Ernest Dumas wrote this editorial for The Leader in Jacksonville, about Dick Allen, the major league baseball great who died Monday in Los Angeles. It recalls a dark time through Allen’s experience as a minor league baseball player in Little Rock. It is about much more than baseball.
Dick Allen, who may have been the most talented player ever to climb into a baseball uniform, died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Although it bestows little honor on central Arkansas, it is worth pausing to recall that he passed through our parts 57 years ago on his way to fame and misfortune.
Allen played in the major leagues for 15 seasons, was the National League Rookie of the Year his first season, the American League’s Most Valuable Player one year and a member of a major-league all-star team seven times, hit 351 home runs, batted over .300 three seasons and had an enviable fielding record. He missed the Major League Hall of Fame by a single vote, probably owing to his moodiness, flashing temper and avoidance of sportswriters.
We write about our community’s brief encounter with the young man because, in this winter of our discontent, Dick Allen, or “Richie” as the player’s owners insisted that he call himself when he was in Little Rock and a little beyond, reminds us of the barely diminished vexation of racial resentment that has always beset the country, our state and our community, and still does. We use resentment rather than prejudice because most of us do not want to be called prejudiced.
Allen was one of nine children raised by their mom, a maid for white households in the town of Wampum outside the great steel city of Pittsburgh. He was the star of Wampum’s athletic teams and the Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a baseball contract after high school. Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was the last major-league city to field a Black player. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, like Black players who followed him, particularly dreaded Philadelphia because the fans there always showered him with racial epithets and boos when he took the field or went to the plate. When a Phillie pitcher threw at Robinson’s head, the stands roared approval, particularly if the ball found its target. Phillie fans were only barely more tolerant when the team fielded its own Black players, including Dick Allen.
Philadelphia had acquired the new AAA franchise at Little Rock and sent Allen there in 1963 to prepare him for the major leagues. Allen would write later that he begged the Philadelphia management not to send him to Little Rock. He had never been in the South and all that he knew about Little Rock was that it was the fountainhead of the South’s integration wars. Six years earlier, white mobs and state militiamen had driven nine Black students away from Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus, who sent the troops to rout them from school, was throwing out the first pitch to open the season.
Allen was terrified, he recalled in his memoir many years later. At Little Rock, Allen had found a Black family to give him a bed when he was in town and otherwise had a separate existence from his teammates away from the ballpark. The editor at the Arkansas Gazette told Jim Bailey, its baseball writer, not to write that Allen was the Arkansas Travelers’ first Black player, apparently to protect him. “The editors decided we’d be better off not getting things all stirred up again,” Bailey said. But everyone knew. Amis Guthridge, the head of the white supremacist group Capital Citizens Council picketed Ray Winder Field on opening night carrying signs that read, “Don’t Negroize baseball” and “Nigger Go Home.” When Allen trotted out to right field to begin the game, Allen mumbled the 23rd Psalm to himself to still his pounding heart.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me by the still waters.”
On the first pitch, the batter sent a lazy fly ball to right field. Allen froze and the ball sailed over his head and rolled to the fence. The fans booed, although he later blasted a couple of doubles off the wall that won the game for the Travs.
Boos are rare now for Black players, unless they kneel for the flag. Now, every sports fan in the land knows that if you don’t have a bunch of Black athletes, especially at the skilled positions, you’re not going to win many games, although fewer and fewer go into professional baseball. For Black youngsters, athletics are the surest route to fame and fortune.
But not in the early ‘60s. Allen heard racial jibes from the stands when he entered the dugout. He stayed at the ballpark until everyone had left and when he reached his car he found a note on his windshield: “Don’t come back again nigger.” But he had a good season, leading the team in home runs, runs batted in and triples. His 33 home runs was the record for right-handed batters for the Travelers for nearly 40 years. Fans voted him the most valuable player at the season’s end.
None of it ever warmed his heart about his Arkansas experience. His long stay in the majors, mostly at Philadelphia, was a similar mixture of heroism and misery. He experienced the taunts from the fans and the snubs from his white teammates. He didn’t have the buoyancy of a Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays. But he was the National League Rookie of the Year. He was the talk of major league baseball. He hit the longest home run ever seen at Connie Mack Stadium.
His life was forever altered by a single overreaction. A Phillie teammate was the white slugger Frank Thomas, who was known for razzing everyone. He especially liked to get under the moody Allen’s skin. When a teammate hollered a jibe at Thomas for messing up a bunt, Thomas thought it came from Allen and shouted at him, “Who are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay?”
Allen was irked and when he got up to bat he confronted Thomas near the batting screen. Words were exchanged and then blows. Thomas clobbered him with his bat and teammates had to separate them. That night, the team sent Thomas on waivers to another team but only fined Allen. Thomas complained publicly that his treatment was unfair and the Phillie fans sided with him. Boos and catcalls greeted Allen in his own park when he took the field or approached the dugout. He started wearing his batting helmet in the outfield to avoid being beaned by objects chunked from the stands. His troubles with the fans and the team got worse, and he never got over it. Frank Thomas many years later was slightly apologetic about it all. He said Allen might have been recognized as the greatest player who ever lived had he been able to overcome the emotional turmoil arising from the real and perceived racial slights.
Dick Allen’s death resurrected all those troubles, including his experience in Arkansas, and some expressions of regret for our part in that age and in one man’s trials are in order. Allen’s heroics now would be greeted with cheers by white and Black people alike, though in some other endeavors, not so much. The march toward equal justice for all is slow—dreadfully slow as of late—but it does proceed.