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The Phillies are paying homage to late compatriot Dick Allen this season by wearing No. 15 patches on their uniforms. It’s a small token of remembrance for the former third baseman, who died last December at the age of 78.
Allen, who was Black, battled discrimination throughout his career. He remains the only Philadelphia Phillie with a retired number who is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In today’s stat-driven world, the slugger would be the subject of fan adulation and the recipient of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract. He’d also be a shoo-in to be honored at Cooperstown. Sadly, that is not how his life or career would unfold.
Bring up the 1964 Phillies to any ardent supporter or baseball history buff, and you’ll get a visceral reaction. That’s the year the team blew a 6½-game lead with just a dozen left on the season by losing 10 straight. Old school fans still replay visions of the Cincinnati Reds’ Chico Ruiz stealing home during a late September matchup, kickstarting Philadelphia’s epic downfall.
Overshadowed in this great collapse was the outstanding play of the team’s rookie third baseman.
During those final dozen games, Allen hit .483. He had three home runs, two triples, five doubles and 11 RBI. It capped a season in which he led the entire field in runs, triples, extra base hits and total bases. He was awarded National League Rookie of the Year, the start of a decade where he was second only to Hanks Aaron in on-base and slugging percentage. In OPS+, a stat that’s essentially a combination of the previous two, he was alone at the top.
I first met Dick in the 1990s, when I spent 10 seasons working for the Phils. He had been hired by the team to work in community relations.
One day he approached me in the clubhouse and asked about my nickname. “Why do they call you ‘Carwash?” he said. I explained that my family had a carwash not far from the stadium, where I sometimes worked for extra cash. He asked where it was and then moved on.
I thought that would be the end of it, but the next week Dick rolled into the carwash, got out of his truck and asked, “Got a beer?” It became a ritual through my days there. He’d swing by about once a month, and we would sit in the office and talk baseball, over what might have been more than one beer.
During those conversations, we weren’t a white guy and a Black guy. We were just baseball fans. Never once did he bring up the negative side of his storied career.
Literally trashed by fans
In 1960, scout John Ogden convinced the Phillies to sign Allen for a $70,000 bonus, stating the only player he’d ever seen hit a ball harder was Babe Ruth. Dick would indeed go on to develop a reputation for crushing balls deep into the stands with his Bunyanesque 41-oz. bat.
But the Phillies were the last National League team to racially integrate, and the fan base was known for its cruelty.
In July of 1965, Frank Thomas, a white player known for racist remarks, hit Allen in the shoulder with a bat during a clubhouse altercation. Allen and other teammates were forbidden by league rule from giving their story in public. Meanwhile, Thomas was released — which allowed him to give a one-sided account to news outlets. Thomas’ retellings led many to believe the whole thing was Allen’s fault, and that Allen’s instigations had led to the team’s release of a popular white player.
At home games, fans began to throw trash, rotted fruit, and even batteries at him. Allen took to wearing his batting helmet while in the field, earning the nickname “Crash” from his teammates. Despite his continued stellar play — he was a seven time All-Star, the situation deteriorated to the point where the Phillies granted his request and traded him at the end of the 1969 season.
“I can play anywhere, first [base], third [base], left [field],” Allen was known to say during this period, “…anywhere but Philadelphia.” He would go on to play for three other teams, notching an MVP season for the Chicago White Sox in 1972.
Controversy and injuries combined to lead to Allen’s retirement in 1974, but the following year the Phillies coaxed him back. Though injury had taken its toll on his aging body, he became a mentor to the younger players. Both Larry Bowa and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt credit Allen with nurturing their careers.
“The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse,” Schmidt wrote in his 2006 book “Clearing the Bases.”
In 1980, four years after Allen finally retired for good, Bowa and Schmidt went on to help the Phillies win their first World Series.
A friend throughout time
Working for a professional sports team for a decade desensitizes you to players’ celebrity status. And when I reflect on my time with Dick, it was never his athletic prowess that I most admired, it was his humanity.
I learned a lot about him through the years he’d visit me at the carwash. He raised horses on his farm in Wampum, Pa., the little town where he was born and still lived. He had recorded some R&B tunes on the Groovy Grooves record label — he was pretty good.
In 2003, I went with friends to the last Opening Day at Veterans Stadium. I wasn’t working with the team anymore (I had left to open my first restaurant), but I still knew people at the club. There was a hat giveaway, and my friend asked if I could get his hat signed by a Phillie, any Phillie. I went into the executive office, and there was Dick.
He didn’t miss a beat. “Hey Carwash, how you been?” he said. After chatting for 20 minutes, he gladly signed the hat and I took it back to my thrilled friend. It was the last time Dick and I would cross paths.
Dick died on Monday, Dec. 7, in his home in Wampum, Pa., after a protracted battle with cancer. Ironically, if not for COVID, he most likely would’ve just heard that he’d finally been chosen for the Hall of Fame.
In 2014, he’d missed being elected by one vote, and the Golden Era Committee’s next vote had been set for that Sunday. But because of the pandemic, it was postponed until 2021. When the meeting happens, Allen will likely be voted in posthumously, finally enshrining his legacy where it belongs.