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WSI News - Sox Interviews

 

Dick Allen:
Another View

By Craig R. Wright
as originally published by SABR magazine.
  

 Back to 3. St. Louis & L.A.

The White Sox Years

Allen failed to report for spring training and contemplated retiring rather than entering what he feared would be a similar situation to his final years in Philadelphia. He did not want to be on a weak team where the focus would be so totally on him as to whether the team was a success or a failure.

Allen told me a story that I don't believe has ever appeared in print before. Dick actually was there at the start of spring training, watching the team incognito for a couple days from beyond the center field fence. He wanted to see for himself how weak the team was. Roland Hemond confirmed this to some extent, remembering a rumor, "that Dick was in town watching the team." Allen was discouraged by what he saw and went home with the intent of retiring. Ultimately it was his mother who convinced him to give it a try, to help out manager Chuck Tanner who had grown up as a neighbor of theirs.

That year Allen was a major factor in turning the sub-.500 team into a surprise contender. With Tommy John gone, their staff ERA rose 39 points relative to the league, but the difference in adding Allen to their offense was immense. His 37 HRs set a franchise record, and his 113 RBIs led the league. The Sox finished 2nd, just 5 1/2 games behind the powerhouse Oakland A's.

White Sox GM, Roland Hemond:

"He came in with a tremendous amount of respect from our players. And that was always there. He was a very analytical player with a great memory for past situations. A smart player, an outstanding base runner. I'll never forget him, and I'll always be grateful to him. He gave us great years; he made it fun. He revitalized baseball in Chicago [for the Sox]. Attendance had been down for years. You know we had experimented with playing a few games up in Milwaukee [1968-69]. Dick got them out to the ballpark again. He had a tremendous impact on our attendance."

Compared to the average attendance in the seasons before and after Dick's time with the Sox, the average yearly attendance was up over 50% during Allen's 3 years!

White Sox Manager, Chuck Tanner:

"He was the greatest player I ever managed, and what he did for us in Chicago was amazing. In Pittsburgh I had guys like Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Phil Garner, Bill Madlock, but in Chicago it was Dick Allen and, what, Bill Melton? There just wasn't a lot of talent there. With Dick -- well, we were able to battle the Oakland A's, one of the greatest teams ever. Without him we simply weren't a first division team. They talk about his hitting, but I want to tell you that in 19 years in the majors, the two best base runners I ever saw were Don Baylor and Dick Allen. They ran aggressively and never made a mistake. Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth."

What Baseball Digest described as "A  New Murderers' Row!  Carlos May, Bill Melton, and Dick Allen pose for this 1972 Sox scorecard--autographed by all three!

When I asked Roland whether the team ever divided into pro-Allen and anti-Allen groups, he said, "No, there was none of that." When I asked Tanner, he was astounded at the question. I explained why I was asking, and I read to him Bill James' criticism of Allen as a disruptive presence on a team. Tanner said, "He's full of shit, and you be sure to tell him that."

In Dick's second year with the Sox, they were just 1 game out of first place when Allen broke his leg in a collision at first base. Dick was hitting .310 and second in HRs. He had only 5 ABs the rest of the year. Without Allen, the team played only .430 ball and dropped to 5th place.

It was not a displaced fracture (cracked fibula), and some critics expressed doubts about the severity of the injury being enough to knock Allen out for virtually the rest of the year.

I asked Roland to respond to that. "What may have thrown people is that the doctor felt that a cast wasn't necessary, that he could simply stay off the leg while it healed. So, Dick was on crutches, but then at the All-Star game, he was there in the seats with his son, and when the team was announced, he climbed over the rail -- leaving his crutches behind -- and walked out there to stand on the line with the other players in his civilian clothes."

Barely a month later, Allen tried to play on the leg. On July 31, he went 3 for 4, but he had no power, and he had a noticeable limp running to first base. He had a hitless pinch-hit at-bat on August 2nd and never played again in 1973.

"The leg wasn't healed. The doctor knew it, but Dick wanted to try. He was trying to help the team, but we saw he couldn't do it, and playing wasn't going to help it heal. His teammates appreciated the effort, but some people in the press may not have understood. He seemed indestructible to them."

I also asked Roland whether the leg was ready in September when the team was out of contention, and whether they had kept Allen back for any reason. Hemond said, "No, it still wasn't healed yet." Chuck Tanner backed up Hemond's memories:

"He played hurt for us so many times that they [the media] thought he was superman.  But he wasn't; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon."

In 1974, Allen was having another superb year. After the game of August 20th, Dick's average stood at .310; he had a huge lead in the HR race and was slugging roughly 100 points higher than anyone else in the league. But his shoulder had been bothering him, and the pain expanded into his back. He continued to play for about three weeks but hit only .214 in that period, and, more alarming, all his hits were singles. On September 13th, Dick Allen announced his retirement.

The outrageous, callous, and cynical comments about Dick's motivation are what originally spurred me to do this article. The Allen profile in Total Baseball trips over itself with a ton of inaccuracies, but none are so wild as the contention that "[Allen] miffed [Tanner by] taking the last month of the season off to go tend his prize horses." Bill James doesn't do much better in his essay where he claims that Allen "`voluntarily retired' to force a trade." That distinctly contradicts what Allen told me in 1982, and I quizzed both Hemond and Tanner carefully on this point.

This is Hemond's account: "He talked to us a few days before he did it. September 11th? He had a meeting with Chuck and me. He was very sincere about retiring. I knew he was having some physical problems, but I told him, "Oh no, Dick, you don't want to retire," but he said it was what he wanted, he wanted to hang'em up. It was a very emotional meeting; we all had tears in our eyes. I talked him out of retiring [officially]. I told him that if he did that and changed his mind later, he would be ineligible to play for the first 42 days of the season. Let us put you on the restricted list, and that's what we did."

Just to be sure on this point, I asked Roland again if Allen had ever expressed an interest in being traded when he discussed his retirement. He replied: "Absolutely not, there was none of that. He was very sincere about retiring."

Tanner confirmed Roland's account of the emotional meeting two days ahead of Allen's announcement, agreed that Dick made no mention of a desire to be traded, and confirmed that Hemond had talked Allen out of filing the official retirement papers. I asked Tanner if he knew what prompted Dick's retirement:

"I really don't know for sure. I know he was hurting physically. I told him not to retire, to just let me sit him down, that I'd protect him. But he said he couldn't do that. I knew he was feeling a lot of pressure. The day after [announcing his retirement], when he came in to say goodbye, he told me he felt good, that it was like a piano was lifted off his head."

In December, Atlanta acquired Dick's contract on the chance that he might come out of retirement. I asked Tanner whether he would have taken Allen back if Chicago had retained his contract:

"You better believe it. I'd have carried him on my shoulders. But we knew that would have been a tough situation, and he really needed a fresh start. I always had a place for him if it could be worked out. I tried to get him to come out of retirement in 1979 and join us in Pittsburgh. I would have loved to have him coming off the bench, and he would have been a World Champion with us."

The role of Dick's injuries in his decision to retire has largely been overlooked, perhaps because he never went on the disabled list, and Allen generally declined to talk about injuries or to use them as an excuse. Corrales emphasized that several times to me, and gave several examples, including a case where no one knew that Allen was playing with an injury -- not Corrales, not Dick's wife -- and it was discovered only by accident.

It was an apparent enough problem that Hemond knew he was in pain; Tanner knew he was hurting, and if you get out your Baseball Guide for that year, you can read "Allen ... endured a sore shoulder in the later stages of the season, and although he said little about it, the pain settled in his lower back." Years later, in the biography Crash, Allen acknowledged that injuries were a factor in his decision to follow through on his retirement, "I'd been injured six times, and each one had taken its toll. I was hurting physically and mentally."

But it was also clear that Allen did not believe his injuries were career threatening. I don't remember a single clear answer from Dick when I asked about his retirement in Chicago. My impression is that it related to a fear of repeating his miseries in Philadelphia. The way he was attacked over his "slow" recovery from the broken leg was reminiscent of the response to his hand injury in Philly. He thought he would be crucified if he took Tanner's offer to sit and heal, and he was too worn down physically, and possibly mentally, to meet the pressure put on him to perform and carry the team.

Ultimately, his vague shoulder injury appears to be more serious than anyone suspected at the time. Allen's shoulders had taken an unusual beating starting with Thomas using his shoulder for batting practice, then a dislocation the next year, and finally this 1974 shoulder strain. During his comeback in 1976, Allen had several bouts of shoulder trouble including another dislocation. But even without a clear medical delineation, there certainly is a statistical one.

Before leaving Dick's years in Chicago, I want to add some balance to the charges that Dick avoided spring training, and that he thought he was too good for batting practice. Like a lot of good hitters, Allen felt that he did not need a long spring training period. By my count, Dick was late for spring training three times. Once was the spring after his hand injury. He had taken a lot of B.P. prior to arriving in camp, and he went to see his doctor when he feared he had overdone it and re-injured the hand. Then in 1972 he was late reporting while he contemplated retiring rather joining the White Sox. He would also miss spring training in 1975 when he was on the restricted list and still unofficially retired. That is hardly a record that justifies writing something like, "[Dick] found spring training a waste of time and avoided [it] as much as possible" (excerpt from Total Baseball).

His detractors never mention that he reported early to spring training as a Dodger in 1971. And you rarely hear that when he did decide to join the White Sox in 1972 and the players' union went out on strike, that Allen stayed in Florida and religiously took part in the daily workouts and pickup games organized by the players. (He told me it was his favorite spring training.) And here is a story I never heard until Chuck Tanner shared it with me. In 1973, Dick was coming out early hitting buckets of balls and would wear a weighted belt as he went through the drills. Tanner was concerned that Dick was wearing himself down rather than building himself up, and against Allen's protests, barred him from camp for a couple of days.

In regard to the batting practice issue, it is true that Tanner allowed Dick to decide whether or not he was taking batting practice. This was not revolutionary. Other managers have done this with veteran hitters whom they felt were good monitors of their own swings. Dick was particularly interested in this option for a very sound reason. Throughout his career he swung one of the heaviest if not the heaviest bat in the majors (40 to 42 ounces). When he felt his swing was sound, he preferred to save his strength for the game. When he felt his swing needed tuning, he took batting practice. It is hard to argue with the results. In his three years under Tanner's system, he hit over .300 every year and took the only two home run crowns of his career.

Continue to 5. Back to Philly


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