Last Sunday Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, the first of seven different Negro Leagues formed between 1920 and 1960. Beyond such innovations as catcher’s shin guards, night baseball, and the more finessed, small-ball style of play later adopted by MLB during the 50s and 60s, the Negro Leagues were the first to feature ball clubs that were owned, operated and managed by Black people.
In addition to that, the ticket and concessions salespeople, the fans in attendance, and the umpires and ball players were Black as well. The teams played in their own stadiums, some of which were built during the Depression. Traveling conditions weren’t easy for these teams during the Jim Crow era, but two factors made the leagues appealing for both players and fans alike: there was no discrimination at the ballpark, and the level of baseball being played during the 1920s and ’30s almost certainly exceeded that of the white Major Leagues.
The first time I saw Dick Allen play was in the 1967 All Star Game at Anaheim Stadium. My father got my brother and I tickets and the three of us sat in the temporary bleachers past left field that had been set up for the game. It was a 16-inning snoozefest that ended with the National League winning, 2-1.
Three solo home runs accounted for all the scoring, one of which was a blast to right-center by Allen. I became a fan of his and followed his successful and very controversial 14-year career. Over a 10-year span, much of it during an era of dominant pitching, his offensive production was arguably the best in the league. He was one of the very few hitters I’ve seen who could make a ballpark look smaller.
Allen was one of the first Blacks in the Philly organization and from his time in the minors in Arkansas he was exposed to virulent racial abuse. This would continue into his time in Philadelphia, where batteries were thrown at him from the upper deck. He would wear a helmet when he played in the field for the rest of his career.
Allen was a very sharp, complicated, and misunderstood guy during his playing years. His first stay in Philadelphia was unfairly defined by an incident with a teammate over racial remarks. Allen was never going to be “just happy to be here” and during the racially volatile ’60s he was viewed by a good deal of the press and public as having an “attitude.” By the time he was traded by the Phillies he was scratching messages in the dirt on the infield near first base.
Today, the controversy that swirled around Allen is viewed a different way. Near the end of his career he would return to Philadelphia and there would be reconciliation. Mike Schmidt credits him with being a hitting mentor to him during this period. In the city where he was once reviled, he is now employed as a “baseball ambassador” by the Phillies and the team is going to retire his number next month.
Allen’s journey was a troubled one and, despite his achievements, is still nagged by questions of unfulfilled potential. This year may be MLB’s last, best chance to gain some redemption it probably doesn’t deserve by electing him to the Hall of Fame.
During the 1990s there was a small baseball card shop near the donut shop around the corner from my house. One Saturday Dick Allen was there signing autographs. I brought my son to the tiny event and while we stood in line I wondered what I would ask him.
When it was our turn I said to my son, “This is Mr. Dick Allen. He was a great hitter and one of the best base runners I’ve ever seen.”
Allen looked up at my son, nodded and said, “Base runner, not base stealer.” We talked a little bit and he told me about his horses. He stood up and I was stunned. The hitter who used the biggest bat in the majors, was renowned for several tape measure jobs over 500 feet, and could visibly shrink a ballpark, was about my size. Sure, his upper body looked considerably different, but I realized at that moment it wasn’t about the strength. It was the swing. Then I thought of what I’d ask him.
“Was there anything in your career that you wish was different?”
He looked at me and, with no hesitation whatsoever, he answered.
“I wish I could have played in the Negro Leagues.”
Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” column appears on Fridays.