As most fans know, when Curt Flood was traded to the Phillies after the 1969 season, he refused to report and thus began a years-long legal battle which - though Flood would ultimately lose his case - would pave the way for free agency.
Dick Allen is often just a footnote in that story - the player who came back to the Cardinals in that deal. But Allen - who died Monday at the age of 78 - was a significant part of the labor struggle in his own right, and his one year in St. Louis was a momentous one.
Allen’s autobiography “Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen” opens not with his childhood or his first moment on a big league field. It opens with “the Frank Thomas incident.” In July of 1965, just months into his 2nd full season in the majors, Allen got into a fight with Thomas, a veteran white teammate.
As Allen tells the story, Thomas - who was known for bullying the few black players on the team - asked Allen if he “was trying to be another Muhammad Clay,” and accused him of “always running his mouth off.”
This was less than 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Many big league clubs still maintained a de facto policy of only rostering a few black players at a time. The Phillies were among the worst offenders, having only taken on their first American-born black player in 1961. Black players who held coveted roster spots had a lot of incentive to simply take the abuse. But that was not Dick Allen’s style.
Allen told Thomas “Frank, I told you, that stuff don’t go with me,” then popped him with a left-hand to the jaw. Thomas - who had been taking batting practice - took a swing at Allen with his bat. Allen ducked, but took a bruising shot to the shoulder. After that, several teammates pulled them apart.
During the game, in which Allen tripled and Thomas homered, the two shook hands in the dugout. But after the game, Thomas was released. The incident was the last straw in a string of abusive behavior from the aging veteran.
While Allen followed the organization’s instructions and declined to talk about the fight, the 36-year-old Thomas - who had moonlighted as a morning radio DJ during the off-season - went back on the air and accused the 23-year-old of being the reason he was released.
From the next day on, Allen - the National League Rookie of the Year - was greeted with boos in his home ballpark. Signs hung from the upper deck read “we want Thomas.”
That altercation became the pivotal moment in Dick Allen’s career - literally, the opening of his autobiography.
Today, I hope most of us see the incident for exactly what it was: Racism. Thomas taunted Allen with some very racist remarks; Allen stood up for himself. The largely white fan base were threatened by that kind of response and labeled Allen as a “troublemaker” and a “bad teammate” and a million other terms which, though perhaps more coded, were just as racist as anything Thomas said.
So when Curt Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1969, citing the racism of the fans and calling Philadelphia America’s “northernmost southern city,” it was not some abstract impression. It was the reality of the way Dick Allen had been treated for five years, despite being a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.
Dick Allen stood up for himself in the face of racism, but he had little to no recourse to get out of the toxic workplace he found himself in. He was a young man who needed to make a living, and baseball was the game he loved. Eventually, he would put pressure on the organization through unexcused absences and even writing messages like “boo” and “free” in the dirt at third base.
Finally, the Phillies relented and traded Allen to St. Louis in a package that included Flood. Well aware of the years-long battle Allen had already been waging, Flood - who was four years older - took Allen’s defiance one step further by refusing to play for the Phillies at all.
So while Flood began his battle with the dual institutions of racism and baseball’s reserve clause, Allen got his wish for a fresh start in St. Louis. When he arrived, he found a clubhouse ruled by Bob Gibson and a fanbase which welcomed his talents.
As Allen stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in St. Louis, the crowd greeted him with a 90-second standing ovation.
“I didn’t know how to react,” Allen said in his autobiography. “I’d been playing in anger with the boos for so long. I kept stepping in and out of the batter’s box. I tipped my hat once, but the cheers kept coming. I stepped out again and tipped my hat again. I was trying to keep my composure, but tears kept filling my eyes. All those angry seasons in Philadelphia had taken their toll, but the cheers made me feel like a teenager.
“Afterward one of the Cardinals writers told me that it was the most sustained ovation he’d ever heard in St. Louis. ‘You’d have thought Musial had come out of retirement’ is the way he put it.”
Allen put up his usual eye-popping numbers that season, posting a .279 / .377 / .560 slash line and 34 HRs. But his season essentially ended with a severe hamstring pull on August 25.
Despite his serious leg injury, Allen made sure he was on the field for the Cardinals September series in Philadelphia, among the final games to be played at Connie Mack Stadium.
With a couple drinks in him to ease the pain, in the 8th inning of the first game, Allen drove one final home run into the left field seats of the old stadium.
“As I rounded the bases, I took one last look around,” Allen said in his autobiography. “I looked up at the press box, where so many negative stories had been written about me... I looked into the stands, where they had called me every name known to man. I touched home plate and kept running.”
That series in Philadelphia would be the last time Allen appeared in a Cardinals uniform. His holdout in spring training had likely already sealed his fate with Gussie Busch. Just after the season, he was traded - dumped, really - to the Dodgers for Ted Sizemore and Bob Stinson.
One year later, Busch would trade Steve Carlton in much the same manner. The 1970s were a rare low point for the Cardinals organization. Imagine what they could have been had ownership not dumped Dick Allen and Steve Carlton for simply demanding to be paid what they were worth? While the racial climate in St. Louis may have been much better than Philadelphia, baseball owners everywhere still clung to that reserve clause and the right to treat each player as, what Flood famously called, “a well-paid slave.”
In the opening pages of Dick Allen’s autobiography is a quote which, when you understand how the man lived his life, sums up Allen nicely:
To be nobody but myself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
- e.e. cummings, as quoted in “The Magic-Maker.”