As we close out a full year of looking back at the 1971 Topps set, I thought it would be fitting to close with the card of a man who has become one of my favorite players. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Dick Allen’s semi-autographical biography, Crash, which was co-written with Tim Whitaker and published in 1989. It is deftly written and full of insight, and reinforces the belief that Allen is a likeable man who is both thoughtful and charismatic, even if occasionally controversial.
The book has settled several notions I had about Allen, many of which I held in error. For example, I knew that Allen had faced racism as the first black professional player in the history of Little Rock, Ark., but had little idea of the volume of racist hate mail and messages that he received. Allen told Whitaker about the multitude of written threats. “They were left in my car, taped to the clubhouse door, and sent in the mail,” Allen said. His manager, Frank Lucchesi, tried to calm Allen by explaining that they represented isolated incidents, but they clearly were not; they all involved racial hatred.
Then there is the relationship between Allen and his owner in Oakland, Charlie Finley. I had always assumed that Allen and Finley were a good match. Both were mavericks, both were rebels against the baseball establishment. But Allen came to despise Finley, who had promised him that he would not have to DH but then reneged on the arrangement in midseason. Allen came to regard Finley as a liar through and through, and someone who could not be trusted. Fed up with Finley, Allen left the A’s.
Other anecdotes in the book, while less serious in nature, also dispelled some of my own myths. The book includes a short passage about Allen’s oft-quoted opinion of artificial turf. As he rather famously said, “If a horse won’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”
I had always assumed that Allen had expressed his dissenting view in the mid-1970s, after returning to Philadelphia, where the Phillies now played on the artificial surface of Veterans Stadium. But the book indicates that Allen actually made the remark upon joining the Cardinals in 1970. That season, the Cardinals switched the playing surface at Busch Stadium from grass to Astroturf. The timing of Allen’s remark makes sense, given that up until that point, he had played most of his games on the natural grass of Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium.
The book also solidifies the timeline regarding the various names by which Allen was known during his career. I knew that Allen was referred to as “Richie” in his early years with the Phillies, but I didn’t know that upon being traded to the Cardinals, the St. Louis media began referring to him as “Rich” for reasons that remain unknown to this day.
At the press conference announcing his trade to the White Sox, Allen was asked what he wanted to be called. He told the writers that he preferred to be called “Dick,” which he considered a more adult and appropriate name than “Richie.” The message finally got through to the media; from that day forward he was Dick Allen.
This point brings us more specifically to his 1971 Topps card. Amid the backdrop of an apparently empty Dodger Stadium, he is quite clearly “Rich Allen” on the card, a carryover from the strange practice begun by the St. Louis media the previous season. (It would not be until 1973 that Topps caught up with the proper practice of calling him “Dick Allen” on his cards.) Allen is listed as an “outfielder” on the card, one of the few times in his career that his card carried that designation. As it turned out, Allen actually played more games at third base (67) than he did in the outfield (60) for Los Angeles.
We also see that Allen is sporting a faint but visible mustache. Allen joined the Dodgers that same season, so the photograph must have been taken early in 1971. That shatters my previously held belief that it was Reggie Jackson who had ended baseball’s clean-shaven era in 1972, becoming the first mustachioed player since Wally Schang in the 1910s. Based on this card, we know that Allen beat Jackson to the mustache by one full year.
The card also provides us some evidence of Allen’s burgeoning Afro, which is growing out from under his Dodgers helmet. All of Topps’ earlier cards had shown him with short hair. Allen had broken through the grooming barrier by growing his Afro fuller and larger, becoming the first player to do so. For a number of African Americans at that time, including some major leaguers, the idea of growing their Afros out represented a sense of black pride and an expression of individuality that rebelled against the norms of physical beauty. Unfortunately, some in baseball considered Allen’s Afro only as a sign of his being militant.
Then there is the matter of Allen’s worth as a ballplayer. The Hall of Fame recently conducted a vote by its Golden Era committee, which considered players who enjoyed the primes of their careers in the ’50s and ’60s. Allen did not make the final ballot of 10 names.
This is puzzling given that an argument could be made that Allen was the game’s most dominant hitter from 1964 to 1973, the span of a full decade. Over that time, Allen compiled an OPS of .940. Only Hank Aaron was better, at .948. But if we factor in the advantage that Aaron had in playing in Atlanta’s “Launching Pad” from 1966 to 1973, whle Allen spent two of those seasons in home run graveyards like Dodger Stadium and Busch Stadium, perhaps Allen gains the advantage.
I’m a big believer in the idea of Hall of Fame seasons. Generally speaking, 10 Hall of Fame seasons are good enough to put a player in the Hall. From 1964 to 1974, Allen had a nearly uninterrupted run of productive seasons, except for 1974, when he compiled an OPS of 1.006 over 72 games but then saw his season ended by a broken leg. His worst OPS over that 11-season span was .863, which coincided with the one year he spent at Dodger Stadium, where the high mound and the tendency of fly balls not to carry hurts sluggers like Allen.
Even if we lop off that one season, and it’s debatable whether we should, that still leaves Allen with nine Hall of Fame seasons in an 11-year span. And we haven’t even brought up Allen’s terrific baserunning ability, along with the versatility that he provided in being able to play third base and the outfield, in addition to his preferred position of first base.
Allen’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame is certainly debatable. What is not debatable is this: Dick Allen’s card is just one more reason behind the lasting magnitude of Topps’ 1971 set.
References & Resources
Crash, by Dick Allen and Tim Whitaker