PHILS INSIDER

How one man recognized Dick Allen's greatness and did something (special) about it

PHILS INSIDER

The retirement of Dick Allen's jersey number 15 by the Phillies on Thursday afternoon was as much a testament to Allen's determination and inner fortitude as it was his greatness on the baseball field.

Allen spoke only briefly during a moving ceremony beyond the outfield wall at Citizens Bank Park, but he clearly conveyed the pain — and ultimately the triumph — that he felt in a baseball journey that in its early days took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, then home of the Phillies' Triple A club, in 1963.

Allen, born and raised in western Pennsylvania, was confronted by harsh racism that year. He recalled phoning his mother and telling her that he'd had enough, he was coming home.

Era Allen wouldn't hear of it.

"God gave you talent and a place to show it," she told her 22-year-old son. "Don't let them drive you out."

Allen made it to Philadelphia later that year and became the National League rookie of the year in 1964, but the sting of racism never went away. In fact, it followed him to Philadelphia. He fought back and acted out against it and in 1969 was run out of town, labeled as militant, rebellious and insubordinate.

Allen's career continued to flourish in other cities. He won the American League MVP award with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 and made it back to Philadelphia, mellowed and more mature, in 1975. He mentored young stars like Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski. All were at Thursday's ceremony, beaming with happiness.

 

"The city of Philadelphia," Allen said. "Even though it was rough at times, I made some friends along the way."

Phillies managing partner John Middleton is one of those friends. At least now he is. Back in 1964, Middleton was a kid riding around on his bike with a transistor radio dangling from the handlebars. As a youngster, Middleton was captivated by Allen's mammoth home run blasts at Connie Mack Stadium and couldn't bear to miss one of his favorite player's at-bats.

"I remember it was the first time I'd ever heard someone described as a phenom," Middleton said Thursday. "Dick helped turn my fandom into a passion."

Middleton recalled his youth and how a bunch of white kids from suburban Philadelphia would choose up sides to play Wiffle Ball.

"Everyone wanted to be Dick Allen," he said. "So there would be one Dick Allen on each team.

"For us, it had nothing to do with race. It was all about talent and we all wanted to be just like Dick Allen."

Middleton was the driving force behind retiring Allen's No. 15.

"I've been anticipating this moment for over 50 years," he said. "The whole experience is surreal. It's special."

Middleton went on to recite so many of the statistics we've heard for years, how, in an era of dominant pitching, Allen was one of the most feared sluggers in the game, standing right there with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. In an 11-year period from 1964 to 1974, Allen averaged 29 homers and 89 RBIs while hitting .299 with a .940 OPS. Only Aaron's .941 OPS was better over that span. Allen slugged .554 from 1964 to 1974, second only to Aaron's .561. Only Billy Williams, another Hall of Famer, and Aaron had more extra-base hits than Allen's 670 in that 11-year run.

Allen posted better numbers than many of his contemporaries who were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Allen, however, never received more than 18.9 percent of the necessary 75 percent for election to the Hall by the writers. He fell off the ballot in 1997.

Allen's Hall of Fame candidacy during his time on the writers' ballot was clearly impacted by some of the off-field baggage he'd accumulated as a player, much of it unfair, much of it hearsay, none of it weighed against the society in which he played and the injustices he encountered.

But time and new, more empathetic perspectives have softened the wide-angle view of Allen.

"Dick's numbers would have been even more extraordinary had he played in a better environment," Middleton said. "Some of the conditions he played in and lived with off the field were truly horrific."

Allen, 78, is widely considered the one player who should be in the Hall of Fame but isn't. That almost changed in 2014 when he was considered for election by the Golden Days committee, a panel that considers those who played from 1950 to 1969. Allen fell one vote shy of the necessary 12 for election that year. He was to be considered when the panel convened again this December, but the vote has been pushed back a year because of the pandemic.

 

Schmidt, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has been vocal in his support of Allen's Hall of Fame worthiness.

"He deserves to be in," Schmidt said.

Middleton concurs and is hopeful that the retirement of Allen's number 15 by the Phillies will encourage those who vote on the Golden Days committee to take a longer, more nuanced look at the slugger's candidacy.

But increasing Allen's chances of being immortalized in Cooperstown was not the reason Middleton wanted to retire Allen's number.

Nor was the racial awareness of today.

This was no PR move.

This was about doing what's right.

"You richly deserve this, Dick," Middleton told Allen. 

Later, Middleton said, "What we did today is about Dick's performance. It's not tied to anything other than Dick's ability and his performance."

For years, the Phillies had a policy of retiring the numbers of only players in the Hall of Fame. Turns out, it was a pretty flimsy policy. Richie Ashburn's No. 1, for instance, was retired many years before he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Middleton, who took over control of the Phillies in 2015, had long thought about the team's "policy" on retired numbers, especially as it related to his boyhood idol. He decided that it wasn't right and needed to be changed.

But before No. 15 went up on the wall with a cast of Hall of Famers, Middleton reached out to two of them, Schmidt and Steve Carlton, to gauge their thoughts. He wanted to make sure they felt their legacies as Phillies greats would be intact if a player not in the Hall of Fame had his number retired.

Middleton heard all he needed to from Schmidt and Carlton.

"They were completely supportive," he said. "They saw Dick as their peer."

Schmidt was actually the guy who pulled down the cloth to reveal Allen's number 15 on the brick wall beyond the centerfield wall at the end of Thursday's ceremony.

It was quite moving.

"As long as there's baseball in Philadelphia, you'll be one of its legends," Schmidt told Allen.

Now that Middleton has defined the team policy on retired numbers to include players not in the Hall of Fame, the focus shifts to Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, three franchise greats from the championship run of 2007 to 2011. All three are retired and their numbers — 11, 26 and 6, respectively — remain on ice, awaiting the possibility of the honor.

Middleton said nothing is on the horizon for retiring any other numbers. Nothing has even been discussed.

"Greatness takes time to appreciate," Middleton said, 56 years after Dick Allen ignited his love for baseball. "We'll have to see how it plays out."

Middleton appeared uncomfortable talking about anyone other than the honored guest on Thursday. This was Dick Allen's day and nothing would detract from that.

"Just like when I was a little boy, you still evoke awe and wonder in me, Dick," Middleton said. "You richly deserve this."