Frank Thomas, RIP: The needling and the damage done

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas, signing autographs in the Polo Grounds as an Original Met. As a Phillie, his 1965 fight with Dick Allen accelerated Allen’s undeserved war with Philadelphia racists.

Baseball’s best known Frank Thomas who isn’t the Hall of Fame bombardier died Monday at 93. The good news: That Thomas had a colourful history as one of the Original Mets, for whom he played from their 1962 birth through August 1964. The bad news is that he had a terrible history involving a teammate of colour on the 1965 Phillies.

It soiled a respectable major league career as a power-hitting outfielder/corner infielder, a three-time All-Star with the 1950s Pirates, and an Original Met who was grateful to have been remembered when the Mets reinstituted Old Timers Day last year and he fought through a neck injury to appear.

Thomas survived nasty contract battles with Branch Rickey, then running the Pirates, whose genius as a baseball thinker and courage as baseball’s colour line breaker in signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers was countered by his often devious and insulting penury when it came time to pay his players reasonably.

He also prospered somewhat with and survived the Original Mets, that expansion troupe remembered best as baseball’s version of . . . well, they really did have Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Didn’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop.

Thomas became the Mets’ first home run king, hitting 34 in 1962, a team record that stood until Dave Kingman smashed it by two in 1975. He also factored in one of the most typical of the inadvertent sketches that, perversely enough, endeared his Mets to a generation of New Yorkers bereft of the Dodgers’ and Giants’ moves west and drowning in a couple of generations of Yankee dominance and hubris.

Center fielder Richie Ashburn, eventually a Hall of Famer based on his long career with the Phillies, despaired of collisions between himself and shortstop Elio Chacón on pop flies to short left center and desparied of how to call Chacón off. Teammate Joe Christopher knew enough Spanish to tell Ashburn to holler Yo la tengo! (I got it!) Sure enough, the next such short pop to short left center had Chacón steaming out from short and Ashburn rumbling in from center.

Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo! Ashburn hollered. Chacón caught the drift at once and stopped dead. Ashburn was saved for about five seconds. Thomas had also come steaming in from left. He crashed into Ashburn and the ball fell safe. Someone forgot to hand Thomas the yo la tengo! memo.

(The pull-hitting Thomas also spent so much time trying to hit the “o” on a Howard Clothes sign on the Polo Grounds’s left field wall—because the New York clothier promised a luxury boat to the Met who hit it the most at season’s end—that mananger Casey Stengel finally hollered at him, “If you want to be a sailor, go join the Navy!”)

That season proved Thomas’s final truly solid year at the plate. After a somewhat down 1963 and a 1964 that saw him in and out of the lineup with a few nagging injuries, the Mets traded Thomas to the pennant-contending Phillies that August. He hit respectably enough until he fractured his thumb on a hard slide into second base, ending his season just before the infamous collapse that cost the Phillies a pennant with which they seemed to be running away.

But now age 36, Thomas started too slowly in 1965 before the 3 July pre-game incident that ended his Phillie days in ignominy. Should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen, the Phillies’ superstar in the making and the National League’s 1964 Rookie of the Year, was taking grounders at third while Thomas was in the batting cage and Phillies center fielder Johnny Callison came out to third to chat with Allen.

According to Phillies historian (and eventual Allen biographer) William C. Kashatus, in September Swoon, Callison suggested to Allen they give Thomas the business over a strikeout following three failed bunt attempts during a plate appearance the night before. In the batting cage now, Thomas took a big swing and miss. “Hey, Donkey!” Callison hollered. (Thomas’s nickname was the Big Donkey; he was also known as Lurch.) “Why don’t you try bunting?”

“Instead of responding to Callision,” Kashatus wrote, “Thomas glared down the third base line at Allen and shouted, ‘What are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay, always running your mouth off?'”

Insulted by the comparison with Cassius Clay, the colourful but controversial heavyweight boxer who had recently changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Allen charged the cage, and the two players went at each other. Allen hit Thomas with a left hook to the jaw, sending him to the ground. When he got to his feet, Thomas was wielding a bat and connected with Allen’s left shoulder. By now the rest of the team was at home plate trying to restrain the two players.

In his memoir, Crash, Allen remembered Thomas knowing it was Callison who’d taunted him but aiming his return fire at Allen, wrongly.

The Muhammad Clay remark was meant to say a lot. It reminded me of how Frank would pretend to offer his hand in a soul shake to a young black player on the team. When the player would offer his hand in return, Thomas would grab his thumb and bend it back. To him, it was a big joke. But I saw too many brothers on the team with swollen thumbs to get any laughs. So I popped him. I just wanted to teach him a lesson. But after he hit me with the bat, I wanted to kill him.

Callison said hard feelings between Thomas and Allen were building well before the “Muhammad Clay” remark. One of the brothers to whom Allen referred was young outfielder Johnny Briggs, whom Kashatus quoted as saying Thomas “often made racially inflammatory comments.” But Kashatus also quoted Briggs as saying of Thomas, “Thomas agitated everybody on the team. He was just as abusive to the white guys. But the press turned that fight into a racial issue and refused to let up.”

The game that followed the ugly brawl included Allen slashing a three-run triple and Thomas hitting a pinch home run in the next inning. The Phillies lost 10-8 to the Reds . . . and Thomas was put on release waivers afterward. This, Kashatus noted, was despite Allen intervening on behalf of not letting Thomas go, pleading with manager Gene Mauch not to let it happen out of regard for Thomas’s wife and eight children. (Dolores Thomas died in 2012; one of his children, his daughter Sharon, also died before her father.)

Mauch’s fatal mistake otherwise was ordering one and all involved in the Thomas-Allen fight to keep their mouths shut or face fines: $1,000 each, except for $2,000 for Allen. That only enabled that capricious Philadelphia sports press of the time to help make life as a Phillie more miserable for Allen than the city’s racists already began making it, until he finally got the trade he’d been trying to force for long enough.

With Thomas’s release, Kashatus wrote, the veteran wasn’t bound by Mauch’s edict, and appeared on a Philadelphia radio show that often had him as a guest. “I’ve always tried to help him,” Thomas insisted. “I guess certain guys can dish it out, but can’t take it.” Said Tony Taylor, the Phillies’s talented Latino second baseman, “Since Dick was black and Thomas was white, [the Philadelphia writers] made it into a racial thing and gave Dick the label of trouble-maker. It wasn’t fair.”

“Thomas was going to go anyway,” Mauch eventually admitted about his further-fading veteran. “I should have shipped him sooner. Instead, the press came down on [Allen’s] head. If he did one little thing wrong, they would see it as so much worse because, in their heads, he was a bad guy.”

The Phillies dealt Thomas to the Astros, where he was further unhappy from knowing his baseball aging wasn’t going to reverse itself. (He’d move to the Braves and then the Cubs from there but retire in 1966.) “I would not say I enjoyed my time there,” he told an interviewer in 2017, “but not because of the city or the players.”

I was just in a bad place personally. I was an old fogey. When you reach your thirties in baseball, you’re an old man. Expendable. But I loved the guys in Houston. Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and my favorite Jimmy Wynn. I once got Wynn with the hidden ball trick. He was so angry with me. But what I remember most is that I hit two home runs and then they traded me! My last at-bat in Philadelphia was also a home run. I guess I just needed to stop hitting them!

Let the record show that Thomas spoke affectionately there of two black players, Hall of Famer Morgan and Wynn. Let it show further that, when the black Frank Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first, white Frank Thomas—once one of four consecutive Braves to hit home runs in an inning, along with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, plus slugging first baseman Joe Adcock—was invited to join in the fun and accepted happily.

“I was the original, but he was better,” Thomas once said of his namesake. “We hold the record for most home runs hit by two players with the same name.” (Thomas is right: the two Frank Thomases actually combined for 25 more home runs than Ken Griffey, Sr. and Hall of Famer Jr. did.)

“I was told that his father was a fan of mine and named him after me,” he continued. “I have met him several times and I love him. I told him that I used to be The Big Hurt, but after meeting him I know that I was just The Little Hurt.”

Between those, and more than a few stories I’ve seen saying Thomas and Allen eventually buried the hatchet together, my better angel wants to believe that that 1965 fight and its immediate aftermath jolted the Big Donkey into a permanent awakening about human relations.

Miñoso, O’Neil reach Cooperstown, but Allen’s still excluded

Minnie Miñoso, Hall of Famer at long enough last—but posthumously.

There’s a bit of poetic justice in the first black player for the White Sox and the first black coach in the entire Show with the Cubs becoming Hall of Famers together. But only a bit. Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil should have been voted the honour while they were still alive, not posthumously by the Early Baseball Committee.

So should Dick Allen have been voted the honour while he was still alive. But Allen missed out by a single vote with the Golden Days Era Committee on Sunday. The committee elected Allen’s great contemporary Tony Oliva, but Oliva is still alive to accept the honour.

Miñoso died at 89 in 2015; O’Neil, at 94 in 2006; Allen, at 78, almost a year ago. Nobody ever said things were entirely fair even disallowing the races of these three men, but it’s not so simple to say better late than never for Miñoso and O’Neil; or, for Allen, who’ll surely be voted the honour in due course without having lived to accept it.

Cuban-born Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Miñoso didn’t get his chance in the Show until he was 25, thanks to baseball’s segregation until Jackie Robinson emerged. When the seven-time All-Star finally arrived in 1951—eight games with the Indians before his trade to the White Sox—Miñoso posted a season that should have earned him both the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honours.

Award voters in those years had already come to terms with non-white players, but they were still distant enough from the idea that a league’s most valuable player didn’t necessarily have to be on a pennant winner. Miñoso’s season eclipsed the two Yankees who won those respective awards, Gil McDougald (Rookie of the Year) and Yogi Berra (Most Valuable Player), at least at the plate.

Berra’s award probably came as much for his handling of the Yankee pitching staff as for his team-leading runs scored and runs batted in. McDougald had a solid season, but Miñoso out-hit him, out-scored him, and out-stole him. (Miñoso led the league with 31 stolen bases and could be argued as the real father of the Show’s stolen-base renaissance his eventual Hall of Fame teammate Luis Aparicio kicked off in earnest later in the decade.) He also walked more often, struck out less often, and played more field positions competently than the multi-positional McDougald did.

Miñoso put up a lot of MVP-level seasons without winning the award, even though he might plausibly have won three such awards if voters then looked beyond assuming pennant winners automatically carried the league’s most valuable players. He was also (read very carefully) the first black Latino to crack the Show.

In the years that followed after his career ended, there came a few who looked deeper and concluded that Miñoso might have been the most deserving player not to reach Cooperstown for a very long time. When Allen Barra wrote Clearing the Bases in 2002, he devoted an entire chapter to Miñoso and drew that very conclusion, even if he had Miñoso’s age as a Show rookie wrong. (Barra said 29; Miñoso was 25. But still.)

“His 1951 season,” Barra wrote, “taught a lesson to Latin players for the next forty-odd years: you will have to do better than the non-Latin player just to be noticed, and far better to win an award . . . Minnie Miñoso was a better ballplayer than several white players of his time who are in the Hall of Fame. He was also better than [several] black players from his era that are in the Hall of Fame.”

He was also an effervescent personality who used it to win White Sox World over emphatically, while he played and for decades to follow. Chided once because his English was rather halting, Miñoso is said to have replied, “Ball, bat, glove, she no speak English.” At least as classic as the day black Puerto Rican first baseman Vic Power, told by a Southern server that the restaurant didn’t serve black people, was said to have replied, “That’s ok, I don’t eat black people.”

John Jordan O’Neil won one Negro Leagues batting title, made three Negro Leagues All-Star teams, and was known to be swift and slick at first base, but his stronger metier was as a leader and a manager. In fact, O’Neil managed the legendary Kansas City Monarchs to three pennants before baseball’s integration began to mean the death knell for the Negro Leagues themselves.

Buck O’Neil—pennant-winning Negro Leagues manager, groundbreaking Cubs coach, nonpareil baseball ambassador—and Hall of Famer at long enough last, albeit posthumously, too.

As a Cubs coach and scout O’Neil was immeaurable in his mentorship of Hall of Famers such as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. In due course, he discovered Hall of Famer Lou Brock and World Series hero Joe Carter. As a baseball ambassador, both concurrent to his work with the Cubs and beyond it, O’Neil was even more immeasurable for helping to keep the Negro Leagues legacy alive.

This friendly, soulful man who was a people person first and foremost told all who’d listen that, regardless of the disgrace that kept himself and his fellows from their warranted tastes of what was then considered the only major league baseball life, those who played Negro Leagues baseball managed to have fun, live reasonably, and savour the good in life.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball would have been like trying to take the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. “People feel sorry for me,” O’Neil once said. “Man, I heard Charlie Parker!” Referencing, of course, the virtuoso alto saxophonist who helped change jazz irrevocably with his running mates Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Thelonious Monk (piano, composer), and Kenny Clarke (drums, the first to shift timekeeping to a ride cymbal away from the bass drum) by inventing the smaller-lineup, freer-wheeling style known as bebop.

O’Neil was a jazz nut who linked the musical art to baseball unapologetically and seamlessly. “Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what,” he told Joe Posnanski for the invaluable The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.

It’s like baseball. Baseball is not racist. Were there racist ballplayers? Of course. The mediocre ones . . . They were worried about their jobs. They knew that when black players started getting into the major leagues, they would go, and they were scared. But we never had any trouble with the real baseball players. The great players. No, to them it was all about one thing. Can he play? That was it. Can he play?

O’Neil made his way into his country’s complete consciousness once and for all time when he factored large in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, Baseball. Others of his generation who endured with him made fans, but O’Neil made friends. He became what Pete Rose only claimed himself to be, the single best and most effective ambassador for the game ever seen—and that’s saying a lot.

He missed being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, by the Committee on African-American Baseball. There was much speculation that his exclusion then had to do with a dispute between O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, Larry Lester, over policy issues. But I’ve never forgotten the sweet grace with which O’Neil accepted the result.

“I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!” he exclaimed, while saying it showed America itself was growing up and getting better even if the growing pains continued to be  too profound.

God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.

O’Neil accepted when invited to induct the seventeen in Cooperstown. His speech evoked living history, deep love, and concluded when he got the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawns to hold hands and sing a line from his favourite gospel song, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

Three months later, that irrepressibly active and life-affirming man died under the double blow of bone marrow cancer and heart failure.

Dick Allen, who should have been elected to the Hall while alive, and fell one vote short posthumously by the Golden Days Era Committee Sunday.

I have long argued that Tony Oliva deserved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and I’ve found no evidence to change that conclusion—but Dick Allen, whose career dovetailed completely to his, was over twice the player Oliva was, especially at the plate.

I saw both of them play while growing up and beyond. Oliva was a smart batsmith and run-preventive right fielder. Allen was a wrecking machine at the plate and a brain on the bases in all regards; his Rookie of the Year season compared favourably to Joe DiMaggio’s and he didn’t just hit home runs, what he hit should have had not meals and stewardesses but astronauts on board.

I once did an analysis that concluded a fully-healthy Allen might have finished his career with about 525 home runs, while a fully-healthy Oliva might have finished his with about 315. Neither man reached the Sacred 3,000 Hit Club; hell, neither of them reached 2,000 lifetime hits. But the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity or compilation. Allen and Oliva were Hall of Fame-great, but only one is now a Hall of Famer.

Allen’s unwanted war with 1960s Philadelphia’s racial growing pains, the city’s carnivorous sports press, and isolated bigots on his own teams too often eroded the memory of just how great he really was. So did the injuries that kept him (and Oliva, in all fairness) from having a more natural decline phase than he (and Oliva) should have had.

But I’m going there again. Line them up by my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—and Tony Oliva’s going to be holding Dick Allen’s coat, in peak and career value.

First, their peak values:

Player, peak PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-72 5457 2592 685 120 33 11 .631
Tony Oliva, 1964-70 4552 2090 303 82 38 36 .560

Now, their career values:

Player, career PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1963-77 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva, 1962-76 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537

I wrote more extensively about Allen when he lost his battle with cancer last year. And it’s also fair to mention that, in his later years, Allen not only made peace with the Phillies organisation but became one of the most popular members of the team’s speakers’ bureau.

But one more time, here, I’ll hand Jay Jaffe the last word—the best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, and by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—from The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

The next Golden Days Era Committee meeting will be five years from now. Allen waited long enough while he was alive. He damn well deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, even if his family alone can now accept on his behalf.

It’s an absolute wonderful thing to see Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil get their due even posthumously. It’s a wonderful thing to see elected Bud Fowler (arguably the first black professional baseball player); Gil Hodges (the great Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman/Miracle Mets pennant-winning manager); and, Oliva plus his great Twins teammate Jim Kaat, pitcher, whose Hall case is really a) borderline at beat and b) could be seen by re-arranging his best seasons. (Kaat tended to pitch his best baseball too often when someone else was having an off-chart career year.)

But Dick Allen’s continuing exclusion remains a disgrace.

2020: Once more for the others safe at home

Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame election by this year’s Modern Era Committee would make eight Hall of Famers dying in 2020.

Last year—doesn’t that sound like sweet relief already—the passages of seven Hall of Famers added particular extra grief to an already pandemically miserable year. The further bad news is that the Magnificent Seven (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro) were not the only ones Grantland Rice’s Great Umpire called safe at home, unfortunately.

Assuming Dick Allen will be elected to the Hall by the Modern Era Committee later this year, that election will turn the Magnificent Seven into another kind of Eight Men Out. Allen played surrealistically through battling unconscionable racism in Philadelphia before he was dealt out of town at long enough last—for Curt Flood, who refused to report and elected to make his groundbreaking reserve clause challenge.

How sadly ironic. To Flood, the trade meant he was still a piece of property, even earning $90,000 in a year. (What he began, Andy Messersmith eventually finished.) To Allen, the trade was surely his Emancipation Proclamation. He posted a few more seasons of surrealistic hitting (and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award) before injuries finally ground him away, and overcame a few more personal tragedies (especially the murder of his daughter) to become a respected and loved Phillies elder statesman and community outreacher. Life and baseball couldn’t beat him but cancer finally did at 78.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” is what sportswriting legend Dick Young offered when his New York Daily News colleague Joe Trimble was stuck for an opening to write up Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. “The million to one shot came in,” wrote Washington Post legend Shirley Povich of Larsen’s perfecto. When 2020 was the new year, it wasn’t a day old before Larsen expired of esophegeal cancer at 90.

Lucky him. Larsen lived a life that went from randy to responsible and his reward, above and beyond the pleasure (and excuse for friendly needling) he took when fans and writers asked him to revisit his million-to-one game (“You want to talk about my year with the Browns,” he loved to tease), was to miss the pandemic ruination the year to come would yet wreak.

Tony Fernandez was a smart shortstop in the field and at the plate for the 1980s/1990s Blue Jays and a few others. Complications of kidney disease claimed him at 57 with far less style than he played the left half of the keystone. Yet he held a strange distinction during his brief spell in New York: in 1995, he was the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Bobby Murcer . . . two and a half decades previous.

Before Johnny Antonelli became a 1954 World Series hero pitching for the New York Giants, he inadvertently provoked Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain into a contract demand. Antonelli’s $65,000 signing bonus in 1948 was more than the combined salaries of the Braves’ two best pitchers, Johnny Sain and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Sain leveraged Antonelli’s bonus into a $30,000 salary of his own.

Antonelli proved himself as a pitcher after leaving the Braves and the Army and being dealt to the Giants, but when the Giants moved out of New York Antonelli found San Francisco less to his liking. A couple of trades and an expansion draft later, Antonelli retired to his tire business and his family. With his second wife, he also took up extensive travel, reveling in what he couldn’t see while he traveled as a pitcher, until his death at 89.

Jimmy Wynn—compact man, cannon bat.

Jimmy Wynn (78) was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for the compact body that hit screaming, prodigious home runs, even in the indoor death chamber known as the Astrodome. A few too many Astro coaches and managers monkeying around with his hitting style probably did him few favours. Same thing elsewhere, at least until he became a Dodger. Ultimately, Wynn proved you could live and learn tenfold; he became a valuable Astro asset after his playing years especially among impressionable youth who thrived at his Astro-created youth training center.

Glenn Beckert (79) shared the keystone with Don Kessinger for several Cubs teams that looked pennant competitive until their insouciantly ancient manager burned them down the stretch. “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s,” Bill James once wrote, “a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.” Matt Keough (64) was one of the Five Aces burned almost as swiftly as he rose when Billy Martin got hold of the early 1980s Athletics. Mike McCormick (81) pitched himself into the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in 1967, but he was also Mr. 500—for hitting the 500th home run to be hit by any major league pitcher.

Claudell Washington (65) was a likeable, long-serving journeyman whose 1980 free agency deal (five years, $3.5 million) jolted the game enough to provoke Phillies owner Bob Carpenter—who’d extended Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt big rather than lose him to free agency and chased down Pete Rose to sign big—selling out, because he feared fellow owners’ brains had gone to bed. John McNamara (88) barely lived down Game Six of the 1986 World Series (he left ankle-dissipated Bill Buckner in to play first for the bottom of the tenth), but his wife remembered a good, kind, loving man whose life shouldn’t be judged by one egregious mistake. Appropriately.

The Yankees’ 1965-75 term in purgatory was once nicknamed the Horace Clarke Era, but it wasn’t the fault of the smooth-fielding second baseman from the Virgin Islands who wasn’t much of a hitter but handled the right side of the keystone with sure hands and feet. Clarke (81) was proud to be a Yankee to the end of his life. He was also the poor soul who didn’t get to hit against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda with two out in the top of the ninth—when heartsick Senators fans rioted on the field and forced a forfeit in the Senators’ last game before leaving for Texas.

Bob Watson (74) was a sharp hitting first baseman and, in due course, the first black man in baseball to be the general manager of a World Series winner. Lindy McDaniel (84) was a long-serving relief pitcher of above-average excellence for lots of below-average teams and a devout Christian who became a minister after throwing his final pitch. (He’s also the last American League pitcher to homer before the league introduced the designated hitter.) Fellow reliever Ron Perranoski (84) held down the back end of the Dodger fort in the early-to-mid 60s and for two World Series championships before becoming a long-serving pitching coach.

Jay Johnstone (74) was a solid outfielder with a flair for periodic big hits (especially Game Four of the 1981 World Series) and a bigger flair for mayhem—one of the greatest flakes in the game. Over three engaging books, the fun-loving Johnstone wrote his own eulogy:

Tommy Lasorda once fixed up Ernie Broglio on a date with a female impersonator.

Mark Fidrych talked to baseballs.

Don Stanhouse shared his post-game beer with monkeys and frogs.

Mickey Hatcher left a pig in Lasorda’s office.

Bert Blyleven gave his Little League team chewing tobacco.

John Lowenstein likes to attack cakes with a baseball bat.

Richie Zisk filled Rene Lachemann’s hotel bed with Jell-O.

Ross Grimsley once snapped a losing streak by consulting a witch.

Billy Loes once refused to pitch unless Buzzie Bavasi bought him a new dog.

Joaquin Andujar was known to shower wearing his uniform.

Rick Reichardt stole razor blades, forgot he had them, and sliced his own hand when he reached into his pocket.

Dizzy Dean placed a cake of ice over home plate to “cool off my fastball.”

And I’m over the edge?

Steve Dalkowski—what might have been, if he could have controlled his thunderbolt fastball and his off-field life.

Steve Dalkowski (80) once joined Bo Belinsky in the minors in a plot to help their teammates get good looks at a comely South American Miss World contestant when he mother proved bent on keeping her away from those rapacious ballplayers: drilling holes in the wall separating his and Belinsky’s room from hers. The plot succeeded until one bozo brought a flashlight so his viewing wouldn’t stop after dark. Oops.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski fought demons from his own surrealistic but uncontrollable fastball (Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off, Red Sox infielder Dalton Jones once said of him) to alcohol and all the way to COVID-19 when he died last April. After decades in the post-baseball wilderness, his sister brought him home to Connecticut where he lived with some dignity and a lot of his memory from the almost three decades between baseball and his homecoming wiped out.

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” That’s all his loving sister wanted for him, and it proved enough for himself, as well. When invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards, Dalkowski tossed the ball, then threw his arms up in triumph from his wheelchair. Only his body and face showed the net result of a lost life. The arms up showed the spirit resurrected.

Now Dalko and all who played the game and passed last year—including such other once-familiar souls as Frank Bolling, Ted Cox, Ray Daviault, Ed Farmer, Damaso Garcia, Lou Johnson, Eddie Kasko, Phil Linz (baseball’s unquestioned master of the harmonica), Denis Menke (he was once Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s slick double play partner with the Astros), Bob Oliver, Les Rohr, Tony Taylor—truly are safe at home, in the Elysian Fields, suffering no more, and may they bask in the light, love, and game of the eternal sunshine.

Dick Allen, RIP: Big stick, bigger man

Dick Allen’s big stick hit home runs that should have had astronauts aboard.

Around noontime Monday (PST), his family announced it on his own Twitter account. I came home from a morning errand to see the news, and I could only open his Twitter and write, without clicking on the heart symbol for a like, “How can you like the passing of a great ballplayer and a good man?”

Dick Allen is dead at 78 after a battle with cancer. There’d been a swell of support for his election to the Hall of Fame in recent years. He might have made it via the Golden Era Committee this year. Except the committee decided that, well, if they couldn’t meet in person to discuss and vote, by God they weren’t going to meet until next year.

When they made that announcement in late August, I zapped the Hall of Fame and the Committee for suddenly discovering their inner Luddism: “Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections.”

They never heard of setting up a Zoom remote conference? Trust me, since I just took part in my own first one. They can be set up simply, such a conference is restricted to invited guests via meeting codes and passwords, and none would have compromised the integrity of the discussions and votes.

The Committee pushed the meeting back to winter 2021. They just might elect Allen this time around. (He missed by one vote the last time around, in 2014.) Only he’ll be well serene and happy in the company of the angels and not on earth to accept the plaque I’m sure his family will accept proudly when it’s awarded.

It’s not that my opinion means two figs, but I’ve championed Allen’s Hall of Fame election for long enough now, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind about it. I was on the fence about it for a good long while before that, alas, but once and for all I took as deep a look into the record as it was as I could and became convinced. Allen has a no-questions-should-be-asked case as a peak value Hall of Famer.

If you consider his peak to be 1964-1972, Allen’s .936 OPS and 164 OPS+ should say most of it, especially considering most of that peak came in one of the toughest hitting eras ever. If you consider the absolutely unfair and out-of-line racism he was forced to face and fight, especially as a Phillie, it’s to wonder and marvel that he could even check in at the plate, never mind play as he did when he was healthy.

Let’s look at Allen and his big stick by way of my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. When I first examined Allen that way two years ago, I discovered a flaw: I shouldn’t have included sacrifice bunts or excluded times he was hit by pitches. The former’s flaw: you shouldn’t be credited when you’re surrendering outs willingly; outs are precious. The latter’s flaw: if the pitcher’s fool enough to drill you, let it be on his head and to your credit.

The RBA metric otherwise is a bid to atone for the incompleteness of the traditional batting average, one of the single most flawed statistics ever devised. Hits divided by official at-bats treats all hits equally and misses too much of what batters do to create and produce runs on the scoreboard. (You still think all hits are equal? Tell me why a single’s as good as a double, triple, or home run and vice versa. Didn’t think so.)

My RBA adds total bases (which treats hits the unequal way they deserve), walks, intentional walks (one more time: you should damn well get credit when the other guys prefer you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you didn’t intend to fly out but it scored a run so credit to you!), and times you were hit by pitches, and divides the sum by your total plate appearances.

And, this is Dick Allen’s peak according to RBA:

Years PA TB BB IBB HBP SF RBA
1964-72 5,457 2,592 685 120 11 33 .631
Career 7,315 3,379 894 138 16 53 .612

Rest assured that these numbers helped rank Allen among the top twenty third basemen who ever played major league baseball. They would also show him with the third-highest RBA of all post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Fame third basemen except two: in ascending order, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

This is before revisiting his breathtaking power or mentioning that Allen was one of the smartest and most effective baserunners of his time. (Did you know Allen took extra bases on followup hits 53 percent of the time he reached base?) And, before lamenting that early enough injuries impacted his defense either at third base or the position to which his injury-weakened throwing arm finally sent him full time, first base.

Allen didn’t just hit home runs. Phrased politely, they didn’t need the proverbial meals and stewardesses aboard. What he hit typically should have had astronauts. When first analysing his performance two years ago, I concluded based on the evidence that, if he’d been far more healthy and uninjured, Allen might have finished his career with 525 home runs or thereabout.

Dick Allen sharing a big laugh with his old Phillies teammate Jim Bunning at an old-timers’ event in Citizens Bank Park.

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once tried to take the sting out of the Philadelphia boo birds’ booing Allen by suggesting the reason they booed him was that his home runs didn’t always stay in the park to become souvenirs.

That’s putting things too politely. Allen once told a Phillies historian (and an Allen biographer), William C. Kashatus, “I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.”

A man who grew up in a racially tolerant and accommodating Pennsylvania hamlet, but whom the Phillies sent to 1963 Little Rock with no support system, who once remembered, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, and said, “Dick, this is what we have in mind. It’s going to be very difficult but we’re with you”—at least I would have been prepared,” has no reason to apologise.

Whether you believe he was a jerk or just immature, some people persist in believing Allen’s career was shortened by it. Not so, argued Rob Neyer when writing The Big Book of Baseball Lineups: “I don’t think his immaturity had much to do with the length of his career. He just got hurt, and so he didn’t enjoy the sort of late career that most great hitters do. It’s that, as much as all the other stuff, that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, the sad irony. When the Phillies finally traded Allen out of town, to the St. Louis Cardinals, they thought they were getting Curt Flood in return in the package. To Flood, the trade smacked of treating even a $90,000 a year center fielder as a piece of property like a slave. To Allen, who’d been to hell and back almost daily in Philadelphia and rooted for Flood’s reserve clause lawsuit, the trade was his Emancipation Proclamation.

Allen incurred assorted nagging injuries and severe leg injuries after leaving Philadelphia and especially during his otherwise shining time with the Chicago White Sox. (He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first White Sox season.) “[W]hat he did for us in Chicago was amazing,” said Allen’s White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner.

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 . . . He played hurt for us so many times that they thought he was Superman.  But he wasn’t; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon.

The best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years—by Little Rock, by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—belongs to Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

His death before the Hall election he deserves inflicts a final injustice upon a man accompanied by too many injustices too long. It elevates him and reduces his critics further that he eventually found equilibrium in his life and peace with baseball.

Allen knew and survived heartbreak enough outside of the racial buffetings: a painful divorce, the unexpected murder of his daughter, Terri, the electrical-fire destruction of the farm on which he hoped to raise thoroughbred horses. (“If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it,” he once cracked about artificial turf.)

He overcame those to re-marry happily, keep friends and family close, become one of the most popular members of the Phillies’ speakers’ bureau under a very different organisation than the one for which he played, and a friendly social media presence who beamed justifiably when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame inducted him in 2018.

When the Phillies finally retired Allen’s uniform number 15 in September, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested the timing might have been intended partially to push for Allen’s at-last enshrinement in Cooperstown. Allen himself once told Kashatus, “What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with it. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, an Allen teammate when the latter returned to Philadelphia in 1975, remembered then a teammate’s teammate who preferred to lead by quiet example and humanness. Allen often invited Christenson to lunch on road trips and once signed a bat for him as a memento: “To L.C., two homers with my bat. How about that? Dick Allen.”

Christenson once borrowed Allen’s once-fabled 40-ounce bat in a game. “Son,” Allen told the pitcher, “if you can swing it, you can use it.” Christenson used it to hit a home run in that day’s game.

Bereft on earth now are Allen’s loving wife, Willa, his family, his friends, and all of those who saw through the cluttering, clattering nonsense and saw the player and the real young man who didn’t deserve his seasons in hell and deserved election to the Hall of Fame. Now that election will have to be posthumous on earth, damn it.

But surely the Lord’s angels escorted Allen kindly and gently to the Elysian Fields, and that was the only other thing we could ask through our own loss.

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Some portions of this essay have been published by the author previously.

The suddenly Luddite Hall of Fame

Allen’s Hall candidacy waits an extra year since the Hall won’t Zoom.

Dick Allen used to hit home runs that zoomed into earth orbit. Thanks to the Hall of Fame’s unexpected allergy to Zooming, Allen’s and others’ Cooperstown candidacies will have to wait another year.

Among other changes fun and dubious the pandemic has imposed upon baseball, two Era Committees—the Golden Era Committee on which Allen would now be a candidate, and the Early Baseball Era Committee—now won’t meet until winter 2021, with those they elect if any inducted in 2022.

It seems the old fogies who think baseball is headed into an abyss with newfangled analytics aren’t the only ones who think technology and the old ball game are a match made in hell. Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections:

With the nation’s safety concerns, the travel restrictions and the limitations on group gatherings in effect for many regions, it is not possible to ensure that we can safely and effectively hold these committee meetings. The Era Committee process, which has been so effective in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, requires an open, yet confidential conversation and an in-person dialogue involving the members of the 16-person voting committee.

Is Clark telling us that members of the Era Committees or the Baseball Writers Association of America (who determine their candidacies) can’t Zoom what numerous schools and non-retail businesses have arranged, managed, and zoomed since the coronavirus world tour kicked into overdrive in earnest a few months ago?

It really is so simple a child of five can do it. (Sorry, Groucho.) Lots of children of five in kindergartens are doing it.

When the Today’s Game Committee elected Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame so controversially two years ago, the committee members included Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, a man who is about as allergic to high technology as Donald Trump is to self-congratulation. And, Dave Dombrowski, last seen as the Boston Red Sox’s general manager until late last season.

Surely Clark and the Luddites among Hall governors don’t think a manager who helped introduce the computer to baseball thinking and strategising would have run home to Mommy at the idea of Zooming about Hall candidates? Or, a general manager who last worked for a team 20,000 leagues deep into analytics that require computers as much as other tools?

Technology isn’t always a gift, of course. There probably isn’t a baseball jury on earth that would say artificial turf was a baseball blessing. But if Clark thinks confidentiality would be compromised by a Zoom remote conference call, what does she think when, almost invariably, certain Hall of Fame doings and undoings get leaked to the working press routinely enough?

Fair disclosure: I have a little skin in this game. I’ve championed Dick Allen for the Hall of Fame for quite awhile now, after once being skeptical about it myself. (I’d also like to see elected his great contemporary Tony Oliva plus Minnie Minoso, both of whom deserve the honour.) But a long time reviewing the record as it was and remains convinced me that Allen belongs in Cooperstown.

I’m convinced with no further questions asked that his Hall case was compromised way less by the racism against which he waged war in Philadelphia than by a series of injuries he was sometimes foolish enough to try playing through, and that those injuries kept him (as Rob Neyer and others have observed) from posting better late-career numbers that might have solidified his Hall case.

Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook, says it better in prose than I could (and did) say it:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

 

I can and did say it statistically, too. I determined on my own that if Dick Allen had been allowed fifteen completely healthy seasons and a normal late-career, uncompromised decline phase, he might have finished his career with as many as 525 lifetime home runs instead of the 351 he did hit. (Oliva wasn’t Allen’s kind of power threat but the same healthy fifteen seasons and uncompromised decline phase might have left him with 315 lifetime homers.)

According to my Real Batting Average metric—which I’ve since modified to disallow sacrifice bunts (sorry, but intentional outs don’t and shouldn’t count) but retain sacrifice flies; and, which allows the complete look at a player that traditional batting average (treating all hits equal and factoring only “official” at-bats) denies—this is Dick Allen in his absolute nine-season peak period, and bear in mind that he missed an average twenty games per season in that period because of injuries:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-1972 5,457 2,592 685 120 33 11 .631

Forty-one percent of Allen’s hits went for extra bases, too, and they weren’t all those orbital belts that once inspired Hall of Famer Willie Stargell to suggest one reason Allen was booed by the notorious Philadelphia boo-birds (Those people would boo at a funeral—Bo Belinsky, briefly a Phillie) was that his home runs traveled too far to become souvenirs.

“What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it,” Allen told his biographer/Phillies historiographer William C. Kashatus once. “So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, Allen, Oliva, Minoso, and others covered by the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees, the Hall that includes members who were elected on behalf of being innovators (Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck) or pioneers (Albert Spalding, Barney Dreyfuss) is suddenly allergic to a little pioneering.