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Philadelphia Apologizes

April 28, 2016

Growing up in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I was naturally a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Over the summer of my eighth year, I watched my team soar to a 6 1/2 game lead in the National League on September 20, 1964, with just 12 games to go. Then followed one of the epic collapses in the history of the game, as the Phillies lost 10 games in a row, including seven at home in Connie Mack Stadium, ending the season tied for second place.

The Phillies were led by the power-hitting rightfielder Johnny Callison, with 31 home runs and 104 runs batted in, and the great pitcher Jim Bunning, who was later a rather less great senator from Kentucky. On June 21, 1964, Bunning threw the major leagues’ seventh perfect game, and the first in the National League since 1880.

For fans of the sport of “wait ’til next year,” the brightest spot of the Phillies’ 1964 season was third baseman Dick Allen, who had one of the outstanding rookie years of major league history. Allen led the team with 201 hits, 125 runs, and a .318 batting average; he was second to Callison in homeruns (29) and runs batted in (91). Only Allen and Callison played every game of the season.

At that age, I was not much aware of players’ race, likely owing to the prominence of radio in baseball coverage in those years. I knew that Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s “color line” when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but I didn’t then know that it was only in 1959 that the last major league team played its first African-American – the Boston Red Sox. The Phillies were the third-to-last team to be integrated, when John Kennedy played five games in April and May of 1957.

Dick Allen was known in baseball as Richie Allen, although he had never gone by “Richie” before. Interestingly, Jackie Robinson’s name was not actually Jackie, but Jack. Those who saw Ken Burns’s documentary on Robinson’s life and career recently on PBS may have noticed that Robinson’s widow, Rachel, consistently referred to Robinson as “Jack.” She reserved “Jackie” for their son, Jack Robinson, Jr., who died before his father, at the age of 24 in an auto accident.

American society has a tendency to treat black men in either of two ways: infantalize them or demonize them. Calling Dick Allen by a diminutive nickname he never used, Richie, seems to me to be a form of infantalization. Calling Barack Obama a post-colonial Kenyan Socialist Muslim is a form of demonization.

The way I remember it, Dick Allen put up with being called Richie for a year or two, but at some point asked to be called Dick – which was, after all, his name. That presumption of even such small request from a black man was enough to move Allen from infantalization to demonization. Allen had stepped out of bounds, at least for Philadelphia Phillies fans of the 1960s.

When I was in grade school, a close friend and I took a train with his father to Philadelphia for a double-header at Connie Mack. It was probably my first baseball game. I don’t remember who the Phillies played. What I remember is that, early in the first game, Allen smashed a line drive that was still rising when it hit the outfield wall. Allen had almost unbelievable power in a baseball age of power hitters. More than once, Allen hit homeruns that cleared the outfield stands. The scout who had recruited Allen once said that Allen was the only hitter he ever saw who hit the ball as hard as Babe Ruth had.

Allen’s next at bat came during a Phillies rally. Callison had doubled, prompting wild home-crowd cheers, but as Allen came to the plate the cheers turned to boos. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t understand why home fans would boo their greatest power hitter, coming to the plate after smashing a drive off the outfield wall. It made no sense.

But of course it did make sense, in the context of 1960s Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer once called Allen “the most booed man in Philadelphia from April to October.” In that context, almost anything Allen did was a provocation – like asking to be called by his actual name.

Once Frank Thomas, a teammate with a history of making racial remarks, swung a bat at Allen, provoking a fistfight. The Phillies punished Thomas by releasing him the next day, but they prohibited Allen from speaking about the incident. Since Thomas was no longer on the team, he was free to talk, but Allen was not free to respond – and what Phillies fans heard was that the arrogant black player had gotten a white player fired.

Eventually, Phillies’ fans’ verbal abuse of Allen took physical form. Fans pelted Allen with coins, cups, ice, and whatever else was handy. Allen took to wearing his batting helmet in the field, for protection from his own team’s fans.

By resolution of the Philadelphia City Council, the City of Philadelphia recently apologized to Jackie Robinson for the horrific treatment Robinson got in 1947 from the Phillies and their fans. That’s a great thing – the apology was hard-earned and badly overdue. I’m sure Rachel Robinson appreciated it.

But the City of Philadelphia has more work to do. Dick Allen deserves his City Council resolution too.

 

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