Allen's final days in Minors marked by fear, racism
It's easy to forget that less than 20 years separated Jackie Robinson's integration of affiliated baseball in 1946 and Dick Allen's Triple-A debut in 1963. Between the time Robinson set foot in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 as the first Black man to play in the Majors and Allen's
It's easy to forget that less than 20 years separated Jackie Robinson's integration of affiliated baseball in 1946 and Dick Allen's Triple-A debut in 1963. Between the time Robinson set foot in Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 as the first Black man to play in the Majors and Allen's first game with the Arkansas Travelers, 22 Black or Hispanic players had won Most Valuable Player (10), Rookie of the Year (11) and Cy Young (one) honors.
All that meant little to the still-segregated city of Little Rock, Arkansas, and to the man with a fearsome bat who broke his own barriers in 1963. For Allen, success as a Black man in the South came at a cost.
There was immediate pushback to the International League's decision to award an expansion franchise to Little Rock, which hosted a previous iteration of the Travelers in the Southern Association from 1932-61. Arkansas was governed by Orval Faubus, a known segregationist and the man who called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957 -- a moment of historic significance for the United States.
In fact, Cleveland Indians president and general manager Gabe Paul threatened to block the move to Little Rock unless there were assurances that Black players from his team's Triple-A Jacksonville squad would be treated the same as their white counterparts during trips to Arkansas. Paul dropped his threats to object after MLB Commissioner Ford Frick made clear that, "our Negro players will receive equal treatment in Little Rock."
In front of that backdrop, Allen was introduced to a new way of life while becoming the first professional Black player to play the game in Arkansas -- an environment where the color of his skin mattered far more than the immense talents he brought to the field. Gov. Faubus threw out the inaugural first pitch in front of a crowd of nearly 7,000 fans, many with hate in their hearts and words. Allen was greeted with signs held aloft that read "Don’t Negro-ize Baseball” and “[Negro] Go Home.”
Starting in left field, Allen dropped a fly ball on the first play of the game. He wrote in his autobiography, "Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen," that he froze. "The ball flew over my head. I missed the ball because I was scared. I don’t mind saying it.”
Allen atoned for his first-inning miscue with a pair of doubles, the second of which set up the Travelers' first win. But his success did little to quell the ingrained racism from the home crowd.
"I didn’t know anything about the racial issue in Arkansas, and didn’t really care," Allen wrote in his book. "Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, at least I would have been prepared. Instead, I was on my own."
The slugger wasn't blind to the struggles Black people faced in America, but hailing from Wampum, Pennsylvania, shielded him from the level of vitriol he'd experience in Little Rock.
“[Following the first game] I wanted to be alone. I needed to sort it all out," Allen said in his autobiography. "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, [Negro].' 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 [Negro] in an empty parking lot in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1963. But if there is, it hasn’t crossed my path yet."
With sadness in our hearts, we need to share that Dick passed away this afternoon at his home in Wampum pic.twitter.com/BEIrcQlfRG— Dick Allen (@DickAllen_15) December 7, 2020
Through it all, Allen didn't let his anxiety affect his play. Newly wed to first wife Barbara, Allen thought it best to leave his bride home in Pennsylvania to spare her the negative experiences ... and there were many. Because of segregation, Allen lived with a Black family in a separate part of town, was stopped by police on numerous occasions and was only allowed to eat in restaurants if accompanied by a white teammate. The enormity of what he experienced led to thoughts of quitting, but a chat with older brother Hank -- also a pro ballplayer -- kept Allen from leaving Arkansas, which history validates as a wise decision.
"I didn’t want to be a crusader," he commented in his book. "I kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ It’s tough to play ball when you’re frightened."
Tough, but not impossible, as Allen proved with an exclamation point. Despite being five years younger than the league's average age, the 21-year-old batted .289/.341/.550 and led the circuit with 33 homers -- a club record that stood for 35 years -- and 12 triples, 97 RBIs and 299 total bases.
“If I’m going to die, why not die doing what God gave me a gift to do," Allen penned. "I’ll die right there in that batter’s box without any fear.”
The tribulations didn't abate, but Allen was able to channel his anxiety toward his talents. Despite the rocky early reception, most Travelers fans knew the type of player Allen was and rewarded him in kind, voting him the club's MVP at season's end. The conclusion of the season also brought a close to Allen's Minor League career.
He earned his first taste of The Show with the Phillies in September and kicked off what many consider to be a Hall of Fame career by winning National League Rookie of the Year honors the following season. Over the next nine years, the man known as "Crash" cemented himself as one of baseball's most feared sluggers.
Between 1964-72, Allen played with the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers and White Sox and averaged 30 homers and 94 RBIs a season while putting together a slash line of .298/.386/.550. He made five of his seven All-Star appearances and won the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award with the White Sox. Allen ended his career in Oakland following the 1977 season.
The passage of time and a different prism from which the game is viewed has brought Allen's name back to the forefront of the Cooperstown discussion. He garnered 3.7 percent of the vote by the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 1983. Because he fell short of the 5 percent support needed to maintain his eligibility, Allen dropped off the ballot. He returned two years later when 11 of 150 candidates were deemed worthy of a second chance by the BBWAA Screening Committee.
Allen topped out at 18.9 percent in 1996 and was on the ballot through 1997 before falling off for good. His hopes proved no better with the Veterans Committee and the Golden Era Committee, which left him off their ballot altogether in 2012. A campaign for Allen got him back on the ballot two years later when he missed enshrinement by a single vote. Although enshrinement was no sure bet, he figured to receive strong support for election in 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the committee's voting until next year.
Should Allen earn a spot via the Golden Era Committee in the Hall's Class of 2022, he won't be around to see it. Sadly, the 78-year-old passed away in December after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Despite a stellar career marked by misunderstandings and controversies -- some of his own doing -- Allen learned to let go of whatever grudges he might have held, many of which began with his initial experiences in Arkansas.
"All I know is I played ball hard -- the only way I know how. So you've got to go ahead and live with it," he told The Evening Independent in 1982. "I have no regrets. ... I don't have anything in my heart against anybody. And I hope nobody has anything against me."
Michael Avallone is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.