In 1972 the White Sox’ Dick Allen was our Babe Ruth
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash June 25, 2012 12:08PM
Dick Allen Chicago White Sox June 12, 1972 X 16840 credit: John Iacono - contract
Updated: June 25, 2012 4:46PM
Dick Allen was born too soon. But he came to Chicago at the perfect time for White Sox fans in 1972 — especially for those of us kids who were too old for Garfield Goose and a few years away from Farrah Fawcett posters.
Allen was everybody’s hero. But he was our Babe Ruth. Even 12- and 13-year-old Cub fans loved Dick Allen. He was new. He was a star. He smoked. He was a rebel. He was cocky. And he was cool. He even looked good striking out. As much as any player in the game, people paid to see him play. Even though you could see him on TV, you just had to see him in person. That’s how dynamic Dick Allen was.
But most of all, he was as better than advertised. A former Rookie of the Year with the Phillies and a four-time all-star, Allen was expected to carry the White Sox on his back in 1972, and he did.
After a 41-day holdout that cost him most of spring training in 1972, Allen finally signed a one-year, $135,000 contract in early April that made him the highest-paid player in White Sox history before he had even played a game for them. Asked how long it would take him to be ready for the season, he said, ‘‘As long as it takes a pitcher to warm up.’’
That’s about how quickly it took for us to realize that Allen was cocky for a reason. He hit a home run in his fourth at-bat in the Sox’s opener at Kansas City to break up a scoreless game in the ninth inning. The next day he hit a game-tying RBI double in the ninth inning. The Sox lost both games, but when Allen finally got the team on his shoulders the Sox were on their way.
With Allen contending for the Triple Crown — on Sept. 9 he led the American League in batting average (.317), home runs (33) and RBIs (102) — the White Sox were tied for first place in the AL West on Aug. 28 and two games behind the Oakland A’s with 15 games to go. In the previous four seasons the Sox had been 17 games or more behind by the All-Star break.
The Sox finished 5 1/2 games behind the A’s, but by the end of the World Series all we remembered about that season was Dick Allen. He won the American League MVP Award — the first Sox player to win it since Nellie Fox in 1959 — and there was no doubt about it. Allen’s credentials were impeccable:
-- He led the league with 37 home runs and 133 RBIs in 148 games of a strike-shortened 154-game season and was third in batting average (.308) behind the Twins’ Rod Carew (.318) and the Royals’ Lou Piniella (.312).
-- He stole 19 bases and hit five triples. He hit two inside-the-park home runs [ital] in the same game [end ital] against the Twins’ Bert Blyleven.
-- Against the eight Cy Young Award vote-getters, Allen hit .345 (19-for-55) with five homers and 15 RBIs and a .448 on-base percentage.
-- Allen’s numbers might look modest by today’s standards, but his relative numbers were staggering. His slugging percentage (.603) was 65 points ahead of runner-up Carlton Fisk (.538). His OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage of 1.023 was 114 points ahead of runner-up Fisk (.909).
-- Allen’s OPS-plus (OPS relative to the rest of the league) was 199 — the only non-steroid players to exceed that since are George Brett (1980), Barry Bonds (1992-93) and Frank Thomas (1994).
Allen did all that in 148 games. Manager Chuck Tanner alllowed him to miss the final six games of the 1972 season, with Allen hampered by a sore knee and declining interest as the Sox were all but eliminated from postseason contention.
Unfortunately, that would become a discouraging trend of Dick Allen’s career in Chicago. He missed 90 of the final 93 games in 1973 after suffering a broken leg with the Sox 37-32 and one game out of first place. And in September of 1974, with the Sox out of contention, he lost interest and quit the game with 20 games to go. The Sox were 10 games out of first place. Allen was leading the AL in home runs (32), third in RBIs (88) and sixth in batting average (.306).
Allen was a team player when he wanted to be — in 1973 he played second base late in a 21-inning game against the Indians, then hit a three-run homer off Ed Farmer in the bottom of the 21st inning to win it. But his abrupt 1974 exit marked an ignominious end to Allen’s career in Chicago.
Still, Allen’s impact would never be forgotten. Two years before he arrived, the Sox averaged 5,900 fans per game at Comiskey Park in 1970 and were contemplating moving the franchise. With Tanner, Bill Melton and Wilbur Wood — and first-year announcer Harry Caray — the Sox became respectable in 1971 (79-83) and attendance improved to 10,295 per game. But Allen clinched the viability of the Sox on the South Side. The Sox drew 1,177,318 in 1972 (15,093 per game), and the value of Dick Allen could not be understated. His departure left a void that would not be filled for years.
When Allen left town, the most beloved star of White Sox baseball was Harry Caray. There would be other stars — Zisk, Baines, Fisk and Frank Thomas among them. But there never has been a superstar quite like Dick Allen on the South Side. For perhaps the only time in his life, he was the right guy at the right place at the right time.