OPS+ is 156. That’s tied for eighth-best all-time among right-handed hitters with Willie Mays and Frank Thomas. During his peak, from 1964 through 1974, he may well have been the best player in baseball.
“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen in my life … the smartest baseball man I’ve ever seen in my life,” Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage has said.
So, yeah, Dick Allen has the credentials to be inducted at Cooperstown. Somehow, though, that hasn’t happened.
Understand something: This hasn’t been a lifetime crusade, the arguments of a kid rooted in growing up admiring Allen from the bleachers. Rather, it’s a dawning realization from somebody who hadn’t really given the matter much thought until a group of true believers mounted a campaign to get the slugger nominated and elected by the Veterans Committee in 2014. The evidence they compiled was both impressive and persuasive. Somehow, though, he missed by one heartbreaking vote.
Which, at least, was a giant step forward from his 15 years of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot, when he never received more than 18.9 percent of the votes.
That lack of support is puzzling. Some of the apparent reasons are easily rebutted. Example: His 15-year career wasn’t long enough? Well, he played in more games than several Hall of Famers, including Joe DiMaggio and Kirby Puckett.
More likely, the real reason Allen has been excluded has to do with the perception that he was a troublemaker and a bad teammate.
That he broke in with the Phillies, the last National League team to integrate, can’t be ignored. He was Philadelphia’s first black superstar. He refused to tailor himself to fit the expectations of others. That individualism, which would soon become commonplace in society, was a little ahead of its time.
Certainly, he could be controversial. He preferred spending his afternoons at the race track rather than taking early batting practice. He got into a scuffle with a white teammate who, by all accounts, had baited him. He received death threats. Fans threw things from the stands. He responded by wearing a batting helmet in the field and writing “Boo” with his spikes in the infield dirt. The cycle escalated. He was eventually traded … and won the MVP for the White Sox in 1972.
There is a long list of baseball men willing to testify that Allen’s reputation for being a bad influence is simply wrong. His White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner, once called him the leader of the team.
“He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth,” Tanner added.
Said pitcher Stan Bahnsen: “He got along great with his teammates. He was the ultimate team guy.”
And, as always, actions speak louder than words. In 1975, the Phillies were on the verge of becoming the franchise that would make it to the postseason six of the next eight years beginning the following season. They wouldn’t have traded for a guy who was going to cause problems. They wouldn’t have acquired a player they knew from personal experience could upset team chemistry.
But they brought back Dick Allen.
Paul Hagen, who covered the Phillies as a beat reporter and columnist for 25 years, is now a columnist for MLB.com. In 2013 Hagen was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for more than 40 years of work as a baseball writer.