THR Web Features   /   March 21, 2024

From the Warp and the Woof, We Rise

Reflecting on a lifelong relationship with something more than a game.

Jonathan Coleman

( The 2023 Ernel Martinez mural tribute to Dick Allen, commissioned by Mural Arts of Philadelphia;

The ritual, for me, began every April, just before the long and languid season would begin. I would take my Rawlings glove out of the closet and massage it, dutifully and lovingly, with lanolin oil, as if I were polishing the family silver. If it was a Friday night, I would take it to my grandparents’ house for Sabbath dinner in Allentown, evenings in which my grandfather and I would listen to Phillies games on the radio and then, as the game progressed, would take to our beds with our separate transistors, often falling asleep before the game was over, especially if the games were on the West Coast, ads for Ballantine beer and the Country Club Diner going unheard by then. If one had insomnia, this was the best cure. When morning came, he or I would see who could get to the front door first to scrutinize the box scores and discuss it all over breakfast. Johnny Callison, Wes Covington, Tony Taylor, Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Chris Short, and my favorite, the player whom I could never get out of my mind, Dick “Don’t Call Me Richie” Allen.

So, of course, it made sense that Philadelphia, which was sixty or so miles south, was where I would often sneak off. I was adept at marking a trail of where I was supposed to be—there was no GPS then, one of the many reasons I cling to my flip phone today—and always managed to stay one step ahead of my mother, whose emotional well-being and elusive happiness I was meant to be responsible for, to try and ensure.

I did try, so very much, but at the same time, I was trying—and needed—to break free. 

I was resourceful, and whatever it took to get me to 21st and Lehigh, to Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park), I made full use of. I went to day games, mainly, but also those at night. In my whole life, though I didn’t know it at the time, coming through a portal and seeing the green of the outfield would soothe me like nothing else.

No year was as important, or as heartbreaking, as 1964 (the season the Phils collapsed down the stretch). It was a Thursday, June 4, and I was just finishing seventh grade. The Dodgers were coming to town and the Phils were in first place. On the mound that night for the Dodgers was their magnificent southpaw, Sandy Koufax. He had been struggling in the early season and came to town with a record of 5–4. But not that late-spring evening. The game began in splendid twilight. As the innings went by, the crowd seemed to grow more aware of what was going on, and the only sound I remembered was one of the main reasons I came—the sound of the organ, and how purposely, and perfectly, it was played. The Great Koufax was painting his masterpiece, a no-hitter with only Dick Allen getting on base with a walk. But the Dodgers had nothing to show for it—until Frank Howard, all six feet seven inches of him, went to the upper deck in left field with two men on base. Even now, as I write this, I can see that shot and see where it landed, two or three rows from the very top. 

Even at the tender age of 12, I knew I had seen something I would never forget. Nor would I forget the stance Koufax took a year later when he refused to pitch in the World Series because his start fell on Yom Kippur. It helped me begin to understand that baseball is just a game, and there are things—your own principles, for example—that are far more important than sports. 

Years later, I tried my tenacious best to persuade Koufax to collaborate on his life story with me. I got nowhere, although he was gracious in his responses to me through a mutual friend. He had, in his way, “participated” in a fine book Jane Leavy wrote about him, had even gone to her son’s Bar Mitzvah, but his whole life he has remained an enigma, elegantly out of range. But as it happens, twenty years ago, William Rhoden, a New York Times reporter, spotted him after a Dodgers playoff game (after much pleading on the team’s part, he had agreed to work with pitchers during spring training). He was quietly signing autographs for kids and wearing his customary sunglasses, looking as fit and as handsome as ever, perhaps even ready to go nine if asked. For whatever reason, he chose to answer when Rhoden asked him to compare baseball in 2004 to when he played. Well, Koufax said, “Ballparks have changed. Instead of somebody playing the organ, you’ve got noise. It’s more like a basketball game. That’s the way sports goes today. More noise, more stuff.”

Koufax was right, but he could have been talking about all of society, not just baseball. And yet when I return to 1964, I return to Dick Allen, who became the National League’s Rookie of the Year for Philadelphia and yet was treated horribly by Phillies fans (and by one white teammate in particular, Frank Thomas, who provoked a fight with Allen, and whose trade from the team both the press and the fans blamed and castigated Allen for). He became the target of things thrown at him: fruit, ice, garbage, batteries. He faced racist taunts and boos so numerous and unrelenting that he became the first player in baseball to wear his batting helmet out in the field. At one point, he silently traced the word “BOO” in the dirt around his area of first base. It must never be forgotten that the Phillies were the last team in baseball to integrate. 

Allen, who grew up in tiny Wampum, Pennsylvania, fascinated me. I had heard and read he had been given a hard time—even receiving death threats—when he played in Little Rock in 1963. Once his rookie season started in Philadelphia, he said little—other than making it clear he did not want to be called “Richie,” which he considered patronizing. His given name was Richard, he pointed out, and he wanted to be viewed and treated like a man, not a little boy. About this he was not quiet, taking a public stand in what was becoming King’s America, one that rankled many and impressed itself on me.

In 1972, with the Chicago White Sox, he was the American League’s MVP. The bat he wielded was the largest in the game—nearly 36 inches long and weighing 42 ounces. (Only Babe Ruth, a much larger man, ever swung a bat that heavy or hit the ball as hard.) Allen’s career is indisputably one of the greatest ever. And yet, he is not in the Hall of Fame—one of the cruelest injustices, a crime really, in all of sports. One more person sentenced to prison for a transgression, in his case, he didn’t commit.

About ten years ago, Allen and I struck up a short correspondence, on Twitter of all places, in the section reserved for private messages. I had heard that, surprisingly, he would occasionally go to spring training with the Phillies and help out with the batters (as Koufax did with Dodger pitchers). I saw that anytime a fellow player had a birthday or an anniversary or was struggling with his health or had died, Dick Allen always posted either a congratulatory or compassionate note. I told him of my interest in writing about him for Sports Illustrated’s annual “Where Are They Now?” issue. He never said no, but referred me to his business manager, a guy named Bryan Miller, who claimed that Dick’s time was “limited.” In September of 2020, Dick Allen, finally, had his number 15 retired by the Phillies and he attended the quiet ceremony at Citizens Bank Park in the time of Covid. He died three months later, in Wampum. In the aftermath of his death, a baseball field for youth was constructed and dedicated in his name in 2023, and in 2024, a large mural honoring his career will be placed not far from where the Phillies play.

When I look back on all the reasons I decided to write a book about race in America, Long Way to Go, I am well aware (though I wasn’t fully conscious of this at the time) that Dick Allen, and the singular image of him carefully tracing “BOO” in protest of his treatment, was a significant factor. I could never know what Dick Allen, as a black man, felt day after day, but I could—despite all the “advances” we as a country had, in theory, made, or were making, in “race relations”—explore every aspect of this confounding situation and try to get some clarifying sense of why we were still struggling to resolve this dilemma. Even more important, I wanted to figure out how far the country wanted to go.  

That question, alas, remains unanswered. 

In July of 2015, I went to a Nationals–Dodgers game in Washington with someone whose every single day, during the season or not, is partly given over to baseball. He has written many poems about it, he worries about it—mainly about the state of the Nationals bullpen—and it, frankly, consumes him, an integral part of who he is. 

It was a Sunday game, 1 p.m. start, and the temperature hovered around ninety, real DC swelter. When I was younger, I did not mind such conditions, but I do now. We had sweet seats, on the third-base side, and we were anticipating a great pitching duel between Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. It didn’t materialize. Scherzer didn’t have his stuff, and the Nationals couldn’t touch Greinke. In the late innings, I was thinking it might be time to go. I had a long drive back to Charlottesville ahead of me, but my friend urged me to drink some more water, which I did. Despite people around us standing up and making their way out, the usual quotidian concern of wanting “to beat the traffic,” my friend paid no attention, his eyes never left the field. He—we—would be there until the very end. You never know, he was essentially saying, they could come back. But what he was really intimating, to my mind, is that you stay out of respect: for the players, for the friendship and love of the game we had had for many years, and most of all, deep and abiding respect for the game itself.