Few celebrities in any endeavor arrive successfully at a point where their private lives and their public images cohabit agreeably—none less successfully, it would appear, than Dick Allen, the wondrously gifted misanthrope who plays first base for the Chicago White Sox. It is Allen's folly to demand privacy in a goldfish bowl, from which he gazes malevolently out on those who gaze curiously in on him. There was a time this spring when he threatened to jump right out of the bowl and quit baseball, forgetting for the moment what happens to fish out of water. Allen will stay in the swim, at least until his three-year, $700,000 contract, the highest in baseball history, terminates after the 1975 season. If there are further rewards perhaps he will stay even longer, although he now professes, possibly with tongue in cheek, to be weary of the whole enterprise.
Both Allen, whose average through last weekend was under .200, and the Sox, with a winning percentage not much higher, have been foundering, but both may be expected to right themselves.
It would be unfair to suggest that Allen views all humankind with distrust, though he has said he sees profounder virtues in racehorses, of which he owns seven. He justifiably commands the respect and admiration, even the affection, of his teammates, and he is favored with the undying devotion of his manager, defender and protector, Chuck Tanner, who is as cheerful in the face of adversity as Allen is morose. They are strange bedfellows, Tanner and Allen, the one open, gregarious, garrulous, the other closed, withdrawn, reticent. But, as Tanner has assured Allen many times, they are inseparable.
Allen is happy enough in the company of his colleagues on the ball field, and he seems truly to enjoy playing the game. It is just that he would prefer to play it in more private circumstances—in a monastery, perhaps—far removed from autograph seekers and intrusive newsmen. Tanner sees this ascetic tendency as a measure of Allen's artistic soul. Would Brahms have submitted to a clubhouse interview?
Actually, Allen enjoyed a relatively carefree 1973 season, if a season in which he broke a leg may be described as carefree. His troubles, which started long ago in Philadelphia and continued with varying frequency in St. Louis and Los Angeles, began again in earnest before spring training this year. First came a newspaper story in which Dr. Gerald Loftus, last year's White Sox physician, suggested that Allen, whose left leg was broken in a baseline collision in June, could have played the final month of last season.
"Dick was very hurt by that story," a White Sox official said sympathetically. So was Tanner. Typically, he reacted outwardly, while Allen fumed inwardly. "What would he have us do, kill the man?" Tanner inquired rhetorically. "Dick tried hard. He always does. He even went 3 for 4 after being out six weeks. But the leg hurt him. He was favoring it, and when you do that you risk getting hurt someplace else. We were out of the race by the time he came back. Why take a chance on a permanent injury? We have to think of the man's future—and ours. We needed him healthy for this year."
Allen did report this year—50 minutes before spring training began—in sound physical condition. Emotionally, he was even more vulnerable than usual. As he has in the past, Tanner allowed Allen to observe his own training schedule. In this respect Allen is not special. Most of the other veteran White Sox—Wilbur Wood, Bill Melton, Stan Bahnsen, Ron Santo, Jim Kaat, Ken Henderson, Carlos May—were also given considerable freedom. But Allen, who went to bat only six times (with one hit) in the spring, was, as always, the most conspicuous. His two absences from camp for a total of 15 days were dutifully reported and commented on in the Chicago newspapers. Allen's not entirely unwarranted reaction was, "Why me?"
Then in mid-March, Will Grimsley, a longtime Associated Press reporter, found Allen taking batting practice with a mechanical pitching device at the Sox' spring camp in Sarasota, Fla. The team, meanwhile, was playing the Red Sox in Winter Haven.
Seeking a routine interview, Grimsley, another reporter and a cameraman approached the solitary batter, only to be summarily rebuffed, as Grimsley reported in searing detail. "Dick Allen recoiled when he saw his private little cocoon invaded by a handful of strangers," he wrote. The story then described how Allen—jesting once again?—offered to buy lunch for the newsmen, or even slip them $50, if they would kindly leave him alone. Grimsley, in print, was outraged. "He [Allen] takes orders from no one," Grimsley wrote. "He submits to no formalities. He is subject to none of the normal niceties that go with being a public figure."
If Allen was hurt, he was now positively mutilated. Shortly before the season began, he approached Tanner and advised him that he would rather quit the game, pay back his huge salary—anything—than cause further embarrassment to his manager and his teammates.
"He told me," said Tanner, recalling the colloquy, "that his proudest moment in baseball was when I was named manager of the year and that he'd leave before he'd hurt me. That's the kind of person he is." Tanner said his response to this unthinkable proposal was, "You're never gonna leave, kid. My shoulders are broad. Nobody's gonna hurt you. You can play for me as long as you want to."
Allen's public utterances since the Grimsley episode have been about as frequent as Spiro Agnew's. His business manager, Mel Leshinsky, even advised this publication that Allen was obliged to keep mum because of a commitment to a publishing company that is putting out his biography. And last Friday, Allen wagged his 40-ounce bat like some massive extension of his forefinger in the face of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Heinz Kluetmeier to emphasize his reluctance to be photographed. Any more pictures, Allen told the photographer, "and I'll send your camera back in pieces." He did, however, speak at greater length, if with no more wisdom, to Chicago Daily News Columnist Dave Nightingale the same day.
"Look, buddy," Nightingale quoted Allen as saying, "you gotta understand. I just don't care anymore. I've had it. I'm just going to do what I'm told. This is just another job. That's the way I feel."
Tanner dismissed this ominous outburst as yet another manifestation of Allen's extraordinary sensitivity. "He's been hurt a lot by what people have been saying about him," said Tanner. "I told him I wouldn't let them hurt him anymore, if I could possibly help it. All he has to do for me is play ball and forget about everything else. I'll tell you one thing, he doesn't just go through the motions when he's out there. Between those white lines, nobody plays any harder than Dick Allen."
Tanner's office walls are decorated with such inspirational messages as, "There are few, if any, jobs in which ability alone is sufficient. Needed also are loyalty, sincerity, enthusiasm and team play." He believes in such things. And yet of all major league managers, he is least likely to impose a philosophy of life on his charges. Tanner is a pleasant-looking, relentlessly affable man of 44, only a dozen years older than Allen and the willing bearer of his burdens. He may be baseball's first genuinely modern manager in that he believes responsibility must come from within. He has infinite faith that Allen will meet his responsibilities. And so will the others.
"I don't have one rule for 25 players," he said last weekend, puffing thoughtfully on an immense black cigar, "I have 25 rules. I think communication is more important than regimentation. You don't treat a fellow of 30 the way you treat one who is 19 or 20. I remember when I was with the old Milwaukee Braves, I saw a 34-year-old Warren Spahn running up to his room just to beat curfew. Warren Spahn, mind you. Why, a man like that at least ought to be allowed to walk.
"I love managing. I love putting the uniform on. I love it when a young player comes along or when somebody like Bill Melton wins a home-run championship. I'm interested in my players not just as athletes, but as men. And I'll tell you, Dick Allen is one helluva man."
Tanner's hometown of New Castle, Pa. is a short distance from Wampum, where Allen was born and reared. Tanner knows the Allen family. And he obviously knows Allen better than anyone else has been permitted to in recent months.
"He has played for me hurt," said Tanner. "The other night, when the temperature was down in the low 40s, his right hand, the one he hurt pushing a car a few years ago, was completely numb. His leg pains him, too, in weather like that. But with one hand and one leg, Dick Allen is better than anyone. He has a magnetism—like Clark Gable, say, or Marilyn Monroe. He's above the ordinary. But he's a quiet, sensitive guy. And the other players really love him."
This observation seems somehow to be fairly accurate.
"We know Dick Allen," said Outfielder Henderson. "We know he's obsessed with winning. He just has his own way of doing things. You'll never hear anybody on this club criticize Dick Allen."
"Hell's bells," said knuckleball king Wood. "He's a great ballplayer. There's no resentment here."
"I need spring training," said Allen's substitute at first base, Tony Muser. "But if I had his ability, I wouldn't want to go, either."
"Not a ballplayer on this team has ever complained about Dick Allen," said Santo, who joined the White Sox this year after a trade with the crosstown Cubs. "I'm new and I would have noticed if anyone had."
The very thought of anyone objecting to Allen's privileges is, in the words of Outfielder May, "a lot of malarkey."
When the White Sox returned home from a road trip to open a series with Kansas City last Friday night, Tanner, many of the players and maybe even Allen himself anticipated some hostile fan reaction. The team's record was two wins, eight losses. Allen had not been hitting and the brouhaha over his threatened defection had scarcely subsided. White Sox fans are a brawling, raucous, vocal multitude. But they are also intensely loyal.
When Allen came to bat in the first inning, the applause and cheers began as soon as he stepped out of the on-deck circle. It was a gratifying sound, at least to Tanner. No matter that boos accompanied Allen's subsequent strikeout. "They'd boo Jesus Christ if he struck out," said the Sox' ebullient announcer, Harry Caray.
"I love these people," Tanner said, driving home from the ball park after the Sox's 5-4 win. "I knew they'd stand behind Dick."
When Allen hit a home run into the left-field seats the following day, it was as if all were well again on the home front, even though the Sox lost the game. They did win on Sunday, but Allen remains wary, reminding associates that what happened in Philadelphia—where the good Lord might be booed if he tripled with the bases loaded—seemed to be happening again.
That is doubtful. Still....
Irvings'?, complete with question mark, is a cluttered, comfortable, neighborhood bar just off Rush Street in Chicago. A solemn young man was sitting at one end of the bar scribbling notes on a sheet of music. Two other customers were playing electronic Ping-Pong on one of those new infernal machines. There is a bowl back of the bar in which several small, dreamy creatures were swimming lazily through underwater shrubbery. The bartender, a hirsute collegiate sort, reached into another bowl on a shelf and withdrew a goldfish while chatting about Allen's travails. "Never have cared much for Allen," he said. "A real prima donna."
He dropped the little fish into the bowl among the others. There was a brief swirling, and then the newcomer was gone. Completely gone.
"Piranha," the bartender said. "Feed them twice a day."
So you see, Dick Allen, worse things can happen in a goldfish bowl than being stared at.
Allen cocks his heavy bat in characteristic manner at the plate, as ever under the friendly gaze of his foremost fan, Chuck Tanner.
Approaching the dugout after hitting a homer against K.C., Allen is greeted by Tanner.
Says Ron Santo, "Not a ballplayer on this team has ever complained about Dick Allen."
Says Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood, "He's a great competitor. There's no resentment."