Mike Tollin was a reporter for his college radio station when he entered the Oakland A’s clubhouse in 1977. But in his heart, he was a Phillies fan from Havertown who fell in love with baseball during the star-crossed summer of 1964.
So Tollin, now an award-winning filmmaker, decided in the moment that he was going to approach Dick Allen, who was finishing his career with the A’s after winning over Tollin and a generation of Phillies fans a decade earlier.
Allen, then 35, was sitting with a younger teammate and nursing a post-game beer when Tollin shoved a microphone in his face.
“I asked him some silly question,” said Tollin, who spoke Friday at Citizens Bank Park as the Phillies retired Allen’s No. 15. “And instead of answering it, he started reciting statistics from a recent horse race. Got what I deserved. But I was crushed.”
Tollin left the clubhouse and regrouped. If you don’t like the way the story ends, he said, you have to figure out how to write a different chapter. He untucked his shirt, ditched the tape recorder, removed his jacket, messed up his hair, and entered the clubhouse through another door.
“Take two,” Tollin said. “‘Dick, my name is Mike Tollin, and I’m from Philadelphia, and I just wanted to say hello.’
“‘Oh, you’re from Philly. Sit down. Have a beer. We need to talk.’”
And that is how a four-decade friendship between a fan and his idol began. Tollin, who was the executive producer of this year’s critically acclaimed Chicago Bulls documentary series The Last Dance, is working on a documentary about Allen.
In 2001, Tollin casted Allen in Summer Catch, a baseball movie Tollin directed and produced, as a Phillies scout. This time, Allen won’t be playing a role.
Tollin has interviewed Hall of Famers such as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, who said Allen should join them in Cooperstown. The documentary could be finished next year, when Allen will learn whether he is finally a Hall of Famer. Tollin’s work will only help Allen’s chances.
“I’ve watched and listened as media and analytics gurus make a compelling case that Dick Allen belongs in Cooperstown. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree,” Tollin said. “But today, Dick Allen belongs right here in Philadelphia in our hearts. In a baseball sense, we raised him. We watched him grow up and grew up with him. Today, finally, we celebrate him and we honor him.”
Tollin adored Allen in the 1960s for the way he walked to home plate and how his No. 15 looked on the back of his baggy uniform. There was no DVR, so Tollin would tell his mom he’d have to watch Allen’s next at-bat before coming when she called. There was always a chance Allen would send a homer over the Coca-Cola sign at Connie Mack Stadium.
But being a fan of Allen was complicated. Allen won the rookie-of-the-year award in 1964 and was gone five years later.
“For the wolves of the Philly sports media landscape at the time – and I use that term with all due affection – Richie’s cool was interpreted as aloof, sullen, even militant,” Tollin said. “This was at a time when the writers were fueling the fires in a racially polarized city at the time when there was great unrest in the streets of Philadelphia, not unlike the summer of 2020. This was a time before our collective consciousness was raised, before we really understood the historical context and acknowledged the forces of racism at work. So, the greatest Phillies player in a generation was booed unmercifully by his own fans.”
The Phillies retired Allen’s number 57 years to the day that he made his major-league debut. When the ceremony was planned last month, the Hall of Fame still planned to decide on Allen’s election later this year. But that vote has been delayed by a year, due to the pandemic. Allen will have to wait.
If the documentary is released next year, it would be perfect timing. Perhaps the voices Tollin has gathered could be enough to sway any voters who are on the fence. Maybe the fan could help his idol reach Cooperstown. And it all started because he decided to write another chapter.
“Through it all, I realized the huge disparities between the myth and the man,” Tollin said. “For instance, people always say Dick Allen is a clubhouse cancer. How about we ask some of the people who shared those clubhouses? Maybe Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage. They’ll tell you what a great teammate he was, what a student of the game he was, how much they learned from him, and how much fun he was to be around.”
Tollin added: “Militant. Remember that? I can sit here and tell you that I’ve never met a man with more peace in his heart. Sullen? This is a man with a sunny disposition. He survived cancer, and he’s grateful for every day of his life that God gave him. Selfish? Self-centered? I’ve never had a friend more compassionate and generous. Independent? Oh yeah, now we’re talking. Fiercely, fiercely independent, which I believe is the way he was able to survive in a world that just never knew quite what to make of Dick Allen.”