Monday, July 4, 2016


In a perpetual party-hearty world of desperate iconoclastic conformity, where so many seem in the grip of an intellectual poverty draped in the Bible and the American flag, we come to the fourth of July in this year of mock-fear and silicone-implant trembling, and find ourselves squarely in that darkling plain where the old, otherworldly poet is supposed to intervene before the pure products of America go crazy.

And, man oh man, does all of that strung-out syntax bring us crashing back to Dick Allen, who contains more multitudes than William Carlos Williams' siren call or a universe full of Whitman's samplers--a man who discovered, like our outgoing president, that backlash is more powerful, more relentless, more festering than any force in the dark heart of white America.

Dick Allen did not bear his burdens with grace while he was playing baseball, and that--and the impact of the backlash that imprinted itself on his brilliant but mercurial career--is why he remains an outsider to this day, both in terms of the world at large and in the tiny circle of faux-meritocracy that we clench our throats to call the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Baseball had the healing moment for the 1960s--that frenetic and foul decade that continues to split the country into shards of hate--in its hands for many, many years. It had a chance for one of the great symbolic moments in its history, simply waiting for--no, not inspiration, but mere common sense. It had two players who represented the polarities of the 1960s, the frenzy and the frustration from all sides, the warp and the woof in that tensed canvas of a history that so many have since taken in vain.

Those two men? Ron Santo and Dick Allen. Opposed forces in all senses--Santo, a white working-class diabetic with a quick temper  and what was characterized by several teammates as a chip on his shoulder; Allen, a deceptively fragile behemoth who would not bow to the desperate plantation mentality that washed over baseball like a bad smell exactly during the years he was active in the big leagues.

The game didn't come easily for Santo--while he was a difficult, daunting personality, he was driven to succeed and arguably overworked himself into a premature exit--one of the reasons that it took so long for him to finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Allen, by contrast, made what he did at the plate look easy: he was so good at it, despite imperfect eyesight, that he knew he didn't need to go through what he considered to be the needless rigors of spring training, or pre-game hitting practice. He knew how to marshal his talents, and he kept everyone away from them. Santo kept everyone away by being the most belligerent obsessive-compulsive on any diamond that he inhabited.

Despite these issues, both men deserved a spot in Cooperstown. But baseball dragged its feet. Bill James didn't help when he turned into a mendacious, muckraking moralizer about Allen in his fascinatingly fetid The Politics of Glory. Yes, Bill, you will forever be a lugnut for the cruel and all-too-usual punishment that you let loose on Allen in the closing pages of a book that desperately needed a machete-wielding editor to save us from all that moralizing. It only made it more rancid that your publisher draped the first edition of the book in red, white and blue bunting, clearly inspiring you to later make some of the most ill-advised and insipid interpretations of the Warren Court this side of Glenn Beck in Popular Crime.

Had those words been tempered with mercy and an actual understanding of what was happening in the 60s and 70s, they could have led to the healing event that baseball needed and will never get--the seemingly unimaginable embrace of the Silent Majority and the "Black Maudit." Santo, wheeled onto the dais to give a tear-stained speech about his love of the game and the value of forgiving one's enemies, particularly oneself; Allen, striding with a gingerly grace, admitting that he'd hoped for the honor despite his pose of unwavering indifference and resignation, turning to Santo and saying to him, "Look, Ron, this time we really are teammates...and God bless you."

It should have happened in 2009, the year we installed an African-American in the White House, before he spent too much time trying to appease the forces of white darkness that would look to thwart and hound his every move, and turn back the clock in favor of oligarchy, sexism, and fear-based hate. Those two elderly ballplayers,  on the Cooperstown dais on a Sunday not too far removed from the fourth of July, would have told the country that it was finally all right to quit fighting about the 1960s, to put it behind us at last--to let go.

But--no. It didn't happen. Santo had to die before he could be inducted, and one figures at this point that, after the one-vote-short fiasco that was the Veterans Committee result in 2015, that the same fate is now set in the house of cards for Dick Allen as well. One could hope that the new biography of Allen by Mitchell Nathanson, the curiously entitled God Almighty Hisself, with its (mostly) meticulous look at Allen's career and the media reception he encountered, would provide additional impetus to Allen's induction chances, but the response to the book has been mostly tepid.

That may be due to the fact that Nathanson often fails to get the flavor of Allen the ballplayer into his narrative. A careful, even-handed recitation of Allen's life as a lightning rod is detailed to a fault, but it rarely brings alive what Allen's presence on a baseball field was like--which was electric in the extreme. In his rush to examine the 1976 season as an example of how Allen could not step away from controversy when it came to management's attitude toward minority players, he undersells Allen's on-field contributions. Pointing out that Allen had only seven home runs in late June, he omits to mention that this total had been amassed in 119 ABs, a ratio that works out to a total of at least 30 HRs over an entire season. He mentions that Allen bristled at being dropped to seventh in the batting order, but he omits the fact that Dick was put back in the fifth slot after hitting .395 in the twelve games he hit from the #7 slot. In short, the world doesn't know (and mostly doesn't want to know) that Allen, when healthy in 1976, was close to his usual self (155 OPS+).

The man who made it look easy at the plate played hard on
the field...maybe too hard: he had more than his share of injuries.
The reason why Dick Allen belongs in the Hall of Fame is because he is one of the game's greatest hitters, and his peak is sufficient to carry him over any wonky "measurement standards" that can be imposed by those who purport to be objective but who ought to recuse themselves due to various forms of ideological bias. His career (1749 games) was short by some people's idea of a Hall of Famer, that's true, but these folk are loath to hear any excuses or extenuating circumstances, even as they create elaborate rationalizations for other, more favored, less "threatening" players.

As we've said many times, the Hall of Fame needs to be as large and inclusive as it can be in order to maximize its own scope and impact--it must reach out to all the people in order to make its message synonymous with the real meaning of the fourth of July, which is  not flag-waving and liquor consumption but "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Those who would tamper with others in those latter elemental efforts should find themselves in front of the kangaroo court that they've allowed to be installed in the so-called highest legal institution of the land and be forced to take the Fifth Amendment in response to relentless and protracted questioning.