Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 21 – The Chicago White Sox
You can put together a pretty damn good team composed entirely of players who toiled for Chicago’s south side franchise over the past hundred years or so. The list of best players in White Sox history looks something like this:
C Ray Schalk
1B Frank Thomas
1B Dick Allen
1B Paul Konerko
2B Nellie Fox
SS Luke Appling
SS Luis Apparicio
3B Robin Ventura
SP Eddie Walsh
SP Red Faber
SP Ted Lyons
SP Lamarr Hoyt
SP Jack McDowell
SP Mark Buehrle
RP Goose Gossage
RP Hoyt Wilhelm
RP Bobby Thigpen
A couple of the players on this list are more readily identified with teams they played with prior to coming over to the White Sox. I am referring specifically to Carlton Fisk (Red Sox) and Dick Allen (Phillies).
Both players were born in the region or the state where they first debuted in the Major Leagues: Fisk in northern New England (Bellows Falls, VT, a couple of hours north of Boston) and Allen in the small town of Wampum, PA (about an hour from Pittsburgh, six hours to Philadelphia.) Both are small, rural towns, and both are about 97% white.
This is approximately where any similarities between the two players end.
Fisk is white; Allen is black.
Fisk was reticent; Allen sang in his own band.
Fisk was lionized by the people of Boston; Allen was generally regarded with disdain by the people of Philadelphia.
Fisk is in the Hall of Fame; Allen…should be? We’ll get back to that topic later.
Although they both played for the White Sox, their careers never overlapped. Fisk played 13 seasons for the White Sox beginning in 1981. Allen played just three years with the White Sox, from 1972-74 (about the time Fisk’s career was just getting underway in Boston.)
Actually, they do have one more thing in common. They each enjoyed one very productive season as hitters while playing in Chicago. Although Fisk was generally productive in several of his seasons with the White Sox, one season in particular stands out.
1985 was Carlton Fisk’s Best Forgotten Season with the White Sox.
In 1985, Fisk was already 37-years old. Yet he played in 153 games that year, catching in 130 of them. He accumulated 543 at bats and 620 plate appearances.
While his .238 batting average might not seem all that impressive, his 37 home runs and 107 RBI’s were both career highs.
Fisk also scored an impressive 85 runs, quite a lot for an aging catcher who managed just 129 hits on the season. Shockingly, Fisk even stole 17 bases, matching a career high he had set three seasons earlier (also with the White Sox.)
His .488 slugging percentage was good for tenth place in the A.L. in ’85.
He even chipped in 17 time hit by pitch, second most in the league.
Defensively, his range factor of 6.63 paced the junior circuit, as did his 801 putouts.
He made the 1985 All-Star team for the tenth time in his career. (He was named to eleven All-Star teams in his career.)
For his efforts, and despite his low batting average, Fisk finished a respectable 13th in MVP voting in ’85.
Other than his famous moment in Game Six of the 1975 World Series in which he hit the game winning home run vs, the Reds, Fisk put together a quiet and steady 24-year career during which he belted 376 home runs, drove in 1,330 and amassed 2,356 hits.
When Fisk retired, he had caught more games and had hit more home runs than any other catcher in history. ( Both records have since been broken.)
Fisk is obviously one of the top ten catchers in baseball history, perhaps top five. He was a worthy inductee into baseball’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
One word that has never (to my knowledge) been used to describe Carlton Fisk is “controversial.”
Which brings us to Dick Allen.
In “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 438), baseball stat guru Bill James called Dick Allen, “The second most controversial player in history, behind Rogers Hornsby.” He finished his terse little paragraph on Allen by claiming that he “…lost half of his career or more to immaturity and emotional instability.”
What are we to make of that damning sentence?
Was Dick Allen diagnosed with a mental illness that only Bill James was aware of? Can immaturity really shorten the career of an otherwise highly productive player? Allen was enjoying an outstanding career through age 32. Eying his age-33 year off in the distance, did he suddenly panic and become the black Adam Sandler?
It’s true that Dick Allen rubbed some people the wrong way, like the population of the city of Philadelphia. But Phillies fans are notorious for their ability to find the dark cloud in the silver lining. They have never been considered baseball’s most forgiving bunch of fans.
But let’s have a reality check.
Here’s what some players who were actually teammates of Allen said about him years later: ( All quotes and text in the following three full paragraphs below are from Wikipedia-Dick Allen.)
Gene Mauch of the Phillies and Chuck Tanner of the White Sox managed Allen the longest. Asked if Allen’s behavior ever had a negative influence on the team, Mauch said: “Never.” According to Tanner, “Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth.”
Hall of Fame teammate, Mike Schmidt, credited Dick Allen in his book, “Clearing the Bases,” as his mentor.
In a Mike Schmidt biography written by historian William C. Kashatus, Mike Schmidt fondly recalls Dick Allen mentoring him before a game in Chicago in 1976, saying to him, “Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”
Mike Schmidt responded by hitting four home runs in that game. Mike Schmidt is quoted in the same book, “The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse.”
Playing in a pitcher’s era, Dick Allen amassed some outstanding statistics in his 15-year career.
From 1966-74, he led his league in slugging percentage three times. He led his league in on-base percentage twice. He also led his league in OPS four times. In various seasons, he also led his league in runs scored once, triples once, home runs twice, walks once, RBI’s once, total bases once, and OPS+ three times.
Dick Allen won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award.
He was named to seven All-Star teams.
His career .534 slugging percentage is good for 44th best of all time.
Perhaps most impressively, his career adjusted OPS+ is 156, good for 19th best in baseball history, and tied with another White Sox slugger, future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
By way of comparison, Stan Musial’s OPS+ was 159; Tris Speaker’s was 157; Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio are each at 155.
That’s pretty select company to be able to share.
But Dick Allen’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season with the White Sox was in 1972.
Dick Allen won the A.L. MVP award in 1972 by leading the league in home runs (37), RBI’s (113), walks (99), OBP (.420), slugging (.603), OPS (1.023), and OPS+ (199).
An OPS+ of 200 means that a player is exactly twice as good as a typical replacement level ballplayer.
Allen also batted .308 and scored an even 90 runs. His 131 runs created also led the American League. Not usually a prolific base-stealer, Allen even contributed 19 stolen bases to his efforts.
He enjoyed another fine season for the White Sox in 1974 at age 32. His swift and steep decline dovetailed with his off-season trade back to the city he once demanded to be traded from in the first place, Philadelphia.
Dick Allen retired after playing in a limited capacity for the Oakland A’s after the 1977 season. Allen was 35-years old.
Two questions come to mind:
1) Was Dick Allen a victim of racism?
2) Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?
As for question #1, yes, of course. Phillies fans often hollered highly offensive racial slurs at him, not to mention bottles and batteries while he played the outfield.
More to the point, some writers then (and now) have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an assertive black man who isn’t interested in schmoozing with the media.
Historically, black athletes in America who have flaunted their wealth, confidence and pride have often been labeled as surly, divisive, angry and controversial. This reality goes all the way back to the great heavy-weight boxer Jack Johnson a hundred years ago, and has continued in recent years with players like Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds. (Bonds was subject to many of these demeaning terms long before he was linked to steroids.)
Meanwhile, Joe DiMaggio, who certainly flaunted his confidence, wealth and pride was spoken of as, at worse, aloof, but was more frequently praised as classy and noble.
For what it’s worth, if you do a google search using key words: “Controversial white baseball players,” you will find there are 174,000 hits.
If you substitute the word “white” with the term “African-American”, you will find there are 263,000 hits.
Do I think baseball writers like Bill James and others are inherently racist? No. Bill James, for example, has also written eloquently on the subject of race in baseball in books like, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame.”
But I do think there is an intrinsic racial bias in the kinds of knee-jerk reactions and words writers, fans and others use that has evolved down through the generations. These auto-responses have imprinted themselves in our psyches, and handily come to the fore in place of more reasonable, sensible alternatives for which we might have to dig just a bit deeper.
I think this is as true for myself, Bill James and perhaps you today as it was for others generations ago.
So does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?
Depends on your definition of a Hall of Famer.
A case can be made that he does belong in The Hall. Some of the numbers and other career accomplishments I have alluded to already in this post make the case that he is a viable candidate.
For those of you, however, who favor a more Career Numbers and Milestones approach, I suspect that Allen’s 351 career home runs, 1119 RBI’s, .292 career batting average, and fewer than 2,000 career hits has you firmly ensconced in the NO column.
So be it.
But one thing remains true. During his career, few players were as feared, respected and productive between the lines as Dick Allen.
And it is also true that places like Wampum, PA, Bellows Falls, VT, and other small towns and hamlets across our country will continue to produce ball players who will, whether controversial or not, bestow their legacy in some fashion on our timeless yet ever-changing National Pastime.
- Chicago White Sox honor Frank Thomas, retire No. 35 (sports.espn.go.com)