02/20/12 5:20 PM EST
Allen's arrival to Chicago helped save White Sox
MVP season provided attendance boost, jolt to franchise
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
Checking in at No. 9 on that illustrious compilation was Dick Allen. And if Allen's stellar 15-year body of work doesn't already speak for itself, the former White Sox first baseman recently received support from one of Major League Baseball's greatest players in Willie Mays.
"Richie Allen was, and still is, a Hall of Famer as far as I'm concerned," said Mays in an interview for Allen's segment on this particular Countdown show.
Mays certainly stands out as the most accomplished Allen backer, but his list of admirers seemingly are endless, and many have White Sox ties. Allen was the first African-American member of the White Sox to win a Most Valuable Player Award, capturing the 1972 American League honor during his first year with the team.
The story of Allen's career becomes less about race and more about a man who could be enigmatic and charismatic, almost at the same time. Allen possessed a personality that often was misunderstood, but there was never any question about his abundance of baseball ability.
"It was like the game was too easy," said Bill Melton, who played third base with the White Sox while Allen was stationed at first base from 1972-74. "It was like watching Frank Thomas when he went to the plate. Fans waited for Dick Allen's at-bat. You wanted to see him hit, regardless of the score. You stopped in your tracks."
"He was a great player," said former White Sox general manager Roland Hemond. "He was just a little bit different."
Hemond started his 15-year tenure as White Sox general manager in 1970, when the team set a franchise-record with 106 losses and drew a mere 495,355 in attendance. Under the guidance of Hemond and manager Chuck Tanner, the White Sox improved by 23 games and almost 340,000 fans in 1971. It arguably was Allen's arrival in '72 and ensuing MVP season that helped restore the White Sox to prominence, via a second-place finish in the AL West, an 87-67 record and almost 1.2 million in attendance, and silenced talk about a possible relocation out of Chicago.
"We had a bunch of talented young guys," said Melton of the '72 squad. "It was like if you took a team playing under .500 and building like the Royals are now, and then plopping Albert Pujols with Kansas City. That was Dick Allen with the White Sox."
Tommy John and Steve Huntz were shipped to the Dodgers in exchange for Allen, with Hemond stating that the Dodgers also tried to pry loose Terry Forster. In his debut season with the White Sox, Allen hit .308 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. His homers and RBIs led the AL, along with his .422 on-base percentage and .603 slugging percentage, while his average finished 10 points behind Rod Carew and four behind Lou Piniella, leaving Allen ever so close to winning the Triple Crown.
Allen's power was legendary, as Hemond illustrated through this following Comiskey Park example.
"One day Harry Caray was broadcasting from the center-field bleachers, which was 440 feet away with a 17-foot wall in front," Hemond said. "He was several rows up, but he took the net with him that he would use to reach for foul balls.
"When he was carrying the net, people were laughing because nobody hit the ball out there. Well, Allen hit one, and Harry almost caught it in the net. A home run like that would be on 'SportsCenter' today over and over again. You just marveled at his strength."
Melton mentioned a game in Oakland, when Allen was one of the few hitters relishing the chance to face Vida Blue and his near-100 mph fastball.
"Dick didn't like the AL because he felt they didn't challenge you," Melton said. "They knew he was a tremendous fastball hitter, so they threw him offspeed pitches.
"So he was excited to go into Oakland and face Vida. Dick went 4-for-4, hit four line drives and had the biggest smile on his face. He was happy to face a guy who was going to challenge him. Most of us were hitting lazy fly balls and striking out, while he hit ropes."
In achieving this offensive success, Allen swung a heavy 40-ounce bat. Melton broke open a box of Allen's bats on one occasion and took 10 or 15 swings in the cage. By the time he was done, Melton's hands, arms and forearms were on fire.
"My only thought was, 'How did he swing this?'" Melton said.
On July 31, 1972, Allen hit two inside-the-park home runs in the same game off of Minnesota's Bert Blyleven. Hemond believed that Allen ran the bases better than anyone he ever witnessed, while Melton added that Allen could have swiped 30 bases in a season, but only attempted to steal bases when the team really needed it.
As for that enigmatic side, Melton felt as if the depiction was a bit overblown. Sure, Allen didn't take batting practice for the first month of the '72 season, according to Melton, with Allen joking that if he went out there, none of the other guys would be noticed. But Allen eventually returned to BP hitting left-handed -- as opposed to his usual right-handed swing -- and still launched a home run.
"Really, he was just a different guy who only cared about his teammates," said Melton, adding that Allen was cordial with the White Sox press. "He didn't need fan reaction. He was funny but cared about his 25 guys, playing and winning."
"Some people considered him controversial, and he was a loner somewhat," Hemond said. "But Chuck Tanner had a great way with him and knew how to get him ready. Players respected him, and he was kind in his way. People embraced him, admired him and cheered him in Chicago."
A three-year contract in the $750,000 range made Allen one of the game's highest-paid players entering the 1973 season. In a June game that season with the Angels, Allen suffered a fractured fibula, courtesy of a first-base collision with Mike Epstein on a throw made by Melton that he still remembers to this day. Allen's injury limited him to 72 games in '73 and stopped short any playoff momentum built the year before by the team. In '74, when the White Sox fell out of the race, Allen told Hemond that he wanted to retire. He was eventually traded to the Braves, to where he never reported, but instead finished his career with two seasons back in Philadelphia and one in Oakland.
Here was a man who was an expert horseman, had the ability to play in the NBA (according to one scout's analysis provided to Hemond) and was an accomplished recording artist as part of Dick Allen and the Ebonistics. He also was a master craftsman on the field, finishing with a .292 average, 351 homers and 1,119 RBIs.
When Rich "Goose" Gossage was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008, Tanner and Allen made the drive to Cooperstown to see their former teammate. It was Allen who provided advice to a young Gossage against the AL's bigger hitters when they were both with the White Sox.
Other Hall of Famers such as Carlton Fisk, Gaylord Perry and Reggie Jackson made their way over to interact with Allen, according to Hemond. He held the ultimate respect from his peers and his teammates, especially in Chicago, where his MVP effort quite possibly helped save a franchise.
"The best player I ever played with was Dick Allen," Melton said. "There was nothing he couldn't do."
"He had a phenomenal season and really helped attendance," said Hemond of Allen's '72 season. "He rejuvenated interest on the South Side."