Monday, May 24, 2010

Confessions of a Phillies Fan: Dick Allen

When I was 9 years old we moved from Southwest Philadelphia to Folcroft, and I was full of the end-of-the-world melancholy that only a 9-year-old can experience.

What was the problem? I was convinced that since I no longer lived inside the Philadelphia city limits (Folcroft is approximately one mile outside the city) I couldn't root for the Phillies. It turns out I actually could, but it took me years of rationalization and therapy to convince myself of that.

My first baseball memory is from around 1962, when the Phillies finished seventh in the 10-team National League. There was no National League East, Central or West … one team had the best regular season record in each league and went directly to the World Series.

That team was never us.

Thanks in large part to the creation of two new teams through expansion that year, the Phils did win one more game than they lost. However, the teams they beat out in the standings were the pathetic Cubs, the brand-new Houston Colt .45's and the equally new, now-famous “worst team in Major League Baseball history” New York Mets.

So it wasn't easy being red.

I had heard tales of the 1950 Whiz Kids led by Richie Ashburn. They made it to the Series … but got swept. (Every Phillies fan who was alive in 1950 was always sure to make it clear that every game was close.)

I don't think anyone had the heart to tell me that in the 60 years that the World Series had been played, my Phillies had never won it. Those terrible Chicago Cubs had. So had the Washington Senators. So had THREE teams from Boston ... the Americans, the Braves and the Red Sox.

The Giants had Willie Mays in centerfield and Willie McCovey at first base. We had Don Demeter and Roy Sievers. We all loved Johnny Callison, but in our hearts we knew he was no Roberto Clemente. When the Dodgers threw Sandy Koufax at us or the Cardinals brought out Bob Gibson, we answered with Cal McLish or John Boozer. (To be fair, Art Mahaffey did win 19 games in 1962.)

It had always been like that for Phillies fans. The Braves had all-star catcher and third baseman Joe Torre. We had his brother Frank. There have been two great DiMaggio brothers in Major League Baseball history. We got the third DiMaggio brother. Through some major scouting miscalculation we never did get Hank Aaron's light-hitting brother Tommy, though. That might have been more frustration than one city could be expected bear.

If you get the feeling that the Philadelphia baseball public suffered from superstar envy, I think you're not far off the mark.

Then 1964 and Richie Allen happened. (He had always preferred to be called Dick Allen but we didn't know that then.)

The rookie. Number 15. The 40-ounce bat. The black-rimmed glasses. The calm, steady batting stance. The tug on his sleeve. The flick of the wrist and the lightning that jumped off his bat. Our superstar had arrived. The great Mays recently was quoted as saying that “no one ever hit a baseball harder than Dick Allen.” He would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award in a landslide over Jim Ray Hart and Rico Carty.

In the process he seemed to strap the Phillies on his back (with a lot of help from the likes of Callison, Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Wes Covington and Tony Gonzalez) and they forgot they weren't supposed to beat the teams with all those stars.

Bunning (who had seven kids at the time) pitched the first National League perfect game of the 20th century on Fathers Day. Just 17 days before that, Koufax would have beaten Bunning to the punch, except that Allen drew a walk in the Dodgers lefthander's no-hitter against the Phils.

Everything was falling into place. Callison even won the All Star game for the NL with an extra innings home run.

But it was not to be.

I won't go into the excruciating, historic details of the collapse out of the National League pennant that year, except to say that Allen hit .438 with 5 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs and 11 RBI in the infamous last twelve games.

Seasons following that magical 1964 would bring trouble. The Phillies organization, the fans, the sportswriters and Allen himself seemed at odds for reasons that a kid could never understand. For awhile it seemed like “The Controversial” was some sort of title he'd been bequeathed, like King or Prince.

The team never again rose to the heights with their slugger, and he was traded to the Cardinals before the 1970 season, with Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas, for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner, and Curt Flood. Of course that trade started a whole new controversy, ironically not involving Allen at all, when Flood refused to report to the Phillies and the first seeds of free agency in baseball were sown.

It would be 16 years until we actually made it to the Series. The world of a 25-year-old looks mighty different from that of a 9-year-old. The bitter pills you swallow when you're young seem to go down harder for some reason. The thrill of seeing my Phillies proclaimed as baseball's best team in 1980 was almost as great as my disappointment all those years earlier. But not quite.

Phillies fans would see more home-grown stars. Great players with names like Schmidt, Luzinski, Rollins, Utley and Howard, but to me it all started with a 9-year-old's first home team superstar, Dick Allen.

What a player!

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