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Enshrined or not, Allen has clout

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By Frank Fritzpatrick, Philadelphia Inquirer

Last Wednesday, 33 summers after he last whipped that utility-pole bat, Dick Allen walked uncomfortably into a meeting room at the Sheraton Society Hill.

Still trim at 70, wearing a dark suit and a robin’s-egg blue polo shirt, Allen searched for a familiar face. The ex-Phillies slugger, there to be revealed as a 2010 inductee into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, wasn’t alone for long.

Bald men, gray-haired men, men with paunches as thick as the mountain of cold cuts piled on the buffet table at the rear of the room, gravitated to him, as if pulled by an invisible force.

For them, and tens of thousands of other boomers in the Philadelphia area, Allen, with his Bunyanesque bat, his colossal clouts, his rebel’s spirit, remains the most compelling baseball figure this city has ever produced. He continues to occupy their memories, as big and bold as the headlines he generated decades ago.

All those balls that soared beyond Connie Mack Stadium’s glow, vanishing into the North Philadelphia darkness; the messages he scrawled in the dirt; the batting-cage fight; the dugout cigarettes; the pregame beers in the clubhouse; the mysterious absences; the 40-ounce bats; the laserlike line drives; and, accompanying it all, the enigmatic mist that engulfed the Wampum Walloper.

As the old men’s behavior indicated, Allen’s talents, for baseball and puzzling behavior, constructed a lasting Philadelphia myth. In this city’s collective memory, he has become a beloved combination of Babe Ruth, Curt Flood, and James Dean.

“I get stopped all the time by these [middle-aged] fellows whose dads had taken them to the ballpark,” Allen said, in that high-pitched voice that always contrasted so starkly with the power he exuded. “I appreciate them. And they appreciate me. Because I didn’t cheat them.”

The question that will hover over Allen for as long as he remains on the outside is whether or not his local legend is enough to get him into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The process for selecting the Class of 2011 will begin soon. Allen will be among those considered by the Hall’s Veterans Committee. If the criteria that impress include the lasting impact a player left on the psyches of baseball fans, then Allen would be a lock for Cooperstown.

His numbers, truncated by a too-brief career, leave him on the cusp. He was a rookie of the year, MVP, a seven-time all-star. He finished with 351 homers, 1,119 RBIs, and a .292 average. Among non-Hall of Famers, only Albert Belle has a higher slugging percentage than Allen’s .534.

On the other hand, there are those – mostly those who didn’t grow up mesmerized by him – who agree with Bill James, the stats guru who so famously wrote that Allen “did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody who ever played.” (When you think about it, it’s something that’s unquantifiable, even by James.)

On Friday, Allen said he doesn’t think about his Hall chances. Clearly though, for someone who also admitted he got goose bumps when he learned about his selection to the Philadelphia Hall, it would be the thrill of his lifetime.

“I don’t even know how that [Hall voting] works,” Allen said. “Do you politic or something like that? I think everything speaks for itself. Possibly if I’d been a little kinder to writers or maybe the right person along the way . . . but I’m pretty satisfied with the way things have turned out, with or without it.”

According to Hall officials, Allen and approximately 3,000 others who played at least 10 years in the majors after 1942 will be considered by the 67 living Hall of Famers, who now constitute the Veterans Committee, many of them contemporaries of Allen’s.

A list of 10 candidates will eventually emerge, and voters can select up to four. Those named on at least 75 percent of ballots will be enshrined, their identities revealed during December’s winter meetings.

Whatever happens, Allen insisted, he has come to terms with his tumultuous Philadelphia career.

Many of those aging men who stop him now were at their fathers’ sides when they discovered Allen. For factors that likely had more to do with racism than reason, adult men in that less-enlightened generation almost universally disliked the Phillies’ young, divisive, and black star.

“I recall my first at-bat here in Philadelphia,” said Allen. “They booed me. And I was wondering, ‘What’s this all about?’ I didn’t do anything to hurt people. But I was told, ‘That’s the way it is.’ . . . What they called me. What they threw at me. What was said to me. It’s actually paid off.”

Allen, a Western Pennsylvania native, still works with the Phillies, in community relations. He arrived here in 1963, a 24-year-old black man traumatized by his triple-A experience in segregated Little Rock.

“Oh man, coming from Little Rock,” said Allen. “Phew. But I used that. So when I got here, it didn’t matter. I kept pressing ahead. I gave it my all.”

Though he looks 20 years younger, Allen will turn 71 next month. He has, he said, acquired the inner peace his late mother – who with 10 kids learned to use a switch so well that he called her “the best hitter I’ve ever seen” – counseled him to adopt 40 years ago.

She had seen how badly he wanted to get out of Philadelphia in 1969. Allen took that season’s final throw at first base, kissed his glove, and dropped to his knees.

“I said, ‘I’m never coming back here again,’ ” he recalled. “But she talked to me about forgiveness. ‘You get that out of your heart. You go back there and you show them.’ I came back a second time [in 1975].”

And a third, as it turns out.

“You see how things turned around?” he asked. “You see how rewarding it is? I’m proud of this city. It’s in my heart.”

And, whether he ever gets into the Hall or not, the legend of Dick Allen will stay in this city’s heart – and mind – for a long, long time.

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Written by Symphony

July 19, 2010 at 1:12 pm

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