This blog post marks a special edition of the Afternoon Coffee Break series to coincide with Major League Baseball's 2017 Opening Day! In this series, Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read. Tracy's a big baseball fan, so it's no surprise that she's chosen to mark this occasion with a look at God Almighty Hisself, Mitchell Nathanson's biography of controversial player Dick Allen.
Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.
God Almighty Hisself by Mitchell Nathanson
Why I picked it:
The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1979 with “We Are Family” as their theme song, and I have been watching baseball ever since. In high school, I attended baseball games and learned how to keep score, and learned to tell the difference between fastballs and curveballs and kept track of how many each pitcher threw. I’ve adopted the home team of every town I’ve lived in, from the Binghamton Mets to the Syracuse Skychiefs to, of course, the Philadelphia Phillies. Dick Allen was a very famous, and famously debated, Phillie, but before my time. While I was researching the book God Almighty Hisself for my job, and I discovered the controversy surrounding his qualifications for the Hall of Fame, I knew I had to read the book.
What I discovered:
Before I get to the book, I’d like to share some of the background information I learned from my research about Dick Allen and the Hall-of-Fame debate. Allen was a first baseman, third baseman, and outfielder for several teams in the 1960s and 70s, most notably for the Phillies from 1963-69, and the White Sox from 1972-74. He was 1964 National League Rookie of the Year with the Phillies and the 1972 American League MVP with the White Sox. He has 351 home runs and 1,119 runs batted in (RBI’s), but he's not in the Hall of Fame. In comparison, Ron Santo, third baseman for the Cubs from 1960-73, has 342 home runs, and Rod Carew, first baseman for the Twins from 1967-78, has 1,015 RBIs, and they’re both in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame notes that “voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Allen was, and continues to be, judged for his off-field behavior and reputation for being difficult as much as for his Hall-of-Fame numbers.
Reading some of the stories in God Almighty Hisself, I can see why some people think Allen was more trouble than he was worth. For example, shortly after holding out of spring training for a more lucrative contract, he got into a violent altercation with white teammate and long-time veteran Frank Thomas, who hit Allen with a bat. But there are just as many stories that show that Allen was a respected teammate who played with high integrity, even when he felt he wasn’t getting the contracts he deserved. Viewing his career through the prism of race relations in his era, I could argue that Allen showed admirable levels of restraint and that perhaps the Hall-of-Fame voters should take that restraint into consideration when evaluating his “character.”
After finishing the book, the overall feeling I was left with was that Dick Allen was a professional baseball player, and at the time he was playing in the 1960s and 70s, players were not viewed as professionals. Instead, they were viewed almost as children with no rights or agency, while managers were seen as benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent fathers. Baseball players were not supposed to take pride in their work, but were to humbly voice their gratitude for being allowed to play for their “family,” i.e., whatever team that “owned” them.
So a guy like Dick Allen, who expected to get paid commensurate with his abilities, who put in as much time and work on his skills as everyone else, but who chose to practice very early so no one could watch, and who was more comfortable speaking with the grounds crew than the press, would appear to be purposefully recalcitrant. Perhaps that could have been forgiven in a white ballplayer, but not in Dick Allen. I’d like to think that if he were playing today, he could have been the Marshawn Lynch or Allen Iverson of baseball, and his on-field achievements would have mattered far more than his alleged antics.
Each chapter covers a season and is prefaced by the numbers he put up that year: batting average/home runs/runs batted in. What’s amazing to me is that the numbers tell a story of consistent and extraordinary productivity: the kind of numbers any current professional would be proud of today. To me the numbers indicate that we’ll never know what Dick Allen might have been truly capable of: he was an awesome and professional baseball player despite the era he played in and all that entailed.