Card Corner: 1971 Topps—Rich Allen

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.

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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

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Nice article Bruce. I wish I could have seen Allen play. I’ll have to pick up his book. What was curious to me in regards to his relationship with Finley was, even though Allen was relegated to DH mid-season, he wasn’t released until late-March the next year. Maybe he went through spring training, and seeing they were planning on sticking him with DH again, balked.
    On the card, it’s funny to see that his signature says “Rich.” I suppose those weren’t real signatures, anyway.
    It’s also funny to see what I assume is the photographer’s knee sticking in the shot. How often did that happen? At least it wasn’t his thumb.

  2. Paul E said...

    Bruce,
      Our man Bill James wrote his tome, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”, on player evaluations across different era based on this new confounded stat, “Win Shares”. After spending chapters explaining the concept of the stat and defending the objective integrity of the stat, James goes and buries Allen as the 15th (fifteenth) best 1B of all-time based on everything BUT the Win Shares evaluation system and James’ own subjective criticisms. Based on the data provided, Allen compared favorably at the position with everyone with the exception of Gehrig and Foxx. He compares quite well with McCovey, Bagwell, McGwire, Greenberg, Frank Thomas
      Further, based on the “Win Shares” objective analysis used, it could be argued that Allen’s comparables at other positions include Duke Snider, Piazza, Arky Vaughn, Ed Delahanty, and Home Run Baker. Allen’s 1964 season is the greatest season by a rookie position player – ever, per the Win Shares system. It is also arguably the 2nd greatest season ever by a 3B behind only Al Rosen’s near Triple Crown season.
      That being said, as a 54 year-old Philadelphia, I believe that combination of speed, strength, and athletic superiority is truly a once every generation kind of thing and it is disappointing to wonder “What if?”….

      “Hey, I’ll play 1B, LF, 3B. I don’t care..I’ll play anywhere…except Philadelphia”

  3. Michael Caragliano said...

    I always liked this card. 1971 is a great set, and this was always one of my favorite portaits. Maybe because it’s at Dodger Stadium- Topps had very few LA photos in their earlier sets- or maybe it’s the angle- strange to see the foul pole stand out so prominently. Surprisingly, I can’t believe I never noticed until today that the photographer’s knee wound up in the shot!

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Jim, as I recall, Allen was suspended by the A’s when he left the team. Finley loved having big name players around (even ones past their prime). I think he held out some hope that Allen would return to the team. When it became apparent the following spring that Allen wasn’t coming back, the A’s made it official by releasing him.

    Paul, I think James is and was off base on Allen. He’s a very talented writer, but he’s not infallibe. None of us are. Also, James has a tendency to exaggerate with some of his negative commentaries; it’s just part of his style. I think that a more objective look at Allen reveals him to be a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Perhaps Dick Allen is on the borderline, but he would have my vote.

  5. Paul E said...

    Will:
      Amen. The media love the guy who gives them the interview. Then the media vote for awards like MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and, finally, the Hall of Sham…In the words of Paul Newman (Uncle Hud) to his nephew Brandon DeWilde in the movie “Hud”, “Son, no matter where you go, you’re gonna find that this old world is so full of crap, you’re gonna have to step in it anyway.”

      Bruce:  Allen plays for the hometown Pirates, no race riots, no scapegoat, no “best player on the team” burden, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer

  6. Will said...

    Allen was his own man when that was a liability.  The fact that he was a minority on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement only aggravated that status.  Had he been on pennant winners (or possibly if he had been white) Allen would be in the Hall of Fame.  His advanced stats point that out clearly.  Older white writers and owners disliked him, and that reputation lingers to this day.  Even amongst those that never saw him play.  He is a borderline case, but to not even be considered is an absolute sham.  I have followed baseball for almost 50 years and the one thing I have learned is that amongst the writers there is little objectivity.  They promote the players they admire, and admonish the players that they don’t.  True career value and impact on the game goes out the window.  You cannot convince me that Bill Mazeroski, Jim Hunter or Jim Rice, for example, were bigger stars. He deserves a very long look.

  7. Bruce Markusen said...

    Paul, great point about Allen and the Pirates. He loved Murtaugh, and even called him his favorite manager. The Pirates as an organization were very receptive to African American and Latino players. That would have been a nice place for Allen to play.

  8. George Tummolo said...

    Bruce: wonderful job! Bill James, as good as he has been, has been a TOTAL a-hole about some players, and Allen is one of them. I, and my father ( born and raised in Philadelphia ), saw him in person, and he was as nice and cooperative as can be, until the racial BS came up. My father and many of his generation feel that Allen and Bobby Bonds, for example, were subjected to far worse than Jackie Robinson, given the time frame. And, as a person growing up in the Bay Area when Allen was there, Charlie Finley had nothing but good things to say about Allen and vise versa. Basically, what Charlie said was Reggie Jackson ability with no lip.
    There is NO WAY Jim Rice can carry Allen’s jockstrap.

  9. will said...

    The racism in baseball seemed sharper in the late 60’s and early 70’s than before.  There had been riots and the black power movement that seemed to re-fuel racism in America.  Every fan will remember the threats and hatred Aaron bore as he set out after Ruth’s HR record.  I think Allen was damaged by some of those attitudes.  But I must say, the thought of him in the middle of that Pittsburgh line-up makes me think the Pirates would have been the great team of that time period rather than the Reds or A’s. Allen on a a team like that with other greats would have chilled any pitcher to the bone.

  10. butch said...

    Happy New Year, Bruce, and Great Job as Usual!! I Think Richie Allen is a H.O.F. Candidate But, I Would Also Like To See Rocky Colavito, and Minnie Minoso, Get in The Hall First!! Comments, Please!! By The Way, His 1964 Rookie Season Was Awsome!!

  11. bucdaddy said...

    Allen is not in the Hall because the Hall voting system is stupid beyond belief. It wouldn’t pass muster in a totalitarian state. Kim Jong Un would study the HoF voting system and ask, “WTF?”

    Consider that when we vote for president of the United States—the highest office in the land and probably the most important position in the world—it’s an in-or-out vote. One vote, in or out. No second chances, no do-overs (not counting 2000, of course).

    The HoF gives a guy one chance, and then another, and another, and another, and another … 15 chances. And when that’s all done, and Dick Allen still isn’t in the HoF, it waits a couple years and then lets a small panel start over again.

    In what universe does that make any sense?

  12. Brian said...

    When I was a kid, my mitt had Dick Allen’s signature on it (remember the fake kind they used to put on mitts).  I was also born in 1971 so this was cool.

  13. charles said...

    As one of Mr Allen’s biggest fans, I appreciate this article. As great as 2005 was for a lifetime White Sox fan like me, 1972 is stil my favorite season.  He was like Paul Bunyan (especially with those shoulders and hands!) compared to every other hitter on that team.

  14. Jeff said...

    I, too, consider 2005 as the highlight of my many frustrating years as a Sox fan.  But, watching Alen destroy the AL in his short stint with the Sox was amazing.  He was a complete player who always hustled and was a killer in the clutch.  He is definitely a HOF-er and would be in if not for the prejudices of so many of the writers.  He was Frank Thomas before the Big Hurt came along – no matter the score, you always stuck around to watch him get his AB’s.

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