Locker-Room Liberty

Athletes who helped shape our times and the economic freedom that enabled them.

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But there were two forks in the road--race and victory--that sent the men spiraling down different paths: Namath toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an indelible spot in the nation's pop history; Allen to the ignominy reserved for surly ingrates thought to have squandered their massive potential. Namath was white, devilishly charming, and had an accessibly average build; Allen was black, shyly brooding, and sported baseball's most imposing physique. Namath will forever be remembered for leading his team to a huge upset victory in Super Bowl III in 1969 after issuing a brazen guarantee; if Allen is remembered at all, it will be for his role in the most infamous late-season collapse in Major League history--when the 1964 Phillies blew a six-game lead with 12 to play.

Coming out of Pennsylvania, there was little doubt which of the two was destined to be a screw-up: Namath. Joe, the grandson of Hungarian immigrants, was already such a notorious partier and pool hustler as a teen that even the never-say-a-bad-word-about-our-kids local sportswriter felt forced to pen a story addressing rumors that the Hungarian Howitzer "sawed a cow in half in the auditorium of the high school, punched a pregnant woman, punched a school administrator, bombed school board members' houses, poured gasoline on a fifth grader and set him afire, [and] threw eggs at Richard Nixon." And that was before Namath, who had Harlem Globetrotter�style skills on the hardwood, walked off court in the middle of a varsity basketball game to protest his coach's old-fashioned pass first, never dunk dogma. His grades were never any good, and he flubbed the SATs so badly (scoring below 740) that he couldn't get into the University of Maryland, whose football program was geared toward grooming quarterbacks. Instead, mostly through inattention (and his mother's insistence that he attend college rather than accept a $50,000 signing bonus to play pro baseball), Namath headed down South in 1961 to the University of Alabama, home of the legendary ball-busting coach Bear Bryant, who almost never called pass plays.

In Tuscaloosa the flashy Northerner lived in close proximity to civil rights history as it unfolded. Coach Bryant's close personal friend George Wallace was elected governor in 1962 on a campaign of "Segregation Forever." (The Crimson Tide would not field a black varsity player until 1971.) At a time when deadly riots were being set off all over the South by the mere fact of black students' attempting to attend a university, Namath was "no more than twenty feet from where Governor Wallace stood, theatrically, at the entrance of Foster Auditorium" to protest Vivian Malone's breaking of the University of Alabama's color barrier. Though the quarterback and Malone were friendly, Namath author Kriegel, a former sports columnist for the New York Daily News, insists "there is nothing to suggest that Namath ever questioned Bryant on the issue of race....He belonged to no movement. He was a kid playing football."

Dick Allen did not have the choice to opt out of racial politics. In 1963, at the age of 20, the shy Northerner became the first professional black baseball player in Arkansas history, suiting up for Little Rock, the new Triple-A affiliate of the Phillies, who had signed Allen out of high school. The Phillies had their own troubled racial past--they were the last National League team to integrate, in 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers --and by all accounts did little to prepare young Richie for the verbal brutality of Southern racism in his last stop before the big leagues.

On his first day at the ballpark, Allen was greeted with signs saying "NIGGER GO HOME," had to watch the famously segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and found a death threat on his car windshield after the game. "Between innings, coming in from the outfield to the dugout, I would hear the voices--'Hey, Chocolate Drop' or 'Watch your back, nigger,'" Allen recalled in his 1989 autobiography Crash. The local paper wrote things like "he performs...with the typical loose all-out exuberance of his race." The discrimination in Little Rock, Kashatus explains, left Allen understandably "bitter and distrustful of the Phillies organization."

But unlike the bitter, eventually lionized black superstars of the generation just previous--Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Jim Brown--Allen had the financial clout to do something besides swallow his anger and smolder. His initial signing bonus of $70,000 was the largest ever given to a black baseball player. (Robinson, 15 years earlier, received a miserly $3,500.) Since the Phillies had been terrible since 1950, Allen did not fear losing his job. "I guess being the star black player for the Phillies also made me a threat to white people, especially since I said what was on my mind," Allen tells Kashatus. "They weren't used to that."

And boy, could Dick Allen swing the bat (which, at 42 ounces, was the heaviest in baseball). His rookie season was by far the best in the last century of baseball. Playing in all 162 games, he batted .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in, leading the National League in runs, triples, extra-base hits, and total bases, and finishing among the top seven in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, doubles, homers, and walks. Allen's career numbers (.292 lifetime average, 351 home runs), while impressive, have been dulled over time by the coincidence that his career (1963�77) coincided precisely with baseball's lowest-scoring period since the pre-1920 Dead Ball era. When adjusted for historical context, Allen's offense per 162 games is among the top 20 in baseball history, according to leading analysts such as Bill James.

But unlike Namath--or at least, unlike Namath in his one famous game--Allen lost when it counted. Kashatus, a Philadelphia historian and baseball author, was a childhood fan of that star-crossed 1964 team, and his book picks up pace when describing the game-to-game September meltdown engineered by the intense young Phillies manager Gene Mauch.

Unluckily for Kashatus, the Richie Allen, '64 Phillies, and racial integration of his subtitle did not converge tidily enough to explain the "September swoon." Allen played great that year despite some shoddy defense (he committed 41 errors at third base, a total that has only been topped once since) and was mostly a good citizen. Philadelphia race relations did tear apart the city--riots near the ballpark on August 28 eventually claimed two lives and destroyed 600 businesses--but racial strife didn't seem to affect the team much until years later. The Phillies collapsed in 1964 because of injuries, bad luck, and managerial panic.

The famously vocal and unforgiving Philadelphia fans began looking for a scapegoat to blame for the slow 1960s decline of a once-promising young team, whose bench included such future stars as Ferguson Jenkins and Alex Johnson. In his second season, Richie Allen volunteered for the job by punching his largest white teammate in the head and complying with his manager's fine-backed order not to explain his side of the story.

Baseball's reserve clause was even more odious than the option clauses of the NBA and NFL, because players who retired were still owned by their former teams, while in the other two sports they could sign new deals after waiting one year. As Phillies catcher Clay Dalrymple explains simply to Kashatus, "Management owned you in those days." And baseball didn't have an upstart competitive league driving up salaries through bidding wars. The average baseball salary in 1966 was $16,000, or just around double the average American salary (in 2005, the average baseball salary is higher than $2.5 million, or $450,000 in 1966 dollars). Many clubs of the time (though not the Phillies) "wrote clauses into the contracts of their black players forbidding them to 'participate in any freedom marches.'" Negotiating leverage was limited to holding out for more money (a tactic available mostly to stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale), making a stink in the generally unsympathetic press, or simply walking away from baseball.

In 1965 a career path already diverted by bigotry and failure took its decisive turn as Dick Allen raced into the batting cage before a game and knocked down slugger Frank Thomas with a left hook to the jaw. Thomas, known for antagonizing his teammates, had repeatedly taunted Allen by calling him either "Richie X" or "Muhammad Clay" (accounts differ). Thomas, a huge man at the end of his career, got up and whacked Allen's shoulder with his bat. After that day's game, Thomas was dropped from the team, and manager Mauch threatened Allen with a $2,500 fine--12.5 percent of his $20,000 salary--if he spoke about the incident to the press.

This threat, which Allen had no right to appeal, became a publicity death sentence when Mauch told reporters, "I had to choose between a thirty-six-year-old veteran who was hitting .250 and a twenty-three-year-old power hitter who was hitting .348, the kind of player you see once in a lifetime." Mauch, who had a testy relationship with his black players, had already been irritated by his star's increasingly prima donna�like behavior, while Allen mistakenly thought the controversy would blow over.

From that moment on, Allen's life in Philadelphia was hell. Fans threw so many bottles and batteries at his head that he wore a batting helmet in the field, earning the nickname Crash. Every year he would hold out for more money, sign huge contracts (he was a skilled negotiator), and demand daily to be traded, a request that took five excruciating years to be met. He began showing up at the park drunk, smoking cigarettes in the dugout, earning suspensions, and scratching out messages like "boo" in the infield dirt. When he was finally traded for Curt Flood in 1969 he said: "It was like a form of slavery. Once you step out of bounds they'll do everything possible to destroy your soul." He could still hit the cover off the baseball, but he was missing 20 to 40 games a year due to suspensions and injuries.

Allen's painful tenure in Philadelphia and his trade to St. Louis sparked the legal fight that indirectly changed the face of pro sports. Flood, a marvelous player in his own right, refused the trade at least partly because of Allen's experience, challenging the reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court in 1974. Although he lost, the owners' winning argument contained a loophole that allowed the clause's fate to be decided in collective bargaining with the Players Union, where it was finally negotiated out of existence the next year. By then, fat television contracts and the skilled arm twisting of union president Marvin Miller had already ratcheted up salaries exponentially, and the individualistic expression that 1970s baseball became famous for was in full flower.

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