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A tale of two Bat Days

On this saddest of days, we honor White Sox legend Dick Allen

Chicago White Sox
Dick Allen, just a day after the postponed Veterans Committee vote would have taken place and likely honored him with Hall of Fame membership, passed away on Monday afternoon.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

At his home in Wampum, Pa. on Monday afternoon, baseball great and former White Sox Dick Allen passed away. It is said that Allen’s acquisition on the South Side, and the greatness that garnered him the 1972 AL MVP, kept the White Sox from moving out of Chicago. He was also a star-crossed figure who invited controversy — and had loads more visited upon him.

He was an all-time great, worthy of the Hall of Fame, although as pointed out below, Allen could have silenced any debate over his place in Cooperstown with just a little more focus and a few more breaks.

Allen passed away a day after the originally-scheduled vote from the Veterans Committee that could well have put him in the Hall of Fame. (For pandemic reasons, the BBWAA postponed that vote until 2021.)

Dan Helpingstine’s terrific piece on two 1970s Bat Days features Allen in a starring role. It originally ran at South Side Hit Pen last year. We will eulogize Allen more formally at the end of the month.

The White Sox have had attendance issues for decades now. The team’s problems began in the late 1960s, for a variety of reasons. One chief reason was the club didn’t have a marquee name, an impact player who could draw fans in big numbers.

During their stretch of winning seasons from 1951-67, the White Sox had players like Luis Aparicio, (stolen bases and defense), Nellie Fox (singles hitter and bunter), and usually a solid pitching rotation. But there was no Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Harmon Killebrew. When the White Sox won, they won low-scoring games with little offense. The team didn’t hit have a 30-home run hitter in its entire history until 1970. Vast Comiskey Park was not a great place for power hitters, anyway.

During the offseason between 1971 and 1972, the White Sox finally were able to acquire that dominant player they never seemed to have when they traded pitcher Tommy John and first baseman Steve Huntz to the Dodgers for Dick Allen.

Allen hit for great power and average, and there was no doubt he was an elite talent. The biggest problem was that he had a very checkered past. Some fans in Philadelphia counted the days to his departure. The White Sox would be his fourth team in four years. Would any baggage that he would carry be worth giving up a front-line pitcher and a promising first baseman?

Allen would quickly become a South Side icon, but he would also be tied to two historic days at Comiskey Park that spelled both optimism and ruin, both for him and the team.

In the beginning, it appeared the Allen pickup was a mistake. Bad baggage-carrying Allen reared his head.

The talented first-baseman didn’t care to show up for spring training. Just as important, contract talks stalled, and it appeared, in those pre-free agent days, that Allen might hold out. But the team and player came to terms, and then Allen revealed that he wanted to be called “Dick” and not “Richie.” That small request was granted and Richie Allen of the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and Los Angeles Dodgers, became known as Dick Allen of the Chicago White Sox.

Opening Day in 1972 was delayed 10 days because the owners locked out the players in a labor dispute. But Allen would quickly show that this delay and missing spring training would not affect his play.

The White Sox opened the season on April 15 in Kansas City. In the top of the ninth, in a scoreless game, Allen hit a mammoth home run that cleared the left-center field wall by plenty. The Sox would lose that game 2-1 in 11 innings, but Allen had demonstrated his awesome power with a devastating down-cutting swing.

And on June 4, Allen truly cemented his relationship with White Sox fans.

June 4 was Bat Day. That promotion always brought out good crowds to the ballpark. But on June 4, 1972, 51,904 showed for a doubleheader against the Yankees. It was the first 50,000-plus crowd for a regular season game at Comiskey since August 1955 — another doubleheader against the Yankees.

The opener was all White Sox. Young righthander Tom Bradley threw a complete game-six hitter, while Bill Melton hit a towering home run deep into the left field lower deck. At one point, fans held thousands of bats in the air, and the Sox won 6-1. A little less than two years after losing 106, the White Sox looked like contenders.

In between games, there was a damper. It was announced that Dick Allen was not in the lineup. A crowd of over 50,000 shows, and Allen is not playing in the nightcap? Was he injured? Was he fatigued? Or was baggage-carrying Richie Allen uninterested in playing before a large and history-making crowd?

The White Sox offense looked lethargic in the second game. Going into the last inning, the Yankees led 4-2, and it appeared the Sox were going to settle for a split. However, they put on two runners with one out in the bottom of the ninth. And who comes out of the dugout to pinch-hit? Not bad Richie Allen, but good Dick Allen.

Comiskey Park went wild, but Allen calmly strolled up to the plate apparently unmoved by all the excitement. On the second pitch from reliever Sparky Lyle, Allen once more used that down-cutting swing of his and sent a vicious line drive to left.

Sitting down the left field line, I picked up the ball just as it went a little over the shortstop’s head. At first, I thought it was one of those hard-hit balls that are caught by the outfielder. But the ball kept rising. It remained on a line, but it rose. Left fielder Roy White wasn’t coming in, he was drifting back. Once at the wall, White had a totally frustrated look as he watched the drive zip into the seats for a game-winning, three-run homer.

When was there a more exciting moment at Comiskey Park in recent memory? A fan would have to think about it. And when had a White Sox hitter demonstrated power like Allen? It is safe to say: Never.

The next season, Bat Day fell on May 20 for another doubleheader, this time against the Twins. A record 55,555 showed. Is that suspicious-sounding number correct? I was at this game also, and was forced to sit in the top row of the right-field upper deck. I had a better view of the Dan Ryan than of the field. Fans stood. They sat in the aisles. They parked themselves on the catwalk of the scoreboard. The view of people everywhere, in every seat, in every other available space, was breathtaking.

There is a great picture that ran in the Sun-Times the next day. A small girl is sitting in the lower concourse and a mound of boxes rose above and behind her. The boxes once held the bats. It was said that more than 2,200 fans had to be given refunds because there was no room in the stadium. If that 55,555 number is correct, almost 58,000 showed for the Sunday doubleheader. That was more than 10% of the entire team attendance in 1970.

The crowd erupted when Bill Melton homered off ex-Cub Bill Hands in the first. Carlos May added another homer in the fourth, and the Sox, behind the complete game pitching of Wilbur Wood, won 9-3. Excitement ran through the stadium.

Yet, in a repeat of the Bat Day 1972, Dick Allen was not in the lineup for the nightcap. This was hard to defend; it didn’t make sense.

Allen came out to pinch-hit again, but this time there were no heroics. In the fourth, with the bases loaded, Allen popped out. The Sox lost, 3-0, and missed his bat terribly. In the two dates that had a combined attendance of 107,453, good Dick Allen looked like bad Richie Allen, as he had little interest in playing on these historic occasions.

Allen would miss a good part of the 1973 season due to injury, although some questioned how serious the injury was. The team had other injuries, and the White Sox won a disappointing 77 games. And in early September 1974, good Dick Allen looked like bad Richie again.

As the season was winding down in 1974, Allen was on his way to another American League home run championship. Another 100-RBI season was in reach. But Allen again didn’t seem interested. He told the club he was retiring, and wasn’t waiting until the end of the season. With three weeks left, he was taking his leave. The White Sox lost their impact player for reasons unknown, or lamely explained.

The 1975 season was a dud. Attendance dropped to fewer than 800,000. The once-popular Melton was practically booed out of the city. The center field scoreboard celebrations were also duds, as they were shortened to save money. The franchise had few resources, an aging stadium and a non-believing fan base. A charter member of the American League looked like it was on its way to Seattle.

And where was Dick Allen? He decided he was going to play again and ended up in Philadelphia, the place that had hated him more than Chicago turning on Melton. In 1976, Allen threatened to sit out the NCLS because the Phillies didn’t include his friend, Tony Taylor, on the postseason roster. Allen went 2-for-9 in the series and made little impact as he drove in no runs; the Phillies were swept by the Reds.

In 1977, Allen went to Oakland. Again, not interested in playing a second game of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park, Allen had a confrontation with A’s owner Charlie Finley in the locker room. Once again, Allen had limited himself to a single pinch-hit appearance in a nightcap, and Finley was offended that Allen had already showered and was ready to leave. On June 19, 1977, during the year of the South Side Hit Men, Allen left baseball for good. Hardly anyone noticed or cared as he again deserted a team before the season was over.

The man who had become Dick Allen had also become a vital hope for a team and place that had finally had accepted him. He was there for two historic days at Comiskey Park. He provided an excitement like no other White Sox player before him. Then he vanished, and hope seemed to vanish with him. With the exception of the Hit Men season, the second half of the 1970s was an unmitigated disaster and a source of embarrassment.

Many White Sox fans who were around during the 1970s, get angry at hearing the name Dick Allen. His majestic home runs are great memories, but his “retirement” leaves a different type of memory. Yet can anyone really stay angry at Dick Allen? He could have put up Hall of Fame numbers. He could have left an endearing legacy after suffering bitterness and rejection in other places. His demons did more harm to him than anyone else. As fans wonder what could have been, Allen must wonder the same thing.

But there was that line drive into the left field seats on Bat Day 1972. Fans didn’t want to leave Comiskey. They wanted to believe, because the White Sox finally had that one great player who could take them to the World Series.

Unfortunately, that World Series wouldn’t happen for another 33 years.