Does Dick Allen deserve the Hall of Fame?
The recent selection of Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame can't help but make baseball fans ask, "But what about -- ?" -- what about this or that other first baseman who is better, according to Baseball Reference and by any fair estimate of their careers, than that 40th best first baseman in baseball history? And THAT brings up probably the best pure hitter who is not in the Hall: Dick Allen.
The problem with Allen is that in order to have Allen's monstrous bat in the lineup, you have to have Allen's glove in the field and Allen's mouth in the clubhouse. And the question is, "Is it worth it?" Gene Mauch, who had long defended Allen from a bitter and unforgiving and frankly racist public and press in Philadelphia, finally gave up on it, and the Phillies traded Allen to the Cardinals. The Cardinals had had several genuine stars who were black -- Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Bill White, and Lou Brock -- and so you might think that Allen would fit in. He didn't. The Cardinals in 1970 got a Cy Young year from Gibson, who went 23-7, and Joe Torre batted .325, and Ted Simmons began for real his own Hall of Fame career, but they got sick of Allen after one season, and traded him to the Dodgers. The Dodgers got sick of him after one season in turn, and traded him to the White Sox. There in 1972 he had maybe the best season of his career, but after a one-year surge in the standings, the Sox fell back into mediocrity.
It's interesting to look at a franchise's history and see which new man made the big difference, becoming the last piece of a puzzle, or changing the team's ethos -- turning them from pretty good to great, making them not just hitters and pitchers but winners. Let's see ... Keith Hernandez for the Mets in the 1980's; George Brett for the Royals in the late 70's; Mike Schmidt for the Phillies ... Some guys are better for the team than their statistics would indicate. These you want on your side, period: Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Curt Schilling, Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman, Jack Morris, Orel Hershiser, Carlton Fisk, Pete Rose, Reggie Smith... And others are, so to speak, too "expensive" for your team.
The job of a player in baseball is not to hit home runs or strike out opponents, but to help the team win games, and not just single games, but through the season. Football fans know, similarly, that there are talented players you don't want on your team, because they don't make the team better. The quarterback needs wide receivers, not headaches. If you are one player away from a pennant, who do you want, Dick Allen or Reggie Smith? I will pick Smith, all the time, and never think twice.
It is true that ALL the black players in Allen's days had to put up with racism, and that Allen was treated in a really shabby way by the Phillies' management. He hated Philadelphia, and Curt Flood, rather than have to play in Philadelphia when the Cardinals traded him and Tim McCarver for Allen, took Major League Baseball to court. Reggie Smith -- Carl, to his family and friends -- hated playing in Boston, where the press and the fans never appreciated him, though without him there was no way the Red Sox would have gone to the 1967 World Series. Smith had a couple of All Star seasons with the Cardinals, and then he helped to push the Dodgers past the Big Red Machine in 1977 and 1978, losing the World Series to the Yankees and Reggie Jackson.
The question isn't whether these guys were treated well. They weren't. The question is what they made of it, how they dealt with it. That's Bill James' opinion, and I agree. You aren't a great player because in a more just time you might have been a great player. Life isn't like that ....