November 28, 2006

Ryan Howard and the Light of Dick Allen

The Phillies’ Ryan Howard was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player on November 21 by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It has been a busy month. Howard lead the Major League All-Stars to a five-game sweep of the Nippon Professional Stars in Japan and earned the series MVP award. As the series concluded, it was announced that Howard was voted the Players’ Choice Major League Player of the Year as well as the National League’s Most Outstanding Player. After two years in the majors, Howard has propelled himself into the elite of Major League Baseball.

At a press conference last Tuesday at the Phillies’ ballpark, Howard grinned alongside manager Charlie Manuel, general manager Pat Gillick, and team president David Montgomery. The city unfurled a 57-foot tall banner at City Hall congratulating Howard and mayor John Street held a celebratory press conference. That night, Howard received an ovation at the Sixers-Pistons game at the Wachovia Center. This is very exciting for the Phillies and for the city of Philadelphia for many reasons; one is that Howard has the chance to be the Phillies’ first great superstar of color.

Philadelphia has fallen hard for Howard. He is a brilliant hitter, surprisingly strong fielder, and he is gracious and friendly. Howard’s emergence as a superstar is refreshing in the shadow of the Phillies’ complicated history with race. By way of example, of the eight pre-1962-expansion National League franchises, only the Phillies do not have a player of color in the Hall of Fame, nor have they had a dominant Latino or black superstar. This history is a legacy of the Phillies’ 1947 anti-Jackie Robinson actions, the ball club’s own segregation of the 1950s, and the team’s ineptitude in managing Dick Allen, a player of color who could have been a Phillies legend but whose encounter with the white baseball-establishment in the 1960s the Phillies were unprepared to mitigate.

The Phillies acquired a reputation as unwelcoming to players of color for their treatment of Jackie Robinson when Robinson and the Dodgers integrated major league baseball in 1947. Before Brooklyn’s first road trip of the 1947 season to Philadelphia, the Phillies had phoned the Dodgers and instructed them “not to bring that nigger here.” The Phillies were lead by manager Ben Chapman, an Alabama-born bigot who encouraged his players to "make Robinson's color an issue." The Dodgers and Robinson did come to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. The Phillies infamously lined-up on the top step of their dugout and pointed their bats, rifle-like, at Robinson when he came to bat. Phillies pitchers threw at Robinson’s head, and in the field, Phillies base-runners slid into Robinson, playing second, with their spikes high.

The Phillies’ behavior galvanized nationwide support for Robinson while the Phillies were known for their racism. Many major league clubs responded to Robinson’s success in Brooklyn and Larry Doby’s success in Cleveland – Cleveland won the pennant in 1948 with both Doby and former-Negro League star Satchell Paige - by rushing to sign Latino and black ballplayers. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks broke into the majors in the 1950s and became popular and successful stars. Meanwhile, the Phillies continued to refuse to integrate their own club. It would not be until 1957, a full ten years after Robinson joined the Dodgers, that the Phillies integrated when they played John Kennedy in five games and gave him two at-bats.

But baseball was changing and when it came time to rebuild the Phillies in the post-Whiz Kid era, in 1959, 1960, and 1961, the Phillies invested heavily in young prospects, black, Latino, and white alike. They gave their largest signing bonus to a young black prospect from Wampum, Pennsylvania named Dick Allen. This would be a new era for the Phillies. The organization was integrating itself and building a contender. Only the Phils did not have a clue how to address the challenges that might face a young prospect of color coming up through its farm system in the early 1960s. Rather than dispel their reputation for racial insensitivity, the Phillies reinforced this reputation and enabled the city to turn on its young star.

Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had famously had a conversation with Robinson before he signed and sent him to play, first in Montreal where he integrated the International League in 1946, and then the National League a year later. Rickey knew that Robinson would encounter the taunts and insults of fans, and be stigmatized by fellow players. Rickey instructed Robinson to withhold his anger and that Robinson and the Dodgers organization would be 100% supportive of him. Robinson was stoic in the face of these attacks and Rickey kept his word. Carpenter and Phillies general manager Pat Quinn could have borrowed this lesson from Rickey’s playbook before they assigned Allen to the Phillies’ AAA minor league club, the Arkansas Travelers, in Little Rock in 1963.

It had been at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, only six years earlier, that Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus joined local whites in resisting integration by dispatching the Arkansas National Guard to block the school’s entrance from its first black students. In 1963, Gov. Faubus was a regular at Travelers ballgames and while President Eisenhower had compelled Little Rock Central to integrate, the Travelers through 1962, remained an all-white ball club. 1963 would be the first year that Little Rock would be the Phillies top minor league affiliate and where else would they send their top prospect? Allen would integrate Little Rock.

Think about what was happening in the United States in the spring of 1963. As baseball season was opening in early April, Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama where he wrote his seminal "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." The following month, during civil rights protests in Birmingham, Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor would turn fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators. The summer of 1963 would culminate with the March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Dick Allen had just turned 21-years old in April 1963 and was entirely unprepared for the racism he would encounter in Little Rock. The Phillies did not offer support like Rickey did for Robinson and Allen reports that he came to feel isolated and under siege in Little Rock.

Allen survived the 1963 season, escaped Arkansas, and made the Phillies starting lineup in 1964. He hit .318 with 29 homeruns and 91 RBIs and was voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year. The fans loved him, he was excelling, and the Phillies had played championship baseball from April through August. The Phils had a talented young star and the fans had what appeared to be a young team built to contend. Tony Gonzalez, from Central Cunagua, Cuba, played centerfield and hit .278 in 1964. Ruben Amaro, from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, (the father of the current Phillies assistant-GM), split shortstop duties with Cuban Cookie Rojas. Tony Taylor, another Cuban of color, was growing into a fan favorite at second-base. At skin level, the 1964 Phillies had successfully integrated and were erasing the legacy of the 1940s and 1950s. But Frank Thomas and Allen would soon remind the organization and city that the situation was unresolved. They again illustrated the inability of Phillies management to protect its players and mitigate racial tensions.

The Phillies had acquired the veteran Thomas from the Mets in August 1964. Thomas had been a three time All-Star in the 1950s and led the 1962 Mets with 34 homeruns and 94 RBIs. At age 35, he was a veteran bat and the fans were fond of him. What the fans did not know was that Thomas had been riding the team’s young players of color in 1965 including Allen, and Allen’s best friend, outfielder Johnny Briggs. Before the July 3, 1965 game against the Reds, Allen’s and Thomas’s verbal sparring escalated into a full-out brawl. Allen knocked down Thomas with a left-hook to the jaw. Thomas recovered and took his baseball bat to Allen.

After the game, the Phillies released Thomas. Thomas was hitting .250; Allen was hitting .348. In his essay, “Dick Allen, the Phillies, and Racism”, William C. Kashatus reports what happened next: "Thomas took his case to the press, exploiting the role of a victim. 'I’ve always liked Richie,' he insisted. 'I’ve always tried to help him. I guess certain guys can dish it out, but can’t take it.' Fans began to blame Allen for the fight, booing him unmercifully."

Phillies management, in saying nothing, said everything. They set Allen up to be the scapegoat. It was the beginning of the end for Allen with the Phillies and with the city. The fans booed Allen in 1965 and through his last season with the Phillies in 1969. Major League Baseball celebrated its centennial in 1969 and the Phillies held a fan poll to elect their all-time team. Allen was so unpopular by then that even having been arguably the organization’s best first-baseman of all-time, fans voted Eddie Waitkis to the team; Waitkis’ lone claim to fame was his presence on the 1950 pennant winning club. Waitkis had never had more than 49 RBIs in a season for the Phillies; his highest average with the club had been .291. This is the legacy of the Phillies’ first would-be great superstar of color.

Certainly, the Phillies have changed since Allen’s departure in 1969, and the team has had very good players of color. Dave Cash was an All-Star in each of his three seasons with the Phillies in the mid-1970s. Garry Maddox won eight Gold Gloves playing centerfield for the Phils from 1974 to 1986 and was a star of the hard-fought 1980 National League Championship Series against the Astros. Three years later, Gary Matthews was named MVP of the Phils’ NLCS victory over the Dodgers.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the Phillies lack of great Latino and black stars was due to bad luck injuries, soft prospects, and poor draft choices. Jeff Stone, Ron Jones, and Ricky Jordan all sparkled in the minors before fading in injury or mediocrity. Juan Samuel found success in the late 1980s but was never the superstar he hinted at being when he stole 72 bases in 1984. Fans still bemoan the Phils’ selection of high school outfielder Jeff Jackson in the 1989 June draft ahead of Frank Thomas by the White Sox. Jimmy Rollins has emerged as one of baseball’s top shortstops but while popular in Philadelphia, he is not among the game’s elite. The closest the Phillies have had to a superstar has been Dick Allen.

There was a time when Philadelphia was perceived to be a hostile environment for athletes of color. When Allen was playing in the mid-1960s, whites were fleeing urban Philadelphia for its surrounding suburbs. The city neglected Center City and allowed black neighborhoods to become ghettos. Frank Rizzo was appointed Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner in 1967 and came to be seen as an antagonist of the black community for the nature of his public comments and the tactics used his department. One of the most notorious moves by Rizzo's police officers were the raids on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party in 1970. Rizzo forced the arrested Panthers to strip and stand naked in front of the news cameras. But Philadelphia in 2006 is a different place than in 1966. Mayor Street is the city’s second mayor of color. The Philadelphia Eagles are on their second All-Pro quarterback of color – a position historically denied to black athletes in the NFL. Sports have changed and Philadelphia has changed.

Ryan Howard and Philadelphia are all smiles enjoying this round of post-season accolades. This young player and this old city deserve it. Both hope Howard will continue his stellar play and enjoy a long and successful career with the club. His stardom for the Phils is welcome and long overdue.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outstanding! yishar Koach!!

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Mike (Bob Z's son in law) said...

Pujols has a reputation of being one of the class guys. I wouldn't mind so much if he said that he deserved the MVP and not Howard. That kind of personal grudge would be refreshing in a sterile, PR-managed sports world. What is insulting to intelligent fans is Pujols blaming a bad translation and trying to back away from the comments.

Baseball is more fun when teams and players don't like each other. Especially because it's a sport where the game still polices itself. Remember Clemens-Piazza? That was great. Braves and Mets? (and Chipper Jones needling Met fans) Also great. Even the strange bad blood between Tampa and Boston is fun.

So I suppose the real disappointing thing is that this was an opportunity to start an interesting rivalry and Pujols ran away from it.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was quite please when I saw your information on how dreadful Robinson was treated by the baseball team The Phillies. Thank you so much.

8:11 PM  

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