Dick Allen turned 77 Friday. His once-thought complicated legacy has faded and what remains is one of the strongest bodies of work for a player with a career cut short by injuries. Now, he’s a man trapped between obscurity and immortality.
In the stretch of ball between 1963 and 1977, perhaps one of the most difficult offensive eras in baseball history, to be a force at the plate was to be a god. For this reason, legends like Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Carl Yastrzemski‘s careers are so remarkable: they didn’t just excel, but they were exclamation points in an era when baseball was undeniably a pitcher’s game.
Where we are commemorating the life and enduring legacy of Tom Seaver, who is bowing out of public life after being recently diagnosed with dementia, there are great ballplayers who seemingly exist only in the memory of a cult following. Tony Oliva‘s knees, for example, betrayed a man with otherworldly talent. And then there’s Dick Allen.
Allen played 15 seasons, the timespan mentioned above. He slashed a career .292/.378/.534 for five teams, predominantly as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. 15 seasons at an OPS of .912. 15 seasons, wherein he won Rookie of the Year, the 1972 MVP, was named to seven All-Star teams and led the league in OBP twice, slugging thrice and OPS four times. In a later era, sabermetricians would have held their nose at his strikeout totals but championed his impact toward election into the Hall of Fame.
Allen’s peak Hall of Fame vote percentage was just shy of 19% in 1996, his 14th year on the ballot. Oliva, who had comparable hits and doubles totals, was Rookie of the Year in the year following and the hitter to Allen’s slugger, peaked at 47% in 1988.
To say that Dick Allen got a raw deal is to bury the lede roughly 300 words into the piece.
If one takes Allen’s total hits (1848), home runs (351), doubles (320) and bWAR (58.7), that’s a club of 52 players. Only eight of the 52 can boast having won Rookie of the Year and MVP*. 36 of them are in the Hall of Fame, and six others are either not yet eligible or otherwise almost certain to get there**. The low end of the hits includes guys like Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones, both of whom played in more seasons with better teams in a superior offensive era.
Only Joe DiMaggio, between military service and foot and leg injuries, hit those totals in scarcely fewer games. Yet DiMaggio is regarded as a top-tier baseball legend, while Allen is relegated to niche status.
We can thank the contexts in which both existed for part of this. DiMaggio was a Yankee’s Yankee, a force on nine World Series championship clubs, existing in the center of the baseball universe while being hailed a war hero. And it didn’t hurt that he was married to Marilyn Monroe. Allen, on the other hand, was closer to Larry Doby than Mays or Aaron or even Frank Robinson: flamboyant (those sideburns!) and temperamental, socially aware and controversial. He played in Philadelphia on middling teams in the mid-60s, through the race riots and in the tenuous, disquieting wake of the civil rights movement.
Baseball writers, who have historically considered themselves the gatekeepers of baseball immortality, couldn’t get past the other stuff to see a guy who essentially was DiMaggio on mostly-underwhelming teams. One could not-implausibly consider another factor.
Give the man better knees and he probably outperforms Yaz’s career. Give the man a better supporting cast and he’s more clearly DiMaggio (WAR is especially telling this way.) Take his body of work as it is, and the context in which he performed, and he should be right there as #37. Instead, Dick Allen is relegated to committee votes; the next Golden Days committee convenes in 2020.
Hopefully, by next year, this wrong will finally be righted, and Dick Allen will be remembered as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.