California Literary Review

September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration by William C. Kashatus

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April 24th, 2007 at 4:58 am

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September Swoon: Richie Allen, the ’64 Phillies, and Racial Integration
by William C. Kashatus
Pennsylvania State University Press, 280 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Sacrificial Lamb

For Philadelphians over a certain age, the year 1964 evokes bitter memories of a Phillies team securely ensconced in first place by 6 ½ games with only 12 games left to play in the season. In a collapse that haunts Philadelphia to this day, the Phillies proceeded to lose ten games in a row and finish the season in second place, one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals. William Kashatus recounts the whole sorry affair beginning with the Phillies weak efforts at integration in the 1940s and 50s, touching on the 1950 “Whiz Kids,” and proceeding through the disappointing 1960s.

In 1964 Philadelphia was faced with race riots, white flight, a fledgling civil rights movement, and a declining economy. Unfortunately this storm swirling over Philadelphia found a lightning rod in the best athlete ever to wear a Phillies uniform – Dick Allen. Dick Allen was a “once in a generation” kind of athlete. As kids we used to combine our Little League bats to equal the 40 ounce tree trunk that he used. It amazed us that he could swing something that heavy with such grace and power. We had never seen an athlete with his talents and I’m not sure that baseball has since. But what should have been the start of a Hall of Fame career disintegrated quickly.

For followers of the Phillies and hardcore baseball fans, this is a recommended book. Mr. Kashatus is a capable writer who has done a good job of documenting the story of that infamous season. But there’s a better, more important book about that summer in Philadelphia that is begging to be written. Imagine what a great story teller like Erik Larson (Devil In The White City) could do with 1964 Philadelphia and its social and racial problems as personified by Dick Allen and Philly’s tough cop turned Mayor, Frank Rizzo. Forget details such as how the Phillies acquired the rights to Clay Darymple and use September Swoon’s cover photograph as the focal point of the story. In the photograph, Dick Allen has just swung at a pitch with that perfect stroke of his. Above his head a huge banner drapes from the upper deck with the words “IT WON’T BE LONG NOW RICHIE!!!! (OCT. 2).” October 2nd was to be his last game as a Phillie in the 1969 season, after which he would be traded (at his insistence). It’s impossible to tell at the conclusion of his swing whether he has made contact or not. On his face is a look of anger and deep unhappiness. By the late 60s he wore this same expression for both home runs and strikeouts.

Why “RICHIE!!!!” in bold capital letters? The man had asked years before to be called “Dick Allen.” Why was it so important for white Philadelphia to deny him that? Why was the hatred so deep? Growing up in the suburbs one heard many negative and condescending remarks about “the colored.” As one went deeper into row house Philadelphia, “colored” was frequently replaced with “nigger” and the remarks had a hatred and intensity that was usually lacking in the suburbs. I think it signified which whites were the most afraid – who was getting kicked by life the hardest and needed someone else to kick in return. The sad fact is that people need to feel superior to others, and the ones lower in the pecking order, the ones constantly reminded of their low status are the ones most in need of someone else to look down on. America’s swinging, booming 60’s did not reach all of its citizens. In a declining manufacturing center like Philadelphia, blacks and whites were fighting over not just the few table scraps remaining, but also a limited supply of pride – blacks trying to attain it, and whites desperate not to lose it. Dick Allen was an immensely talented, good-natured man who became a hope for black Philadelphians and a threat to many white Philadelphians. The pressure was simply too much for him, as it would be for almost anyone. Alcohol and defiance became his weapons of choice in a battle he did not want to fight. Imagine what heights he would have achieved outside of such cultural turmoil. Imagine if we had allowed him to simply play baseball.

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