Teammate Bob Uecker gave him the nickname Crash. The reason he received that name was his learned preference for wearing a batting helmet not just when he was at the plate but also on the bases and in the field. The Philadelphia Phillies decided for some reason that his name was Richie even though no one ever had called him by that name before. Back home at Wampum High School and nearby Chewton, Pennsylvania he was known as Sleepy. On his birth certificate, he was named Richard Anthony Allen, one of nine children raised in the small western Pennsylvania town mostly by his mother.
He was called Sleepy because an early childhood injury left him with a droopy left eyelid. Dick Allen is in his late seventies now. I never saw him play baseball, even though I grew up close to Wampum and was only slightly younger, until he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1971, but I did see him play basketball once. That was in 1961 and it was a treat. It was a game played during the Christmas holidays with former high school stars at the local YMCA and Sleepy Allen amazed me by dunking the ball with his back to the basket. Dunking wasn’t done much in those days and was a bit of a novelty, especially for a person who stood five feet, eleven inches. Richard and his brothers Harold and Ron filled the local sports pages in those days with their exploits for Wampum High School as all three of them were All State basketball players for a team that almost never lost under legendary coach L.Butler Hennon, whose son, Don Hennon, became an All American play making and shooting guard at the University of Pittsburgh.
We all found out about Dick Allen the baseball player in 1964. He became National League Rookie of the Year that season as part of a Phillies team that probably should have won the pennant. He batted .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in. At 22 years of age he was looking like a star for Philley for a long time. He had power and speed, stole bases and had good baseball smarts. He also committed 41 errors at third base.
Philadelphia fans were happy to have a contending team again but the City of Brotherly Love had, and retains to this day a reputation for unfriendliness to perceived enemies or miscreants. In 1965, Allen incurred the wrath of many by taking on the Big Donkey, Frank Thomas, when Thomas made racially denigrating statements toward himself and Wes Covington. Allen punched the veteran Thomas and Thomas went after Allen with a baseball bat. Thomas was a career fielder on a level with what Allen had shown in ’64, and was ten years older with perhaps a few good slugging years left, so the next thing he knew he was playing for Casey Stengel as a New York Met. Philadelphia was very late to the integration party, waiting until 1957, or ten years after Jackie Robinson made his Dodgers debut, and those Phillies fans who preferred their stars to be white showed their feelings with signs saying “We Want Thomas”. Dick Allen had spent the 1963 season playing for the Little Rock, Arkansas Travelers . Those were the days of Governor Faubus, who attended the opening game of the Phillies’ Triple A minor league team as fans held a sign that read “Don’t Negro-ize Our Baseball”. Wampum, Pa. wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t like that.
So it was a rough start as far as non baseball stuff but Allen went on to have what many consider to be a Hall of Fame career. His career batting average was .292, he slugged 351 home runs in 15 seasons while driving in 1,119 runs, he was very good in 1966 and ’67 for the Phillies, and it was mostly good but by 1969 he really wanted out and he was traded to St. Louis. After a good year there he was traded again, this time to the Dodgers. This was the team that he dreamed about playing for as a youth, but after a good season there in what was not a good park for hitters, he ended up in the American League playing for the Chicago White Sox, managed by old family friend Chuck Tanner. Allen crested there in 1972, winning the Most Valuable Player award with a .308 batting average, 37 home runs, 113 RBI. a .420 on base percentage, and a slugging percentage of .603. The years of acrimony and controversy seemed to be suddenly over, but it was not to be. There came his sudden retirement in 1974 followed by a couple of sub par seasons back in Philley and then an almost ridiculous finale playing for Charlie Finley’s suddenly woeful Oakland A’s in 1977. The baseball world was left to ponder what might have been. Could he have been a Hall of Fame player? Many feel the answer is sure, but….and others feel he is one anyway. The feeling here is that he comes pretty close, but no.
Chuck Tanner said, “What I knew about Dick from having grown up nearby, and, see,this is what other people in baseball didn’t know, was how much Dick Allen liked to win. It was all he cared about.” What Bob Gibson said was. “Dick was the same way I was. You don’t get in our way when we’ve got ball to play. We’ve got baseball on our mind. Why didn’t the writers ever figure that out? Why didn’t the headlines ever say GIBSON AND ALLEN CARE TOO MUCH ABOUT BALL TO MAKE SMALL TALK?
Sleepy scores points with this writer by saying, “As far as I was concerned the DH was the worst thing that had happened to baseball in my lifetime.” He had it in his Oakland contract that he would not be asked to DH.
Finally, yes, like it or not, racism is still an important part of all of our lives, and it obviously had a big effect on Dick Allen’s. The way he put it was this: “All my career,I had people tell me I was a natural hitter. Never once did they take into account how I studied the pitchers, how I analyzed the defense. Stan Musial and Ted Williams were great students of the game. Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson were naturals. It’s patronizing and insulting and, what’s worse,people think they are being complimentary when they say it.”
Why did Dick Allen wear that helmet all of the time? Because while he was on the field, he was subjected, not always but often enough, to various dangerous things coming at him out of the stands from the paying customers.