Book: Was Allen a malcontent or misunderstood?

Former manager: 'God Hisself' couldn't handle Dick Allen

March 1st, 2016

During the 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Golden Era Committee met to consider a list of candidates for the Hall of Fame. When the results were announced, Dick Allen (and former Twins great Tony Oliva) had fallen one vote short.

That brought renewed attention to one of the most prodigious sluggers in history. Also one of the most complex, enigmatic and controversial.

"God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen" by Villanova law professor Mitchell Nathanson is the first biography of the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner. It's also a work of impressive scholarship and gracious prose that attempts to untangle the myth from the reality and, even more ambitiously, to explain why such a magnificently talented player clashed repeatedly with front office personnel, managers, the media and fans throughout his career.

Even the title hints at the paradox. At first glance, it appears to be a description of Allen's formidable skills. Instead, it is a quote from one of his vexed managers, George Myatt of the Phillies: "I believe God Almighty Hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen."

Nathanson begins by establishing a counterintuitive fact, that Allen was shy and, in some ways, insecure. What was often viewed as moodiness by those who didn't know him well was simply a function of being uncomfortable in the spotlight.

Partly as a result, Allen developed a reputation for being lazy. Even his managers and coaches didn't know he often got his work in early in the morning or even away from the park because he was more at ease when nobody was watching.

Circumstances exacerbated Allen's troubles. He signed with the Phillies, the last team in the league to integrate, an organization that had never had an African-American superstar. In 1964, Allen was farmed out to the organization's Triple-A affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., which was in the throes of early integration.

Along the way, Allen became distrustful of the entire structure of pre-free agency baseball. It's probably not surprising that he discerned a plantation mentality. In fact, there's a remarkable passage in which Phillies owner Bob Carpenter attempts to negotiate with Allen by explaining that players were property controlled by management. What didn't register at the time was that he viewed that as an issue for all players, black and white.

Allen was also an individualist at a time when conformity was the norm, both in baseball and society at large. And he never forgot a slight. His relationship with the Phillies began to sour even before he made his Major League debut, when the team left him vulnerable to a waiver claim. That, the constant position changes and the contract battles represented disrespect. When Allen stood up for himself, he was fined and suspended, which only reinforced his sense of being treated unfairly.

It's all here. The race riot outside Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia in August 1964 that turned many fans against Allen, even though he was largely apolitical. The fight with teammate Frank Thomas that stoked resentment when the older white player, who hit him with a bat, was released. Writing cryptic messages to booing fans in the infield dirt. Allen's willingness to push the limits by skipping batting practice or even games, the disappearances, the resulting trades, the turmoil that seemed to follow wherever he went.

Was Allen a malcontent or just ahead of his time? The tendency here is to view the carefully collected anecdotal evidence as an explanation rather than an excuse for his behavior. Allen certainly could have helped himself by being more willing to get along. Instead, he remained true to himself and stoically accepted the consequences. There's a certain nobility to that.

Unsurprisingly, Allen declined to be interviewed for the book, just as he refused to campaign for the Hall of Fame. But he wrote an autobiography, and there is a mountain of source material, all buttressed by followup interviews with dozens who followed his career closely. It's worth noting that one of those, respected former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman, pushed hard for Allen's election by the Golden Era Committee.

Allen is eligible to be considered for the Hall of Fame again in 2017. The hunch here is that if each of the electors reads this book, he will make it easily this time.