A Misunderstanding of How to Determine Greatness

Dick Allen

Dick Allen passed away today. He was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He is not in the hall of fame. He was the classic five-tool player – he could run, throw, field, hit and hit for power. He smashed 351 home runs in his career, walked a lot, won the NL Rookie of the Year for the Phillies, the MVP for the White Sox, and posted a little over 58 WAR in his prime 11 years of playing. His best years were truly great, his good years were damn good, and he never had a bad season until injuries and age took their toll at the very end of his career. His being overlooked is not conspiratorial, but rather an unfortunate combination of wrong place and wrong time. Or, maybe it would be better to say wrong places/wrong times.

Allen, a black man, played in Philadelphia in the 60’s. He also played before analytics came into vogue and lauded all that he did well (pretty much everything) and shrugged collectively at the things he did not (refrain from striking out, errors). And look, it’s a tough town on its best days, what with booing Santa and building a courtroom inside the new Eagles stadium to prosecute all the drunk/belligerent/violent idiots who attend games there, and the culture in the city is one in which athletes are the subject of intensity that defies logic, as witnessed below in the greatest trolling ever committed to local news.

Most of it today seems like harmless fun, if a bit obsessive. In the early 60’s? When Allen would play in the outfield – AT HOME – fans would throw batteries and horseshoes and god knows what else at him during games. The racist invective hurled his way goes way beyond what anyone outside of Jackie Robinson and other players of the era who crossed the color barrier experienced. He suffered through it, stoically, and still he was an all-star caliber player. Year after year.

If he was playing there now he’d make $20 million dollars a year and vie for the most popular player in the organization. As it was, he was run out of town. Quiet and withdrawn, some of which was because he was by nature not a showboat and also for obvious reasons of persecution and harassment, he was thought by the Philly fans to not care enough. Every error and strikeout dissolved the relationship a little further. He was uncommonly versatile in the field, could play third, short, left, first in a pinch, but because he was shuffled around so much the consensus was he didn’t fit anywhere. In today’s game he’d be Ben Zobrist but faster and with waaaaay more power. And he struck out a lot. That was the big one, and the biggest reason why sportswriter’s didn’t give him his due at the time. We’re somewhat immune in today’s game because everyone punches out with alarming frequency because the math says swing away, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. In the 60’s, it was deemed a failing, and he was crucified for it. Nowadays his walk/strikeout rates would make him the target of every GM in the league.

Allen’s power was prodigious. He once hit a home run whose trajectory was so low the shortstop jumped for it. He finished with 351 dingers, only ten less than Joltin’ Joe, which is good for the Hall of Fame, but not exceptional. This is the crux. He didn’t play long enough to amass the overall stats to get the invite. His eleven (ten and half really because of one mostly injured year) seasons are Hall of Fame worthy, but the longevity of racking up numbers in meh seasons to pad the overall stat line is missing. Don’t discount the blah years in the early/late stages of a players career to get them over the hump with voters. Take Andre Dawson.

Look, I love the Hawk. I wore number 8 in high school because of him. He’s my favorite player of all time. If you match these two up in their prime years, you might be able to make an argument for Dawson because of his superior fielding and base running to go along with their comparable offensive numbers, but strictly as an offensive player, Allen was likely better. Dawson was a good-to-great player from 1977-1992. It’s the length of his career that put him over the hump with voters, along with Sandberg’s push during his entrance speech (thanks Ryno!). The last 4 years of Dawson’s career are not good, but they were enough to push him over 400 homers, 500 doubles, 1500 RBI’s, and almost to 2800 hits. Arbitrary numbers, but that’s what baseball does, witness the 3000 hits qualification for automatic HOF entry. The point is not to tarnish Dawson’s accomplishments, he was above average/all-star/MVP level for 16 STRAIGHT YEARS and most of them on a bad knee. He’s a hall of famer.

But so is Allen. His peak years are undeniably great, but he didn’t have what most players get, the buildup of a year or two of okayness in breaking in to pad the numbers and/or the few years of decline where he could still post surface-respectable stats like Dawson’s 1993 in Boston – a .273/.313/.425 slash line. Nor did he have the luxury of playing in the modern game, with its quality medical care and lack of overt, vicious racism. Instead he was a man ahead of his time, someone who walked a ton, mashed the ball, whiffed more than most everyone in the league, could play multiple positions and was strong in both mind and body. I wish I could have seen him play.