When the White Sox acquired Dick Allen from the Dodgers before the 1972 season, trading away Tommy John, there was not exactly a wave of excitement. At 30, Allen was playing for his fourth team in four years, and entering the American League for the first time. And the Sox themselves offered little to love, anyway. In 1970, the team went a franchise worst 56-106, drawing only 495,000 fans. The next year, they scratched their way to 79-83.
I was 12 in 1972, a North Sider who loved the Sox despite everything, and on Opening Day I was faithfully watching the game in the basement of my friend Eddy Sokoloff’s house. The contest was scoreless in the ninth at Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium when Allen crushed a Dick Drago pitch for a mammoth homer to right-center.
Eddie and I bolted out of our chairs. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” We had never seen a Sox player hit a ball that hard. Probably nobody had.
The Sox ultimately lost that opener 2-1 (damn you, Bob Oliver, for your game-tying homer off Wilbur Wood in the ninth), but Allen’s shot set the tone for an incredible season.
Ask any real Sox fan, especially if they are from my generation (I’m 52), and they will tell you exactly what Dick Allen meant to us, and why it is right and fitting for the White Sox to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1972 team this year. Allen will throw out the first pitch for Sunday’s game against Milwaukee. Then on Monday night, the Chicago Baseball Museum is hosting a special dinner for Allen and his former teammates at U.S. Cellular Field.
This is the proper tribute for the tallest of giants. Frank Thomas is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Paulie Konerko is a noble warrior. But Dick Allen? Dick Allen remains the greatest player we ever saw.
Allen played on the South Side for just under three seasons, and one of them was cut in half by injury. Yet the indelible mark he left on our baseball consciousness is so strong, we are jolted back 40 years at the mere mention of his name. I can barely remember yesterday, but his numbers from 1972—.308, 37 HRs, 113 RBIs—come back easily.
Those homers tied him with the Cubs’ Billy Williams for third in the bigs that year (Johnny Bench led with 40). His .603 slugging percentage was good for second place, just behind Williams (and just ahead of Willie Stargell). In 1972, Allen led the majors with a .420 OBP.
He had a majestic, electric quality during that campaign. Ask diehards what they remember about him from 1972 and invariably Allen’s base running slips into the conversation. He had 19 stolen bases, a big number for a power hitter, but there was more to it. On July 31 against Minnesota, he actually hit two inside-the-park homers in one game. Nobody ever was quicker going from first to third on a single, seemingly gliding as his foot touched second. He was a sight to behold.
It was his power, though, that defined him. Mightily built, waving a monster 42-ounce bat as if it were a toothpick, Allen hit tremendous laser shots to all parts of old Comiskey Park. On Aug. 23 against the Yankees, Allen exploded on a Lindy McDaniel pitch and reached the centerfield bleachers, clearing a wall that was 20 feet high and 445 feet away. Harry Caray, broadcasting in the bleachers that day, was stunned. “Nobody has ever hit a ball any further,” he screamed.
My most vivid memory came in the second game of a June doubleheader against the Yankees. After winning the opener 6-1, Sox manager Chuck Tanner rested Allen in the nightcap. But with the Sox trailing 4-2 in the ninth with two runners on base and one out, Tanner summoned his slugger to pinch hit. Facing Sparky Lyle, one of the best relievers in the game, Allen waved his 42-ouncer and knocked a dramatic, game-winning, three-run homer.
I remember jumping all over the house, feeling a sense of exhilaration that lasts a lifetime. In fact, the only other time I really felt that way from a Sox game was after Konerko’s grand slam in Game 2 of the World Series.
Allen truly was a one-man show. He carried the Sox to first place in late August on a team where the second highest RBI total was Carlos May’s 68. They eventually succumbed to the Oakland A’s, who were beginning their run of three World Series titles in a row. Allen deserved, and won, the AL MVP.
Unfortunately, 1972 proved to be the peak. A broken leg midway through 1973 and an abrupt departure at the end of a disappointing 1974 season closed his chapter in Chicago.
Yet the aura of Allen remains strong to this day. When I heard he was appearing at a press conference on a recent Monday, I cleared my schedule and raced down to U.S. Cellular Field. I had no agenda, no story to write, per se. I just had to see him.
Allen now is 70, as improbable as me being 52. His hair is gray and the frame not as sleek. Yet when someone mentioned that he still could go deep today, there wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t believe it, including Allen.
Allen told stories. He said that he wished he had started and ended his career in Chicago. He said he was out of uniform eating a hot dog just prior to his game-winner off Lyle. Several people told him they had been sitting in the center field bleachers that day. Even if they weren’t, physically, in their minds they were. We all were.
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ED SHERMAN is a lifelong Sox fan, former vendor, and former Sox beat writer. He now writes on sports media at Shermanreport.com.