How Dick Allen shows us little has changed in fifty years
On January 8, 1963, the International League announced expansion, including a new team in Little Rock, Arkansas. There were concerns about placing a Triple-A club in Little Rock, where just six years prior Governor Orval Faubus had called in the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the integration of the city’s Central High School. Gabe Paul, president and general manager of the Cleveland Indians, had claimed “he would not vote extra travel funds for Cleveland’s Jacksonville farm club until Faubus assured him that Negro players would be given the same treatment as white players in Little Rock,” according to the Associated Press (via the St. Petersburg Times).
Without Paul’s vote — and those travel funds — the International League would have been unable to complete its necessary expansion in the wake of the collapse of the American Association. But just days after making his doubts known, Paul recanted. He said commissioner Ford C. Frick assured him “our Negro players will receive equal treatment in Little Rock,” and, “We have advised [Frick] that we no longer have objections to our Jacksonville farm club playing in Little Rock in 1963.” Frick had made “the proper assurances,” Paul said. Faubus, when pressed about integrated baseball coming to Little Rock, refused comment.
In April of 1963, the Arkansas Travelers opened International League play in Little Rock. The starting left fielder was Dick Allen, a rising prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. At Class A Williamsport in 1962, as a 20-year-old, Allen hit .329/.409/.548 with 20 home runs in 132 games, and in spring training he led all Phillies — even the major leaguers — in home runs with nine. In 1960, the Phillies had given him a $70,000 bonus, then the largest signing bonus ever given to a black baseball player. He was a star in the making.
Some 7,000 fans attended the Travelers’ first game. Roughly 200 were black. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus threw out the first pitch as white fans picketed the stadium with signs reading, “Don’t Negro-ize Baseball,” and “Nigger Go Home.”
A year later, Arkansas Gazette sportswriter Orville Henry was enlisted by Sports Illustrated for a feature on Allen. Henry sent Sports Illustrated what is known as a “backgrounder” on Allen, a report to give the magazine a database from which to draw on for feature stories. Henry’s report painted a picture of Allen’s time in Little Rock. Henry’s claims included the following:
– Allen ranked as one of the all-time favorites at Little Rock and was treated in kind.
– His unhappiness in Little Rock stemmed from shyness and the difficult travel and playing conditions (and, thus, not racism).
Henry also included the following quote from Travelers manager Frank Lucchesi:
“[Allen] is not concerned about what town we’re in or what park, or what team we’re playing. He’s interested in Richie, and hitting. He’s not thinking about his fielding, or throwing, or team play. To tell the truth, he’s had no abuse at all.”
Allen doubled twice and singled in his opening at-bat. A July article in The Pittsburgh Press quoted Central High School principal Jess W. Matthews, who was in attendance for the game, as saying, “You could hear the grumbling in the stands” when Allen took his first plate appearance, “but he singled and the crowd let out a big cheer.”
And according to the article, titled “Little Rock Calm, Principal Says Here,” that was that. Allen saw things differently. In his autobiography, he recalled (Crash, p. 13):
“[Following the game] I wanted to be alone. I needed to sort it all out. I waited until the clubhouse cleared out before walking to the parking lot. when I got to my car, I found a note on the windshield. It said, “Don’t come back again, nigger.” I felt scared and alone, and, what’s worse, my car was the last one in the parking lot. There might be something more terrifying than being black and holding a note that says nigger in an empty parking lot in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1963. But if there is, it hasn’t crossed my path yet.”
Allen suffered through the full season at Little Rock. He lived in a separate part of town from his teammates, and he initially decided to leave his wife and kids at his home in Pennsylvania to spare them from the town’s racism.
He didn’t play as well as he did in Williamsport, but Allen still held his own at Little Rock. Not only was he dealing with horrible living conditions, but Allen was also among the league’s youngest regulars at 21 years old. Despite being five years younger than the league’s average age, Allen hit .289/.340/.550 with 33 home runs and 97 RBI, more than enough to earn a spot on the 1964 Phillies following a move to third base.
Once in Philadelphia, Allen’s time in Little Rock and the racism he faced were often treated less like a tragedy and more like a rite of passage or a character building event. During a rainy first game as a Phillie, Allen slipped repeatedly in the mud at third base and made what could have been two critical errors in a three-run game, but he was able to make up for them with a 2-for-3 day at the plate. In the Associated Press’s game story, the racism he faced at Little Rock was in part credited for his ability to recover from his mistakes in the field:
“Heck, if I could play at Little Rock there isn’t anything here that’s going to bother me,” said the youngster.
Allen, of course, referred to his season last year in the International League at Little Rock where he received everything from the boos and racial insults to threats against his life.
He responded by leading the Triple A League in home runs, triples, RBIs and total bases.
This narrative continued into August. From a United Press International feature on Allen calling the Rookie of the Year candidate the “Phillies’ Sparkplug:”
This was the kid who wanted to flee Little Rock in desperation when he sensed he wasn’t wanted. It took a heart-to-heart talk with Phils coach Peanuts Lowrey to point out Jackie Robinson had the same troubles, in a bigger way, in a much bigger league.
“Hit some home runs and make them cheer you,” Peanuts counseled, and Richie responded with 33.
Up in the Major Leagues, Richie has a sense of freedom from the cloud which marred his peace of mind at Little Rock. He’s freer and more accepted.
Looking back, he says simply, “I was scared. Now I’m just leanin’ on that pennant.”
The boy has grown up.
It was a convenient narrative for white sportswriters who needed to reconcile racism in baseball without implicating the powers that be or the fans of the game. That there was progress since Jackie Robinson or that Allen’s brushes with racism could be credited for building the character of the next black baseball star allowed white writers to justify the experience Allen had to suffer through in order to reach the major leagues.
But it turned out Philadelphia was capable of acts and threats just as terrible as those he endured in Little Rock. Allen received regular hate mail (often anonymous) and was called names on the field (Crash, pp. 58-60). His wife was chased through the streets of Philadelphia by a group of men driving a car with a confederate flag draped across the bumper. Allen eventually resorted to wearing a batting helmet in the outfield to protect himself from objects routinely hurled in his direction by the Philadelphia fans.
Allen’s response was to make it untenable for the Phillies to keep him around. He drank heavily. He turned to horseracing, one of his favorite hobbies outside of baseball. He would miss batting practices, team meetings, and eventually games and flights to road trips. It should come as no surprise Philadelphia’s fans turned on him hard — it was, after all, part of Allen’s plan. Writers turned on him hard, too. His struggles were not something they could identify with; they saw a man who failed to build character, who used racism as an excuse.
In a 1972 profile of Allen, Dave Nightingale of The Chicago Daily News wrote one of the few profiles of the time to showcase, as the story’s title put it, “The human side of Richie Allen.” The piece opens, “Richard Anthony Allen wasn’t wearing his horns.” Nightingale mentions later he was warned by a Philadelphia writer, “Don’t trust a word the SOB says… he’s an inveterate liar” (Baseball Digest, July 1972, “The Human Side of Richie Allen,” p. 18). To his credit, Nightingale was one of the few writers of the time willing to take Allen at his word.
In 1970, Jack Flowers, editor of The Palm Beach Post, suggested Allen’s anger at Little Rock and later Philadelphia stemmed not from racism, but from quibbles over a bonus payment. Flowers’s source was a white teammate of Allen’s on the 1963 Travelers, second baseman Bobby Malkmus.
“The Phillies had signed Allen three years before for a sizable bonus ($70,000), but part of that bonus was to be paid if Allen made it to Philadelphia in a pre-determined amount of time.” said Malkmus. “Well, Philadelphia called Richie up that season, but wound up sending him back down.”
“On one of our plane trips from Little Rock to play a game after Richie had come back we were sitting next to each other. He told me he thought he had that part of the bonus money coming to him, but that the Phillies were not going to give it to him.”
“Richie thought he was being short-changed. He told me then that every opportunity from then on out that he got that he was going to cause a lot of headaches for the Philadelphia management until they traded him,” said Malkmus.
What Malkmus says is plausible. Allen reiterated a desire to get the money he deserved in contract negotiations throughout his discussion of his time in Philadelphia in Crash, saying such things as “Dick Allen sets his own standards,” and, “In baseball, as in life, you’ve got to get what’s coming to you while you’re producing because the day you stop — it’s later, baby” (Crash, p. 63).
But Flowers used this quote to paint Allen as an immature and greedy man, unable to be controlled. He includes a quote from a Philadelphia publicist named Larry Shenk, which seems to capture a common attitude from the time (and which plainly serves as a proxy for the reporter’s own opinion): “Allen felt he was misjudged by the press for his off-the-field antics. No dobut he’s a great hitter, but it can’t be blamed entirely on the fans, press and front office for the way he acted while in Philadelphia.”
The attitude from Phil Musick, sports columnist at The Pittsburgh Press, was similar. Musick’s column comes from 1972, a response to hearing Allen was planning to write a book (later realized as Crash) detailing his side of the story:
Richie Allen’s book will probably be a best-seller, but it’s going to have a bad ending because he’ll want to rewrite the past a little and there’s no way. Those fun-loving Phillie fans spread garbage across his lawn and drove their cars over it, and Allen’s kids got beat up in school because everyone agreed their old man was a bum, and no one ever wondered if half his problems may have been caused by someone else, but no book is ever going to wash away the public’s impression of Richie Allen.
It was kind of sad listening to him talk about a book as if it would be a tool he could use to right what he conceives as wrongs done him by a town without pity. Unfortunately, guys who grow spots are forever leopards, their literary efforts notwithstanding.
In plain English, he deserved what he got.
On Feburary 9, 2014, just days away from the 50th anniversary of Allen’s first game in the big leagues, Oklahoma State University guard Marcus Smart shoved a fan of the home Texas Tech basketball team. Smart immediately claimed the fan, Jeff Orr, called him a racial slur. Smart was suspended three games. Orr admitted to remorse over “saying something I shouldn’t have” and “volunteered” not to attend any games for the rest of Texas Tech’s season.
As Tomas Rios wrote at Sports on Earth, the reaction across a significant section of college basketball media was that Smart had made a significant mistake, if not one fatal to his career. Smart was called a “renegade”, “out of control” and similar names or phrases that suggest he is less a person and more an object to be handled by his coach.
Much like fault was always redirected to Allen, who should have cleaned up his act, paternalistic white writers were quick to declare Smart’s actions wrong, that he was the one at fault for pushing Orr, and that he failed to do the right thing by walking away. These white writers, somehow, can know the right thing to do in such a situation when those who actually experience racism, who have actually experienced the pain of a racial slur, are so torn. Rios writes:
I still can’t tell you what Smart should have done. Being called a slur is something of an impossible situation. Take it silently and you can feel a bit of your humanity slipping away. Respond and, well, anything can happen, but none of it will be good. I’ve done both and can report that being called a slur, regardless of how one responds, only leaves you with a fury so deep that nothing short of time can keep it from overwhelming your every thought. It’s a brutal, jarring thing and conceptualizing a “proper” response unjustly puts the onus on the victim.
All I can tell you is that the victims of racism are increasingly tired of acting out the proper response to this.
Three managers went through Philadelphia before the Phillies finally traded Dick Allen. The last was George Myatt. When named Phillies manager, Myatt told the press, “I don’t think God Almighty Hisself could handle Richie Allen, so all I can do is try.” The next time Allen saw Myatt, he said, “George, you don’t ‘handle’ people, you treat them. Horses, you handle” (Crash, p. 80).
But for so much of the press, Allen was little more than something to be handled, or harnessed, or controlled. His greed, his ability, his lies — there was always something to reign in. It was enough of a burden on Allen that he threatened to quit multiple times, only to return when he realized the alternative was working in the cement mills of Wampum, Pennyslvania, his 1,000-person hometown.
Consider the black athletes between Allen and Smart who have dealt with the same treatment in the 50 years between their times on the national sports stage. Consider those who had transcendent talent, or could have developed into a transcendent talent, who gave up the dream because constantly being handled instead of treated wasn’t worth it. Consider those who gave up because they weren’t believed, or worse, were actively slandered, because white writers couldn’t reconcile accusations of racism with the purity they ascribe to the sports they cover. Consider the athletes who have been failed, consistently, by the leagues governing them and the press covering them.
It is easy and therefore tempting, in the case of a Marcus Smart or a Dick Allen or any other athlete dealing with racism in sport, to place the burden on the individual. It allows the system, and our place within the system, to avoid scrutiny. It allows us to avoid thinking about the nearly impossible task of repairing that system.
Sports have the potential to create unmatched moments of beauty. The pursuit of improvement and greatness through sports has proven one of the most universal human experiences throughout human history. But as long as our sporting institutions continue to fail athletes of color, as they repeatedly failed Dick Allen, and repeatedly failed athletes both before him and since, that beauty will be overshadowed by the incredibly long and ever-growing list of people our sporting institutions have left behind.