America expects every star first baseman to be a Figure, a man whose nature lodges firmly in the mind of the fan. The Iron Horse. Stretch McCovey. Bubbly Ernie Banks. Crazy Joe Pepitone. Chicago White Sox First Baseman Dick (or Richie) Allen's public image, currently in a state of transition, might comprise all four of the above—with overtones of Duane Thomas for inscrutability, Bill (or Willie) Hartack for first-name sensitivity, Jim Brown for not taking anything off anybody, and Will Rogers for homespun quotes. (Of artificial turf Allen once said, "If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it.")
This season Allen might have clarified that confusing picture. With the Sox he was free to do things his way and he was leading them toward a championship in the American League West. Then in June he broke his leg while giving beyond the call of duty on the field. Allen brooded, circulated gimpily on high heels and played Willie Ball with his agent. The Sox collapsed. Two weeks ago it was announced that Allen definitely would play no more this season. It was as painful a turn for the Sox as it was for their first baseman. At the same time, it marked a rare moment of quiet in Allen's stormy career, a good occasion to examine the phenomenon.
He is a triangular-torsoed, naturally heavy-lidded, deep-eyed, preternaturally strong man with an Afro, muttonchops and a mustache. Allen wears gold-rimmed glasses, which he says is the main reason people recognize him around Chicago. "Don't you know all us brothers look alike?" he says. "Why you think it's so hard for a black man to get a credit card?" He sometimes breaks into a dramatic wide-mouthed smile and a laugh that is a cross between a sigh and a rumble, but he smokes too much and often appears pent-up and too intense.
Allen is a man who would like to pare life down to certain essentials but finds it hard. His financial adviser, Mel Leshinsky, is determined to "get an organizational structure around Dick that we can work with and try to control." There are easier projects; Allen is not a great one for getting to business meetings on time. One thing Leshinsky has in the works is a series of furniture-store ads posing Allen in a "Room of Fame" surrounded by the décor of his choice.
Allen will get to keep the furniture, which is fortunate since the two-bedroom Chicago apartment that he calls "the flat," and where he and his team-mate-brother Hank are living while Dick's three-story brick town house is under construction, is almost devoid of it. The flat is currently fitted out with a couch, a waterbed, a quadraphonic sound system and a refrigerator with its freezing compartment so heavily frosted over that it will not close. There is one tremendous lamp, the base of which is a bronze-colored crumpled-looking maiden in long robes, and a smaller table model with a girl on it whose clothes disappear when the lamp is turned on. Thumbtacked to one wall is a sequence of pictures of Allen hitting a home run and another of his mother watching him do it.
"I don't need much," Allen says. "A bed to lay my head on. Something to feed my belly. A nice bathroom. And maybe a mirror to comb my hair. This place is close to the liquor store, the dry cleaners and the track and stables. The stables are my beach. My mother came to visit me and said she wanted to cry. She said I wasn't living."
Allen's marriage of 11 years is finished. "At least, it's through as far as I'm concerned, and that's what counts," he says. He only occasionally pops in on his sons Doobie and Buttons, his daughter Terri and their mother Barbara, who for the time being reside on the farm he owns near Allentown, Pa., where he plans to raise and train racehorses full time when he retires. He does not plan to live with a woman there, just horses. He does not see how a full-time woman can do him any good.
"Baseball wrecked my home," Allen says. "You don't get a chance to be at home. That can be grinding on a guy.
"I can't do anything domestically for myself. When I had a filly in the barn I'd eat twice a day. Shrimp or crab cocktail, soup, salad, large steak, glass of milk. Now I eat when I can. A whole year of sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches."
It is early in the season and Allen is relaxing in the flat, sharing some bottled sangría, winding down from a day game with the Angels, during which California fireballer Nolan Ryan vexed him by trying to "hide" behind breaking pitches. "Every time that sumbuck throws a curve I lose a little respect for him," says Allen. "He ought to go Smoke, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke; O.K. I got a good curve, here it is, ping; Smoke, Smoke, Smoke."
Then Dick wanders off to the subject of being the designated hitter. "I can't take it," he says. "You hit, it's over, sit down. You get stiff, you run in the tunnel to get loose. You smoke cigarette after cigarette, drink 19 cups of coffee. Get your heart beating again, hit again, sit back down...."
When not batting he would rather be at first, losing himself in the game and distracting runners. "I talk to everybody. 'How you doing, how many kids you got? Oh, two girls and...HEY [Allen the raconteur dives across the carpet, doing his impression of a runner picked off through inattention] damn it, Richie!' "
It is too bad he does not do an opening monologue along these lines on his local two-hour TV talk show. He is good at chatting with sports guests on camera when he is in the mood, but he is even better at filling his living room with an evocation of what it is like to play ball. He jumps around, slipping in and out of the past, the present, different cities, the pitcher's mind and his own. He swings an imaginary bat hard and throws in the necessary sound effects.
"Yeah, I try to go down the line when I'm on base, distract the pitcher, but you got to know when to do it. Not like when Pat Kelly used to get on." Allen drops into an impeccable radio announcer's voice as he talks about his base-stealing teammate. " 'Joe Blow starts his wind-up. He comes set. He throws over to first, Kelly's back.'
"Meantime, I'm waiting to hit. Joe Blow don't want to bring it to me!
" 'He comes set. It's an idle toss to first base, Kelly's back!'
"Meantime I'm at the plate." Allen, the hitter, is agitated, coiled, waiting to explode. The broadcaster oozes on.
" 'He comes set. We'll pause in the action a few moments while Joe Blow throws over to first and Kelly's back.'
"Meantime I'm waiting to hit."
That is the kind of thing Allen hates, having things come between him and his cuts. He prefers the problem of hitting against a man such as Bob Gibson. Allen goes into a pumping, kicking wind-up. "A man like Gibson, he says, 'All right big guy, here it is. Pschoo!' He's challenging you. Pschoo! Why hold on to the ball? Why sneak it in? That's not what the good dudes do—Koufax, Gibson. 'Here's the heat,' they say. 'Here, you want me? Pschoo!' "
Any hitter who sincerely wants a piece of Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson is a man any team ought to want, appreciate and turn loose to do his thing. That is how Allen sees it, and any hedging on that proposition gets him down.
"I don't use the strike zone much," he says. "I'm looking for something to hammer. I don't have time to argue whether the pitch was two inches either way. Besides, that sumbuck in blue back there has more problems than I do.
"When I first see a pitcher I'm looking inside. Fight that hard stuff to right field, and the moment he comes in with that soft stuff, CLICK, pull it to left. If he can keep putting the ball on that outside corner, fine. I'll take five or six strikeouts until I understand the pitcher. Then if I see this guy can keep putting the ball there, I'll start looking outside, going to right. Then if he does come inside I can still come around on it."
It is possible to draw an analogy to life: Allen wants everybody to be straight with him, to come in with their hard stuff. He wants everybody to want him as simply as he and Gibson want each other. He is set up to handle life that way—looking inside.
When pitchers get shifty, trying to nip the outside corner, he disapproves but will adjust, grumbling all the while about pitchers who "want to fool everybody." But he cannot adjust to deviousness and compromise off the field.
During the first eight years of his career Allen was noted mainly for hitting preposterously long home runs, eschewing batting practice, drinking before games rather than just afterward and not being punctual for buses and planes. Allen established himself as one of the game's top hitters and was with four teams in as many years. He wrote dismissive notes to his general manager in the base-path dirt with his foot! What kind of man would do a thing like that? And why didn't anybody think of it before?
Then, in the winter of '71, Allen was traded to the White Sox. He became the rock on which their sudden resurgence was built and the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Alex Johnson, Joe Pepitone, Denny McLain have all pitted their natures against the system and been put down. Allen alone has come through as a confirmed team-carrying hero, on his own idiosyncratic terms. He shows up at the park a couple of hours later than his teammates. He takes no more part in pregame warmups than he wants to, which isn't much. He travels separately. The city of Al Capone and Richard Daley has put him, in the words of a writer who covers the Sox, "on a pedestal."
Allen is the first black man, and indeed the only contemporary man of any color, to assert himself in baseball with something like the unaccommodating force of Muhammad Ali in boxing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in basketball and Jim Brown in football. He is perhaps the best all-round player in the game today; he is certainly the most independent and highest paid. How can such an imposing figure have remained so ill-defined?
Allen himself feels no call to be fully explicable. "Nobody can say they know me, or what I will do," he says. "If I ever am trying to keep up an image, and something I want to do comes up, I'll say lose the image." But that does not mean he is an unknown quantity or hasn't gotten himself together. "The man is undaunted," says Reggie Jackson. "He is the epitome of poise."
Tailors must find it hard to believe that all of Allen's measurements belong to the same individual: jacket size 42, sleeve length 35, trouser length 32, waistline 31. From the waist up he is a defensive end, from the waist down a wide receiver. The only three active players who sometimes hit the ball as hard as he does—San Francisco's McCovey, Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell and Detroit's Frank Howard—are four to eight inches taller, 20 to 60 pounds heavier and incalculably slower than the 5'11", 190-pound Allen, whom some opponents call the best base runner in either league.
Other hitters use a 32- to 34-ounce bat that they can whip around, or maybe a 38-ouncer that they choke up on and shove out into the path of the ball. Allen's bat looks big enough to walk to the plate and hit a single by itself—it weighs 40 to 42 ounces—and he holds it right down on the end.
Some hitters are loosey-goosey at the plate, some coiled tight. Allen, standing right-handed, shifting his weight from foot to foot under the slightly bobbing head of his huge vertical bat, is both. Un-composed, moving within his stance like heavy liquid in a glass that has just been set down, he is getting ready to reach way back into the depths of his wheelhouse, as they call it, for the baseball ultimate in foot-pounds per instant. Allen once hit five center-field home runs in five days, the shortest of which went 430 feet. He has hit home runs estimated at up to 600 feet. Off-balance, he once hit a low changeup 500 feet.
"I saw him hit a line drive into the second deck at Busch Stadium which surely would have killed anyone if it hit them," says Minnesota's Larry Hisle. "It bounced off the glass in the Stadium Club and everyone stopped eating there for a long time."
"He hit a ball to center field in Dodger Stadium that took about three seconds to get out of the park at the 410-foot mark," says Bobby Darwin of the Twins. "It was like watching an Indianapolis race car."
"I think Dick probably hits the ball harder than anyone in the world," says Baltimore's Boog Powell.
None of which is to suggest that Allen is just a muscle man. Pitchers agree that he is smart, knows what they are trying to do to him, is liable to hit any pitch and goes for the kind of hit that is strategically called for. He will decoy you by looking so bad on a pitch that you throw it again—and he is laying for it. He can also demoralize you with his casualness. When Gary Gentry was breaking in with the Mets, Allen got a hit off him while talking to the New York bench.
Allen fields, runs, sacrifices himself to advance the runner, hits with power to all fields, talks to the pitcher, teaches young players how to hit, persuades Manager Chuck Tanner to make an innovative change in infield strategy. He is, in sum, both a natural player and a finished one. "He is the closest thing to being a perfect ballplayer that I have ever seen," says Boston's Luis Aparicio.
In other words, Allen is a wily but unsurpassedly powerful spray hitter. A team player who has bounced around. He is a mentor to the young, a seasoned veteran whom managements have seen as a discipline problem. The more you learn about Allen from outside sources, the more he swims before you.
So it is necessary to figure out Allen from the inside. Fortunately, although he has no blandly cooperative manner to trot out for constant interviews, once he opens up he is an unguarded, persuasive expositor of how his life looks to him. He has a staunch sense of what is right for him. That sense, along with people's resistance to it, has been the source of his tribulations.
"We can't have a different set of rules for everybody" is one of the laws of baseball, as sacred as the reserve clause that forces a player to go wherever he is assigned, traded or sold by management. "I don't know a different system," says Allen blandly. "If I did I'd be front-office material." But he is convinced he knows how he works best in his own and the team's interests. He believes the team ought to let him work that way. He also feels, as an enterprising American workingman, that if he is unhappy with a company, such as the Phillies, he ought not to have to stay with it until the company sees fit to send him away.
Those radical notions began to develop in Wampum, Pa., pop. 1,189, where Allen was born and grew up with four brothers and four sisters in a house with no father or plumbing. "We had air conditioning," says Allen. "It was the kind that comes in through the walls. We had a garden outside with beans and okra, corn, rutabagas and potatoes. My mom could cook that stuff. She could get down. Reach in there with a little smothered steak every now and then. Come in with that fried chicken on Sunday. Biscuits, greens, mashed potatoes...."
Mrs. Era Allen also washed, sewed and cleaned house for other Wampum families to support her children, and she kept her kids in line. "I was always in the most devilishment," says Allen. "One of my brothers, he'd get up in the pear tree and get a licking once. I'd keep on doing it. And I'd be batting stones—cut the handle off Mom's old broom and throw 'em up and hit 'em—till all the windows would be broken out. I've hit stones all my life. It's still fun every now and then."
Allen cannot remember when his father was not separated from the family. "I don't have anything against the cat," he says. "We used to go work with him. I talked to him on the phone the other night. He's 70, still driving trucks out of Coraopolis, Pa. He was always interested in horses, like I am. I used to have a stable of sticks, all of 'em with names. I've got five thoroughbreds now."
How much of Allen's character traces to his having, like a good many geniuses in other fields, a distant father and a powerful mother? It is interesting that he has no use for managers, but he loves and never argues with umpires, whose full-throated, essentially self-abnegating decisions help define his game. For her part Mrs. Allen, who talks by phone to Dick two or three times a week, declines to be interviewed. "It's too hot to have company," she says.
Mrs. Allen did not care anything about sports herself, but after her boys had done their homework and the housework at her iron behest, and when they were not working in the steel mill or the vegetable fields or throwing paper routes, she would sit on the porch sewing and watching them play ball on the WPA-built diamond a few feet from the house.
They also played basketball, Dick becoming a high school All-America who could touch a spot 16 inches above the hoop. He led Wampum to 82 straight wins and two state championships.
"We had only one policeman in Wampum," says Allen, who once in Philadelphia was pulled from a car and blackjacked by an officer. "If he caught you running a stop sign he'd say, 'If you do that again I'll tell your mother.' Nothing bad ever happened in Wampum."
Hank Allen, two years older than Dick, is assumed to be serving the White Sox not only as a utility player but also as what is known as a "steadying influence" on his brother. Hank remembers Wampum as fondly as Dick does.
"There were only 15 black families in town," Hank says. "You'd learn to say a few swearwords in Polish, a few in Italian. You'd go with somebody to visit their grandparents and they'd serve you their homemade wine. You knew they liked you then. It'd kill you, it was awful, but you knew they liked you."
If the world were more like Wampum, Allen's career would have been simpler. But he never doubted he was bound for bigger places. "My brothers were always into business. Those guys been in colleges! I didn't have time for that mess," he says. "I've got about an eighth-grade education. I figured I could count well enough to tell who won the game.
"I was the Dodgers—either I'd put myself in their lineup or I'd go through it being each one of them. Gilliam left-handed, Robinson right.... I'd be daydreaming a scout'd come out of the woods. I didn't know how he was going to find Wampum, but then one day a guy in a big hat pulled up in a car...."
The Phillies signed Allen for $70,000, at that time the biggest bonus ever paid to a black athlete. And Allen's troubles began.
First thing, his name got changed. Back home everybody called him Dick, or Sleepy, because of the droop of his eyes. But the Phillies had Richie Ashburn at the time, Allen was listed as Richard, and somehow he became Richie, too.
Allen says too much has been made of his objections to that name. Many players still call him Richie, and he wears a bracelet with RICHIE on it. But Allen has a jealous sense of his own identity, and he did not care to be issued a new name by an organization.
If being renamed only mildly irritated Dick, having his batting stroke tampered with struck at his heart. "They sent me to Elmira and the manager tried to change the way I hit. My oldest brother Sonny played semipro ball. He used the big bat, too, and he told me, 'That ball in on you, don't pull it. Fight that hard stuff to right.' But this man wanted me to pull the ball more. He was the first man I ever heard curse at me in my life. My first year away from home."
Allen persisted in hitting his own way—.281, .317 and .329 at Elmira, Twin Falls and Williamsport. In 1963 he was sent to Little Rock to become that city's first black player.
"I thought I was going to stay with the Phillies that spring. They said they'd just send me to Little Rock for 30 days," he remembers. But he went there for the whole season, and when he got off the plane a man was carrying a sign that said LET'S NOT NEGRO-IZE OUR BASEBALL.
It happened that the leading elements of Little Rock had mounted a civic campaign to welcome Allen, so the town could join the International League. Governor Orval Faubus threw out the first ball, and the stands, the leading hotel and three leading restaurants were desegregated. "Richie was upset one night because one person said, 'Come on, Chocolate Drop, hit one out,' " his manager, Frank Lucchesi, said that season. "That's not in taste but the fan didn't realize it. They say worse things to white ballplayers. Richie is sensitive and he is self-centered. He is not concerned about what town we're in, or what park, or what team we're playing. He's interested in Richie, and hitting."
In fact Allen became a local favorite in Little Rock, as well he might have with 33 home runs and 97 RBIs. From white Little Rock's standpoint the experiment was a success. Allen had no particular reason to be gratified by Governor Faubus' endorsement. He did not see the sense in being barred from any hotels or restaurants. And especially, he says, "It was not knowing what could happen. In Wampum we were welcome anywhere. I had heard about all that stuff, like the sign in the airport, but I never dreamed I'd be involved in it. I was scared."
At the end of the Little Rock season Allen, already feeling betrayed by the Phillies, was called up. "I saw my name in the lineup and I walked out there and hit a double. My first big-league game. Some guys get all worked up, but I had this feeling like: 'I should've been here long ago. Here, let's do it.' "
But the situation became more complicated than that. "There was a whole lot of stuff I didn't understand. The Phillies didn't really want me from the beginning. If they had, I'd've been content to play there. Could've built a dynasty there." In 1964 he had a tremendous season and was Rookie of the Year. But the Phillies blew a big lead in the stretch. That left the razor-toothed Philadelphia fans hungry for blood.
In '65 they fixed on Allen. He made a lot of throwing errors from third base, and since he was expressionless on the field he looked arrogant. Teammate Frank Thomas, who had won the fans' hearts in '64 but was benched and restive the next season, kept baiting Allen, allegedly saying things such as "Shine my shoes, boy." Allen warned Thomas several times. Thomas reportedly said, "You may get a meal out of me but I'll get a sandwich out of you." Allen knocked Thomas down. Thomas hit Allen in the shoulder with a bat. Thomas was released and made a bid for public sympathy. The Phillies forbade Allen from telling his side of the story.
"All they had to do was call a press conference and clear things up," says Allen. "They didn't. They had a losing team, they had to get people out to the park, so they said, 'Boo that black sum-buck. Go ahead, he won't say nothing.' "
Over the next five years they not only booed, they threw things. "Change, chicken bones, half-pints. That's when I started wearing a batting helmet in the field," says Allen. "Anyway, that cheap organization, they would only give you one hat, and by August it would smell like fish...."
He still wears his helmet throughout a game, one of the last vestiges of the shell he built around himself as people smeared paint on his car, threw rocks and shot BBs through his windows and booed his children in the street. "At contract time they would say to look at what baseball has done for me. I'd say, "Yeah, it's made a terrible guy out of me. People who don't even know me see me on the street and say they don't like me.' "
He would stay away from the park until the last moment. "Then my wife called my mom to try to get me to leave earlier. Mom said, 'I turned him over to you.' So my wife would run me out of the house in the afternoon and I'd go to a bar for a couple of hours." He missed a plane, was late for buses, was absent from a home game when he got caught in traffic, showed up at the park glassy-eyed (and hit home runs that way), was blamed for the departure of Managers Gene Mauch and Bob Skinner. Allen held out for a prettier and prettier dollar, was fined several times for missing batting practice, was suspended for 26 days, got into fights in a barroom and at a racetrack. Every time he did anything irregular it fit neatly into the sports-page saga in which Allen was always the Bad Boy.
He was still, indisputably, a natural, a steady .300 hitter with 20 to 40 homers a year. "My hands may be big and rough, but they're like a surgeon's hands," he says. "They know what they're doing." Then in August 1967 he was pushing a 1949 Ford up a hill with his right hand on a headlight. The headlight broke and severed the nerves and tendons leading to his ring and little fingers.
"Things were sticking out like spaghetti. In the emergency room while I was bleeding the doctor asked me for an autograph and another man tried to shake my hand. They operated, turned the nerves inside out like telephone wire and sewed together the cables inside. It didn't work. I couldn't move those fingers. They wanted to operate again. I said no. I thought I was done. I didn't move for four days, feeling sorry for myself.
"Then I went on maybe a 2½-month drunk. That didn't solve anything. Nobody could find me. I was driving. In Pittsburgh my oldest brother gave me some static. I woke up in Mexicali, Mexico once. In L. A. my sister gave me some static. I was out of it, I didn't know where I was. I talked to my friend Clem Capozzoli from Fairfield, Calif., wherever that is. He got me to come back to Philly. There they gave me a provisional contract. 'If you can't use your hand,' they said, 'you'll be sent home on a bus.'
"On my own I went to work on the two fingers. I took a construction job, no pay, throwing bricks until I got back some of the use of the fingers. I never got all the strength back. It didn't start returning until toward the end of '71. Part of my right palm is atrophied."
Despite the impairment, he hit 33 and 32 home runs in '68 and '69. Since he could no longer throw very well, he began playing first base. There, in one effort to force the Phillies to trade him, he hit upon the inspired notion of answering the fans' taunts with fool-graffiti in the dirt. "I wouldn't have had to do a lot of things I did if it hadn't been for the reserve clause," he says.
"I never made one unfriendly gesture to the stands. But once when they were getting on me I wrote COKE in the dirt, saying that I'd hit one over the Coke sign. I wrote BOO, and they did."
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn disapproved of the writing. General Manager John Quinn called down to tell Allen to quit. Allen wrote NO and, later, WHY and then MOM—"to say she tells me what to do, not the man up there."
At last the Phillies traded Allen to St. Louis, where he hit a long home run on opening day to tumultuous applause. He respected the Cards, but he was not entirely happy in his work. "I couldn't play in St. Louis—the racetracks there operate at night and we played at night. And for some reason my mother never would come to see me there. It's the only place she wouldn't visit me. And they pulled that clause on me [the seldom-used contract provision that requires a player to accept the club's terms after a certain period of holding out]. Nobody ever did that to me before. I said, 'O.K., you'll get what you paid for—one good year.' And they did." St. Louis management may not have agreed. They did not like to have him loosening up in a bar instead of the batting cage. He went to the Dodgers. "I've never been so disappointed in my life as when I got out there," he says. "The old Dodgers were my team, but these guys were a bunch of crybabies, always arguing with umpires and throwing their helmets. Maury Wills was hard to play with. Walt Alston treated me like a man, but he'd been quoted as saying he'd quit if they got me. Maybe he was misquoted, but he never said anything different to me. All that mounted up.
"I was hitting about .220 and I knew I wasn't going to go back. My mom said, 'Well, if it's your last year, don't you think you ought to do something''' I decided I'd get up to .300. So I did. After the season I was on my way to the racetrack when I saw a sign that said SAN FRANCISOO. I wound up in Tacoma, Wash, after driving all through Idaho."
By the time he got back to Wampum, fate had provided him a place to play ball where he would feel, figuratively, close to home. In fact, Allen and his new manager. Chuck Tanner, call each other "Homey." Tanner hails from New Castle, Pa., eight miles from Wampum, and he has been acquainted with the Allen family since he watched Dick play high school basketball. In the winter of '71 Tanner urged the White Sox to buy Allen, and then paid a call to the house Dick had bought his mother in Wampum.
"I told him thank you but I don't intend to play," says Allen. "He said 'Jesus Christ.' And my Mom said, 'This guy's from home, Dick.' "
"I told Dick I would be the last manager he'd ever have and when he left me he'd go straight to the Hall of Fame," says Tanner, who talks of Allen the way Jack Valenti used to speak of Lyndon Johnson.
"I came here to Chicago to help Chuck out," Allen says. "I said I'd give 'em one year." Since then he has given the Sox several years' worth of increased attendance. He very nearly gave them a pennant in '72. "People said we had a good team," Dick says. "I didn't think we had bleep. I never had to play so hard in my life.
"Toward the end of the season I was completely exhausted, a nervous wreck. I'd been carrying the team for months. Nights I'd be hot one minute, cold the next, and wake up jumping. I didn't think I could play anymore. But this was the only place I'd felt I was liked. I didn't want to do anything to change it."
White Sox crowds not only like Allen, they seem to be anxious not to offend him lest he move to some other city. In the clubhouse, which is a good loose one, Allen is popular and admired. Though he arrives at 6:30 or seven instead of 4:30 or five, he still has time to be fitted for some new hard-to-describe suits—his look includes a cinched-in waist, big collar points, maybe some leather flaps here and there and perhaps yellow snakeskin boots. Time to observe the handcuffing of the clubhouse boy with the Pinkerton man's cuffs. Time to hear from Third Baseman Bill Melton about a place where you can get a three-quarter-length seal coat for only $1,250. Time to slap each of a shipment of bats with his palm while holding them next to his ear. The harder the wood, the higher the ringing sound, Allen claims.
No one in years has denied that Allen puts in a full day's work once he is on the field, and his point regarding pregame drills has finally been taken. He believes in hours of purposeful batting practice, riding the ball to right field over and over, sometimes all alone in the batting cage at dawn. But he does it only until he gets his timing down and his calluses built up in the spring. After that he feels that batting practice and most other forms of messing around throw him off his game. He wants to bop in just in time to dress, maybe take a few grounders at shortstop, have a cigarette and then "Get it on," which is to say play ball.
This year he played with a broken thumb and with one eye closed by a sty. Late in June in Anaheim he leaped after a wide throw right into the path of former college fullback Mike Epstein running to first. There was a terrible crunch and Allen, having already left his feet, went flying. He got up and stayed in to make a remarkable stop and a whirling throw on a grounder far to his right. When the inning was over Tanner had to force him to go see the trainer. He had two hairline fractures of the left leg.
As the White Sox dressed after the game Allen returned from the hospital on crutches, to cries of "He's coming back! He's coming back!" As he sat on his stool he was surrounded by 30 people. Tanner and Trainer Charlie Saad knelt at his feet and undressed him.
"You have to go back to Chicago," said Tanner.
Allen said too many other people were hurt. "I've got to play tomorrow."
Wilbur Wood pushed through the crowd, took Allen's head in the crook of his arm and whispered something into his ear. Allen laughed. Outfielder Pat Kelly said Allen could return to Chicago because he and Carlos May were going to take up the slack.
"Now I know I can't go," said Allen.
Kelly began dancing around the stool with his dukes up. "Now I got you where I want you. Get out here, bum."
Allen punched Kelly in the stomach with his crutch and limped into the shower. Five weeks later he returned to the lineup and went 3 for 4. He then pinch-hit twice before his painful leg sidelined him again. Now he is out for the season and the Sox are far out of the race although they trailed by just one game the day of his injury.
The great majority of players in both leagues seem to find it meet and right that Allen has at last been taken unequivocally to the bosom of a team and a town. When you start talking to players about Allen, even his past grows rosier.
Bobby Valentine of the Angels, who was a struggling young Dodger the year Allen was in L A., says, "Dick was the only guy who had a word of encouragement for me. I had known other guys on the team five years and had only known Dick a few months. He talked to me daily about what I should do. I've seen him get arrogant, selfish and bullish at times, but almost invariably it was when reporters were in the clubhouse."
When Kansas City's Cookie Rojas was with Allen on the Phillies, Rojas called a team meeting in which players criticized Allen until he stomped out saying, "The hell with you guys." Now Rojas says, "I would pick Richie, all-round, over Clemente, Aaron or Mays."
So the matter of Allen's image may soon be resolved: Natural Allen, the Wampum Whomper, the players' and the people's choice. But Allen can't forget his life's troubled side.