Fans and opposing pitchers will tell about seeing the 6’4″ monster of a human swinging an oak tree for a bat. The truth is that Allen did not even top 6ft, but did swing a heavy bat in an era where everyone was swinging lighter lumber. Allen’s tree trunk was a 44oz weapon and he gave it a mighty swing every time he went to the plate.
Richie (or as he would later be known, Dick) Allen was only a Cardinal for a year, but during the summer of 1970 he hit some mammoth home runs in places that were thought unreachable by mortal man. And he did it with a frequency never before seen in Busch Stadium. Only Houston Slugger Jimmy Wynn could match Allen’s ferocious home run distances. And for that summer we would come out to the ballpark to watch Allen swing the bat, Lou Brock run the bases and Bob Gibson have one of his better seasons – going 23-7.
The story of Richie Allen and the Cardinals begins in the roller coaster that was the 1964 season. Allen burst on the scene after a bit of a personal rough time in the Phillies farm system and had one of the greatest rookie seasons in memory. He led the league in runs, triples, extra base hits and total bases. A wild swinger he also led the league in strikeouts which he would do again the next year. But a lot of that was forgiven by carrying a .318 batting average. In his career he would strike out about as often as get a hit, but his lifetime .292 batting average places him in some pretty elite company.
Playing 3rd base for the first time in his career, Allen led the league in errors (41) and gave him a reputation as a defensive liability. His offensive numbers were so staggering that you would play him anywhere just to get his bat in the lineup. Much is made of the epic failure of the 1964 Phillies, but Richie Allen did all that he could to try to win the pennant. While the Cardinals caught the Phils and went on to win the World Series, Allen was rewarded by receiving the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year.
He avoided a sophomore jinx and had just as good a year in 1965. He would also go to the first of his 3 consecutive All Star games including the thriller in St. Louis where he would pinch hit for teammate Jim Bunning. His 1966 season with 40 home runs, a .317 average and OPS of 1.027 earned him a few MVP votes and he would finish behind Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. He would win an AL MVP with Chicago in 1972 with nearly the same offensive numbers.
Unfortunately the story wasn’t always a good one. Allen was a victim of racial troubles and being a strong person did not back down. Not knowing all that was going on behind the scenes, he got the reputation of being a trouble maker and creating a hostile clubhouse. Some of this led to injuries that started affecting his performance. Philadelphia management soon tired of this and were looking to move Allen.
Following the 1969 season, the Cardinals would make one of their biggest trades in the history of the club. The deal was essentially gold glove outfielder Curt Flood for Allen, but the Cardinals had to sweeten the deal and added fan favorites Tim McCarver and Joe Hoerner along with former Cub Byron Browne. The Phillies added pitcher Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas. When Flood failed to report, the Cardinals had to send their prized prospect Willie Montanez to the Phillies for compensation. And to this day we are madder than a hornet about that ruling. Montanez would go on to have a terrific career and we were all excited to think that would be part of the Cardinals next run at the Pennant. Curt Flood would sit out a year while challenging the reserve clause and go on to get just 7 more hits in his career. Meanwhile Montanez would collect over 1,600.
With all of the negative impressions of Allen and the controversy of Flood not reporting to the Phillies, Cardinal fans were slow to welcome the newcomer. I still remember conversations where we asked each other why they were doing this ? The answer was simple, we thought our best chance to return to the World Series was to get a huge bat to go along with the righty/lefty punch of Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. And on paper that sounded good, but still – the reputation of Richie Allen was troublesome.
All that went away once Allen started playing in St. Louis. To the fans, he was as good a player as we could have hoped for. We never heard any complaining – except about the heat of St. Louis summers and playing home games in August. Other than that he was a professional. We had one of the league’s elite hitters batting cleanup nearly every night. He would hit .279 for the Cardinals with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs despite missing 40 games with minor injuries. The Cardinals did something for Allen that would help him later in his career – they moved him from third base where he was a defensive nightmare to first base. And at 5’11” he was a rather small target as a first baseman but Dal Maxvill and Julian Javier were stellar in the field, and Mike Shannon – well Mike would soon be a broadcaster.
Richie Allen would represent the Cardinals in the 1970 All Star Game starting at first base. Bob Gibson and Joe Torre would also play in the extra inning thriller.
One thing that should be set straight. When Richie Allen left Philadelphia he wanted a clean start. And one of the things he changed was his name. He wanted to be called Dick instead of Richie. Legend has it that this started with Jack Buck. And that might be true, but for the summer of 1970, Cardinal fans admired the offensive juggernaut that was Richie Allen.
Sadly the story would end almost as quickly as it began. Right at the end of the 1970 season Allen would be sent to the Dodgers for utility infielder Ted Sizemore. That trade left a lot of us scratching our heads, but the deal worked out well for the Cardinals.
Allen did not do well in Los Angeles, compared to his typical production. The Dodgers moved him all over the field splitting time at first, third and left field. Had they talked to the Cardinals we would have told them to stick him at first and leave him alone.
After a season Los Angeles would trade Allen to Chicago where he would start his reign of terror on American League pitchers. He would play in 3 more All Star Games (72-74), win the AL MVP in 1972 and turn in two of his best seasons (72, 74). A broken leg in 1973 cut short what might have been the best year of his career. And as players of that era did too frequently, Allen returned too quickly from the injury and had a relapse that cost him the rest of the season.
Oh, how did the trade work out for Los Angeles – quite nicely indeed. They were the recipient of a lefty by the name of Tommy John. John would terrorize National League hitters for the next 6 seasons before jumping back to the American League (where we were glad to see him go).
Allen would be traded back to the Phillies where he would cross paths with future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. With his career winding down he would end up in Oakland for the 1977 season and retire after 15 seasons.
For his career he would hit 351 home runs, have a career OPS of .912 and bat .292. Like Reggie Smith who would soon follow Allen in a Cardinal uniform, he is one of the greatest players not to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was controversial. He had his best seasons with the Phillies and White Sox. For for one year he was the center of attention in the greatest baseball city in the world. And he delivered a season worth remembering.