The pandemic delayed a Golden Days committee vote that could have finally put Allen, who died on Monday, in Cooperstown.
They are some of the most hallowed names in baseball history, 10 of the most dominant offensive forces of the fully integrated major leagues, inner-circle Hall of Famers who slugged their way through an era better known for pitching:
Henry Aaron, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, Billy Williams, Reggie Jackson.
From 1964 through 1974, those were 10 of the top 11 hitters in the major leagues in on-base plus slugging percentage, with a minimum of 1,000 games. The unlisted name is Dick Allen. He ranked second in O.P.S. for that era at .940, just one percentage point behind Aaron.
Allen died on Monday, at 78 years old, in his hometown, Wampum, Pa. With better health and no coronavirus pandemic, he might have instead spent the day at baseball’s winter meetings, reveling in his status as a newly elected member of the Hall of Fame. The Golden Days committee would have considered his candidacy on Sunday, but the vote was canceled, as were the meetings, because the group could not gather in person.
Six years ago, the last time Allen appeared on that ballot, he fell one vote short, collecting 11 of 16 votes from the executives, historians and Hall of Famers on the committee. The Philadelphia Phillies’ owner, John Middleton, got tired of waiting to acknowledge one of his childhood heroes and erased his team’s policy limiting number retirements to players recognized in Cooperstown. The Phillies retired Allen’s No. 15 at a ceremony last summer.
It was overdue recognition for the first Black star from the last National League franchise to integrate, but Allen had long since made peace with Philadelphia. In his first tenure with the Phillies, from 1963 through 1969, he grew so weary of the fans that he scratched “BOO” in the dirt at Connie Mack Stadium and wore a helmet in the field. When he returned in the mid-70s, at Veterans Stadium, he became an elder statesman on the first Phillies playoff team in a generation, a mentor for younger stars like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa.
“We had read all the stuff about how he wasn’t a good guy, but we never saw any of that,” Bowa said Monday in a statement released by the team. “Dick was a great teammate and a great tutor for us. He couldn’t have been more open with us as young players and was actually the complete opposite of everything we had read.”
Here’s what they might have read, from a Sporting News editorial following Allen’s trade to Philadelphia from Atlanta in May 1975 which came after he refused to play for the Braves:
“In 12 years in the major leagues, Dick Allen never played with a pennant-winning club, which may be a measure of the man’s contribution to team success in face of his own personal achievements. There is no question about Allen’s talents as a hitter, but he is first and foremost an individualist who willfully refuses to go along with the rules that govern the rest of his teammates. Spring training? Allen scarcely needs it. Batting practice? It’s a useless waste of time for Allen. If the rest of the players are required to show up two hours before game time, 10 minutes is enough for Allen.”
And so on. You get the idea. Allen had a brutal image in the news media, and baseball writers would reject him 14 times on their ballot, never giving Allen even 20 percent of their support. Surely some of their opinions were colored by bias — but maybe not as much as it seems.
Hall of Fame voters often struggle to evaluate players like Allen who did not compile gaudy counting statistics. Consider those 10 Hall of Famers listed above. All but Stargell and Williams have at least 3,000 hits or 500 homers. Stargell was a one-team guy, a beloved leader who won two World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Williams played 16 of his 18 years for one team, the Chicago Cubs, and came close to the benchmarks, with 2,711 hits and 426 homers. Williams needed six tries for election.
Allen had 351 homers and 1,848 hits. He never played in the World Series and was traded five times in a six-year stretch. He won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards with a .292 career batting average. But other rate statistics, like on-base and slugging percentage, were not especially valued in Allen’s era. Totals mattered most.
There are exceptions, like Ralph Kiner, who had 369 homers, never played in the World Series and did make the Hall of Fame. But it took 15 tries, an obvious and compelling accomplishment — Kiner led the N.L. in homers in each of his first seven seasons — and a postcareer spotlight in the Mets broadcast booth to get him in.
Allen has vocal advocates like Schmidt, the greatest third baseman in history, and a former Phillies groundskeeper, Mark (Frog) Carfagno, who has passionately promoted Allen’s cause for years. The controversies of his past have faded, and ultimately, it seems, Allen’s absence from Cooperstown has mostly to do with an inconsistent application of greatness.
If a pitcher dominates for a 10-year stretch, like Roy Halladay or Pedro Martinez, he usually gets in easily. But if a pitcher is a tick below that level over 10 years, like Ron Guidry, or has a comparable peak that lasted only seven years, like Johan Santana, he’s an afterthought on the ballot.
How long must a hitter excel? Apparently, longer than 10 or 11 years. More recent sluggers like Albert Belle and Lance Berkman had comparable stat lines to Allen’s: fewer than 2,000 hits, between 350 and 399 homers, and a career average in the .290s. Neither lasted even three years on the ballot.
(As an aside, their relationships with voters hardly mattered — Belle’s was stormy, Berkman’s was warm. Several strong candidates in recent years were also dropped within two ballots despite being extremely cooperative with the news media, like David Cone, Carlos Delgado, Orel Hershiser and Bernie Williams. All deserved better.)
Maybe Allen, Belle and Berkman needed more compelling narratives. Maybe they scored too low on the useful-but-mystifying Wins Above Replacement metric. Maybe they needed more memorable moments, though Berkman had a fairly big one: his two-out, two-strike single off Texas’ Scott Feldman that saved St. Louis from elimination in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
Really, what they need is another chance, another group of voters, another context. That is what Allen should have had on Sunday, one more reckoning of a powerful legacy. When his day finally comes — and it will — it will be too late.