50 years on, the Dick Allen-Frank Thomas fight still resonates
At 73, Dick Allen finally looked his age. Representing the Phillies at a June public event, it was clear the Wampum Walloper's sinewy body was softening at last. The sweatpants he inexplicably wore revealed a slight belly. His hair, now white as a fresh home uniform, resembled Don King's. And though a pair of Jackie O-sized sunglasses obscured much of his face, they couldn't hide the weariness.
At 73, Dick Allen finally looked his age.
Representing the Phillies at a June public event, it was clear the Wampum Walloper's sinewy body was softening at last. The sweatpants he inexplicably wore revealed a slight belly. His hair, now white as a fresh home uniform, resembled Don King's. And though a pair of Jackie O-sized sunglasses obscured much of his face, they couldn't hide the weariness.
It seemed that all the "what ifs", which 46 years after he left the Phillies following the 1969 season, still cling like sinkers to his legacy, had become too much to bear.
What if he'd taken better care of those awesome physical gifts? What if he'd played beyond 35? What if he'd been able to tame his rebellious spirit? And, heaviest of all, what if he'd never fought with Frank Thomas?
If not for that batting-cage scuffle 50 years ago today - July 3, 1965 - there might be no "what ifs". Allen might have played out his career peacefully and historically in Philadelphia and ended up a Hall of Famer, an honor he missed by a single Golden Era Committee vote in December.
It did occur, of course. And the impacts of that flare-up on Allen and the Phillies were swift, powerful and lasting.
While Thomas was viewed as a martyr, Allen became the villain. He never shook the troublemaker label it earned him. Many Philadelphians, in that racially tense summer, turned against the young black superstar. It set the Phillies on course for another decade of bad baseball. And, in the long run, it has likely kept Allen out of Cooperstown.
It took four more years before a then-miserable Allen was traded. Afterward, despite winning the American League's 1972 MVP Award, he bounced from team to team, including a second stint with the Phillies in 1975-76. In 1977, at 35, he was through.
Though truncated by injuries and often-mysterious absences, his career numbers of .292, 351 homers and 1,119 RBIs cause many Sabremetricians to rate Allen baseball's best player between 1964-73, a talent-rich era when pitching dominated.
Yet in the 15 years he was on the regular Hall ballot, he never got more than 18.9 percent of the votes.
In retirement, Allen's house and horse stables burned, divorce stripped him of his last assets, and influential stats guru Bill James ranked him as baseball's second-most controversial player ever (behind Rogers Hornsby).
As always, the Wampum, Pa., native prefers the shadows now, emerging only infrequently, usually for some function with the Phillies, whose front-office directory lists him as a community representative.
Yet his talents were so compelling, his personality so enigmatic that a half-century later it's impossible not to look back on that Saturday night fight in North Philadelphia and wonder, "What if?".
"He had a great career," Larry Bowa, who played with Allen when the latter returned here in 1975, said in 2001. "But to hear people talk, it's like the [Thomas] fight was its highlight."
Mike Tollin, a Philadelphia-born filmmaker, has been working on an Allen documentary for years. Between 2009 and 2011, he interviewed players and sportswriters about the Thomas fight, interviews the Inquirer has obtained. While they don't alter the incident's basic facts, they do provide more detail.
Allen, a 23-year-old in his second Phillies season, was leading the league that night with a .341 average and had been named an all-star starter. His 40-35 Phillies were 41/2 games out of first, 21/2 behind second-place Cincinnati.
On that holiday eve, 25,112 fans packed Connie Mack Stadium. Neither they nor the half-dozen newspaper writers, then in manager Gene Mauch's office, would see what happened near the Phillies batting cage at about 5:30 p.m.
Thomas, nicknamed "Donkey" or "Lurch", the latter a reference to "The Addams Family" butler, was a power-hitting first baseman. He was also a first-class needler.
The late Daily News columnist Stan Hochman, then the Phillies beat writer, told Tollin that Thomas enjoyed his reputation.
"He said, 'I was always a big needler and I like to needle the guys who can't take it,' " Hochman recalled. "And I said, 'Was he [Allen] one of the guys that couldn't take it?' And he said yeah."
According to another deceased Daily News writer, Bill Conlin, the fight had its origins a week earlier when, exiting their West Coast hotel rooms, Thomas jokingly asked Allen, "Hey, boy, can you carry my bags to the lobby?"
In a 4-3 Phillies victory the night before the fight, Thomas failed to get down a crucial bunt. During BP on July 3, when he laid down a mandatory bunt, either Allen or Johnny Callison shouted, "Twenty-four hours too late, Lurch!"
Thomas responded with a comment aimed at Allen. He claims he said, "You're running your mouth like Cassius Clay," but others insist he said either "Muhammad Clay" or "Malcolm X".
Further words were exchanged. Thomas contends Allen sucker-punched him, a charge the latter denies. Thomas swung his bat, striking Allen in the right shoulder. Separating the two, shortstop Ruben Amaro was hit with a stray punch.
"He said some things I didn't like and not knowing what I know now, being young, I hit him," Allen told Tollin. "But I had to. I did what I had to do."
Learning of the incident, Mauch threatened his players with $1,000 fines - double for Allen - if they talked to the writers.
In the 10-8 Phils loss that followed, Allen went 3 for 4 with 4 RBIs while Thomas hit an eighth-inning pinch homer that briefly tied the game.
Afterward, as he was shaving, Thomas saw Mauch moving toward him.
"I see him coming through the mirror," Thomas, 85 now, told Tollin, "and he takes me upstairs to the trainer's room and he says, 'We just put you on irrevocable waivers.' I said to him, 'Gene, if you're doing that to me, you're being very unfair.' He said. 'You're 35 and he's 23.' And that was the extent of the conversation."
A key contributor in 1964 before breaking his thumb, Thomas was well-liked by fans, a popularity enhanced by frequent appearances on a WFIL-AM radio morning show.
When writers, curious about Thomas' release, learned what happened, a few blamed Allen. The Phillies stayed silent, even as the animosity directed at their best player grew.
"[The Phils let] 2 million people come up with their own version of what happened," Conlin told the filmmaker. "It was a catastrophic event in Allen's career and in the history of the ball club."
What inflamed the reaction was the fact that the city was still coming to grips with the racial riots that struck North Philadelphia in 1964. Many whites instinctively sided with Thomas.
Before he left town for Houston, Thomas went on the radio and said Allen should have been punished too.
"Richie Allen could have been the greatest player that ever played the game," he told Tollin. "The incident that happened . . . was just an unfortunate thing. You know if you were going to punish one, you've got to punish the other, too."
Allen began to be booed loudly, treatment that intensified as the '65 Phils fell out of contention.
"The fans of Philadelphia crucified him because they liked me," Thomas said.
The catcalls soon turned to death threats, via mail and phone. When fans began throwing things at him in left field - the injured shoulder made playing third difficult - Allen began to wear a helmet in the field.
"From that point on, things escalated," Allen said. "I was booed like hell and it never stopped."
Finally in 1969, with his behavior growing more erratic and the Phillies' record worsening, he was traded.
"I don't think there's any question the Thomas affair was a turning point in Allen's career," Larry Merchant, then a Daily News columnist, told Tollin. "It revealed some sensitivities in him that perhaps he was able to mask. When you hit home runs, it takes care of everything. But nobody hits home runs every day. When the difficulties came, he really didn't know how to cope."