Heroes don’t age. So it was sobering to be reminded that when Dick Allen died on Monday, he was 78.
How could he be just seven years older than me? When I was a pimply-faced Phillies fan and Allen my pinstriped deity, our age gap seemed wide as the green expanse that separated Connie Mack Stadium’s foul poles.
Through the years, as with a generation of Philadelphia sports fans, Allen has occupied a sacred perch in my head. Why have those memories remained intensely vivid when so many others have faded?
Maybe it’s because his Phillies debut on Sept. 3, 1963, came only 80 days before the Kennedy assassination, just as the world was changing and a postwar generation was coming of age. Maybe it’s because we followed him primarily on radio, where his tape-measure blasts were confined only by our imaginations. Or maybe it’s because Allen embodied the free-spirited, anti-authority attitude that came to dominate the 1960s.
Soon after the news hit Monday, condolence texts began arriving from friends and relatives aware of my longstanding affection for the sleepy-eyed Phillies slugger. And my devotion wasn’t unique. Facebook and Twitter quickly filled with heartfelt recollections from baby boomers he had similarly entranced.
Some remembered the baseballs his 42-ounce bat launched into the North Philadelphia darkness. Some lamented his Hall of Fame exclusion. Others noted the racism this rare talent endured, the controversies that continually dogged him, his 1969 escape from Philadelphia and triumphant return six years later.
There were stories about chance encounters with Allen, often at a race track or bar; about witnessing one of his epic home runs; about the 45-rpm record -- with its misspelled title, “Echo’s of November” – that Allen made with his doo-wop group, the Ebonistics; about his infamous pregame fight with Frank Thomas.
For me, Allen’s passing summoned a muggy Sunday afternoon more than a half-century ago. I’ve been a sportswriter for many of my 71 years and a sports fan for all of them. But only once have I sought an autograph.
Many my age were mesmerized by Allen from the moment he appeared as a September call-up toward the end of the Phils’ surprisingly promising 1963 season. Young, black, and preternaturally cool, he was so different from the Phillies we’d known. His bat was Bunyanesque, his physique Greek, his power unlimited. Yet as much as we loved him, he defied our understanding.
A rare combination of myth and mystery, he also was, like Muhammad Ali, a polarizing figure. On one side of the 1960s divide, he was adored. On the other, he was despised. Teammates loved him, but his booing critics insisted Allen was a troublemaker.
According to Mitchell Nathanson, a Villanova law professor who examined it all while researching his Allen biography, “God Almighty Hisself,” the critics were wrong.
“For all the times I’d heard that Allen was this or that, I never came across a single person who actually knew him who didn’t express some measure of either love or admiration for him,” Nathanson said. “People say he was misunderstood, but he was always very clear as to what he was saying. It was just that too many people weren’t ready to listen.”
None of that concerned me on July 17, 1966, when, after working a doubleheader as a Connie Mack vendor, I waited for Allen with a pen and a sheet of notepaper in a dank ballpark corridor that smelled of popcorn and beer. I’d kept my vendor’s uniform on, thinking that cheap and cheesy outfit might help me establish some sort of comradeship with the baseball superstar.
Since I’d been employed there throughout the spring and summer, I’m not sure why I chose that day to approach Allen. In the midst of his best season (40 HR, 110 RBI, a 1.027 OPS in 141 games), he’d gone a mundane 2-for-7 with a pair of singles as the Phils and Dodgers split the two games.
One Phillie after another passed by – Bobby Wine, Johnny Briggs, Roger Craig, Tony Taylor. My resolve weakened as my father, who sold programs at a front-entrance kiosk and was eager to get home, grew increasingly impatient.
Finally, gliding alongside first baseman and future National League president Bill White, Allen emerged, as cool off the field as on it. A filtered cigarette dangled from his lips. And in each of his massive hands, he clutched a giant cup of beer.
“Mr. Allen,” I said, stepping into their path, “can I have your autograph?”
He glanced at me, then at the beers. After finding a spot to rest the cups, he took the pen and paper from my hands and, using a steel pillar for support, quickly signed his name.
“There you go, son,” he said, scooping up the beers as he moved toward the distant shadows.
I folded that precious paper and placed it into a wallet that had not been substantially fattened by 18 innings of hawking Cokes and 7UPs. It stayed there for decades, blue-inked proof of my encounter with a god.
Twenty-six years later, I was The Inquirer’s Phillies beat writer. One morning in Clearwater I spotted Allen alone in a dugout. Dressed in an old sweatshirt and sneakers, with a tarnished gold chain around his neck, he looked forlorn, mortal. I moved alongside him, put my notebook away, introduced myself, and recounted our first meeting.
He probably heard a dozen similar stories from a dozen other middle-aged men that day, but he smiled politely at mine.
Then I reached for my wallet and showed him the badly deteriorated autograph. Surprisingly, he perked up. He grabbed that old sheet of paper, held it up in the Florida sunlight, and, as if searching for something he’d lost, examined it closely. After a few seconds, he carefully returned it.
“Long time ago, son,” my idol said as he rose from the bench. “Long time ago.”