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Dick Allen deserves the HOF

Illustration by Mark Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 8 The Big Money Issue. Subscribe today!

ON JULY 13, 1965, in his first All-Star Game, Phillies third baseman Richie Allen hit cleanup. The National League lineup that day was Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Willie Stargell, Allen, Joe Torre, Ernie Banks, Pete Rose and Maury Wills. Sandy Koufax got the win, Bob Gibson the save. At the All-Star Game two years later, Allen hit fifth, behind Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Aaron and Orlando Cepeda, but ahead of Torre and Bill Mazeroski. Don Drysdale got the win. In 1970, Allen hit second between Mays and Aaron.

Before increased expansion, Hall of Famers were everywhere in those All-Star Games. Yet Allen, the former Rookie of the Year and AL MVP, has never been close to becoming one of them. He retired in 1977 with 351 home runs and 1,119 RBIs in 15 seasons, got 3.7 percent of the vote on his first ballot in 1983 and never received more than the 18.9 percent he tallied on his penultimate ballot in 1996. Eighteen years later, Allen for the first time is one of 10 candidates being considered for induction on the Golden Era ballot, needing 75 percent of the vote from the veterans committee. On Dec. 8, that committee will render the fate of a man once considered too big to be forgotten, a man who now wants in but declined to speak to me about his candidacy because he does not want to appear as if he is campaigning.

He was a rookie in the time of Ali, when black athletes began dictating their own terms instead of being subservient to America's white power structure. Richie Allen, who would soon go by Dick, was an independent spirit often characterized by media members as standoffish, brooding and difficult. Over time, he would come to exist through the only lens afforded him and virtually every other black athlete who did not tap-dance through the civil rights movement and beyond: He was cast as the "angry black athlete." Allen won NL rookie of the year in 1964, the year of the summer riots in North Philly. He was a member of the second wave of African-American players -- following Jackie Robinson, Mays, Aaron and Banks -- playing when black participation was near its highest, the game at its most competitive and at a moment when the broader culture questioned the player without questioning itself. "He was a far better player than he ever got credit for," says Hall of Famer and Golden Era voter Joe Morgan. "He didn't kiss anyone's ass, and if you didn't kiss the ass of white sports writers back then, well, you know how that goes. But he won you ballgames."

The old conventions did not get Allen close to induction, but a dedicated group of fan advocates from Philadelphia and modern statistical analysis give his supporters hope that he won't again pay for his moods and his blackness, as he did in 1974, when he led the AL in multiple categories, including home runs, yet finished, yes, 23rd for MVP. Of retired players with 3,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of at least 156, Allen is one of only four not in the Hall. The others are Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Shoeless Joe Jackson. And of eligible non-steroid-era players, Allen's .534 slugging percentage is the highest of any uninducted player.

"Frank Robinson used to say all the time, 'You know who the Hall of Famers are,' " Morgan says. "You didn't let Hall of Famers beat you. Dick Allen was a guy you didn't let beat you."

Ironically, it is the bloodlessness of the numbers that provides the greatest chance of enshrinement for a man best known for heart, blood, passion and power. There is something both beautiful and dreadful about this -- beautiful because his achievements might withstand analysis, bigotry and grudge, but dreadful because anyone who saw the man in action would not immediately think about numbers to describe Allen. They would think about the memories he created, his presence, his power, his 42-ounce bat. In Philly, fans would think about the dreaded 1964 September collapse but also about how good he was, about how he represented them and was shoulder to shoulder with Aaron and Mantle.

Through the numbers -- and not the history, the turmoil and the lens of men who didn't understand him and didn't care to -- Allen might soon resume his place in the lineup, when he walked with the immortals.

"I don't know about the rest of the room," Morgan told me. "But I know this: He has at least one vote."