It was an amazing afternoon that was long overdue and the fervent hope is that they’ll be another long overdue amazing afternoon in Dick Allen’s not-too-distant future.
With his family, many of his closest friends and some of his former teammates in attendance Thursday at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies bestowed Allen with the ultimate tribute a franchise can pay a player by retiring his No. 15.
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It was done so at the urging of managing partner John Middleton, who as a vacationing child at the Jersey Shore in the 1960s idolized Allen while listening to his prodigious home runs on radio broadcasts and reading about them in The Inquirer.
“It was an emotional moment for me because he really was the first real superstar that I ever encountered in my life,” Middleton said.
Middleton, 65, was like most Philadelphia-area kids of that era. They did not see a Black man when they watched Allen step to the plate and launch baseballs over the roof at Connie Mack Stadium. They saw a superhero.
Had the entire city seen Allen through the eyes of children at the time, Allen probably never would have left Philadelphia amid racist scorn and misunderstanding. And surely his number would have been retired by the Phillies long, long ago.
But that’s not the way the story went. Allen became known as much for his controversies as he did for his power. He should have handled some things differently, but so should have the Phillies and the fans who taunted him with boos and by throwing things at him.
Like Scott Rolen more than three decades later, Allen grew tired of playing for a bad baseball team and made it clear he wanted out of Philadelphia. Many in the city still have not forgiven Rolen.
Allen’s wounds, on the other hand, healed long ago. That happened when he returned in 1975 at the urging of some of the young players who were themselves emerging as superstars. The greatest of them all, of course, was Mike Schmidt, who shared his own memories about Allen Thursday.
“I’ll never forget in 1975 when several us heard from – I think it was Richie Ashburn – that Dick, who had received his release from the White Sox, was out on his farm in Wampum and Richie said, ‘Hey, if the right things happen, Dick might consider coming back for a second round with the Phillies,’ " Schmidt said. “We were in one of those times when we needed some leadership and we thought maybe Dick could give us the leadership we need.
“Four of five us went out to the barn. He had a basketball hoop in the barn, we played some H-O-R-S-E. And all Dick wanted to know about was the team. Can they win? It wasn’t about himself or how he would fit in. He returned, and I’ll never forget this, his first at-bat after returning he walked up to home plate … and got a standing ovation that lasted almost 10 minutes. It was almost like the fans of Philadelphia were saying, ’We apologize for what happened to you back in the 60s.’ I got goosebumps on my arms just watching how the fans treated you when you came back to Philly.”
Allen, it turned out, was a leader in his return to the Phillies even though his skills as a player had faded.
Schmidt talked about a 1976 mid-April morning in Chicago when Allen decided that a slumping Schmidt needed to have more fun.
“He asked me to stay in the clubhouse,” Schmidt said. “He could see a frown on my face. I wasn’t smiling much and I wasn’t having any fun. He said, ‘Sit down here.’ He said, ‘Mike, you have to have some fun in this game. That’s what it is all about, having fun. You and I are going to have some fun today. When we go out on the field we’re going to look at each other, we’re going to laugh, we’re going to smile, we’re going to high five and between innings when we run out to our positions, I’m going to throw you some passes with the baseball and you can catch some touchdown passes.’ "
The punchline to that fun day in Chicago: Schmidt hit four home runs in an 18-16 Phillies win.
Allen smiled as Schmidt told the story. He was clearly having fun on this special day in his life. The tumultuous times he endured during the 1960s are nothing but a distant memory now.
He is a man at peace with his place in both Phillies history and baseball history. He said in his mind he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that matters most in 2014 when the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City added him to its “Hall of Game,” which honors the greatest Black players in baseball history.
That is a terrific honor, but the man also belongs in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Middleton and many others have recited the numbers that make an overwhelming case for Allen and Schmidt made an even more compelling argument for his former teammate.
“Dick Allen over a 10-year period could very easily have been the best player in the National League,” Schmidt said. “You had [Willie] Mays and [Hank] Aaron and if you compare his career lines to similar players of his era, most all are Hall of Famers. But you scratch your head and you say, ‘Something must be wrong here.’ And indeed it is.
“Dick, then Richie, broke into the Phillies in 1964. They were the last team to integrate in baseball. He became the star of the team and he was a sensitive Black man who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen. He played in front of home fans that were products of that racist era.
“He had racist teammates and there were different rules for whites and Blacks. Fans threw stuff on him. Thus, Dick donned the batting helmet throughout the ballgame. They yelled degrading racial slurs, they dumped trash in his front yard at his home. In general, he was tormented from all directions. And Dick rebelled. He became labeled as a bad teammate and a troublemaker. My friend, those labels have kept Dick Allen out of the Hall of Fame.”
Schmidt, through his words, had done what he and Allen did a combined 899 times during their careers. He had hit another home run.