Monday, April 16, 2012

Jackie Robinson ‘Day’ brought to mind memories of Dick Allen, and how things don’t change as much as we’d like

It was Major League Baseball’s annual Jackie Robinson tribute on Sunday – the one where every single ballplayer wears Robinson’s uniform Number “42” on his uniform as a tribute to the first black ballplayer of the 20th Century in the “white” major leagues.

Yet since the ballgame I watched on Sunday was the Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox, the Robinson tribute got mixed in with another tribute.

FOR THIS IS the season that the White Sox are paying tribute to their 1972 team that came so close to winning a division title (who’s to say how far they would have gone in the playoffs and World Series that year, if they had made it).

All the White Sox ballplayers were wearing the bright-red and white uniforms that the team wore that season, and they’re going to do so for every Sunday home game.

It was like a whole playing field of Dick Allens were out there. Allen, of course, was the first baseman who was traded away by the Dodgers in ’72, only to have him become the American League most valuable player whose big bat nearly put the White Sox in the post-season that year.

Now what’s the point of thinking about Dick Allen on a day when the “story” is supposed to be sepia memories of Jackie Robinson? Actually, I can’t help but think the two, along with many other ballplayers throughout the years, are intertwined.

FOR THE DAY’S proceedings included the telling of stories about the level of racial harassment that Robinson faced during his first two seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The reality is that those were the two seasons that Robinson was under orders not to fight back or retaliate in any way.

Yet the way the stories get told now, it sounds almost like those were the only two years of harassment, with the rest of baseball coming to accept Robinson and his racial ilk. Now, everything is lovely and peaceful and charming and ….


The real story of racial integration of professional baseball in this country is that for every ballclub that was willing to advance the “cause” (Brooklyn, the New York Giants and Bill Veeck’s ownership of the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns), there were other ballclubs more than willing to “hold out” in hopes that this “fad” would wither away.

THERE ARE MANY one-time minor league cities that no longer have professional baseball because the teams (and in some cases, entire low-level leagues) preferred to cease to exist – rather than let their on-field activity become “mongrelized.”

This carried well into the 1960s, which is when Allen first came up to the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies (who were the last National League team to integrate).

A lot of the incidents that gave Allen a reputation as a head case who was totally disagreeable and not worth having on a ballclub no matter how well he hit can be tied back to people who would have preferred to think of their “colored” ballplayer as some sort of role-playing specialist – rather than as the “star” of the team.

Heck, even the case of his name is a controversy – which is so stupid when you think about it. Allen (it’s Richard Anthony Allen on his birth certificate) always went by “Dick.”

YET BASEBALL OFFICIALS preferred calling him “Richie.” Perhaps the Phillies thought it was colorful. Allen thought it made him sound like a little boy. White fans of that era probably thought he was being “uppity” for complaining.

Part of why Allen had his big year with the White Sox in ’72 (and in general, some competent play until he walked out on the team at the end of 1974 following feuding with team-mate Ron Santo) is that they respected his desires. Although there are countless fans to this day who use “Richie” as a way of disrespecting him.

They may not appreciate the racial overtones, or how they’re carrying on an attitude that should have died decades ago. Actually, it should never have been in place, but that is a debate for another days’ commentary.
Anybody who thinks this is an old issue has obviously forgotten the more recent days of Albert Belle – who went through a similar issue.

HIS FULL NAME is Jojuan Albert Belle, and his original ballclub (the Indians) liked calling him “Joey” – even though Belle hated it for the same reason Allen hated “Richie.”

I can remember once sitting in the right-field stands at then-New Comiskey Park and hearing someone sitting to my right taunting Belle with his chants of “Joey, Joey!”

When I asked him what his point was, he told me, “I’ll tell that n----r what his name is.” This was in 1999 – which means it’s not a lesson in “ancient” history by any means. Considering that the only “black” ballplayers some major league teams now have are the dark-skinned Dominicans and Cubans (like White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez), it only adds to the image some people have of baseball as a sport that’s not really interested in celebrating its integration.

Which is my larger point. Trying to remember Robinson and the attitudes against him as some sort of aberration that withered away is completely inaccurate.

IT’S JUST ONE one step away from trying to claim that no one was ever hostile toward Robinson, or black ballplayers in general.

Just like Dick Allen, who is supposed to be on hand for the White Sox’ game against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 24. It’s too bad the whole team couldn’t wear the number “15” that day, as a reminder of how long it took to truly integrate – and how some people were determined to hold out for an all-white game.


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