Baseball of a Different Color

The library in Richie Allen's hometown of Wampum, PA, closed last year, so anyone there who wants to borrow the book "September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies and Racial Integration" has to go to the facility in nearby Ellwood City, which is where I picked up that book last month.

"September Swoon" is, of course, a reference to the biggest pennant-race collapse in Major League Baseball history. In 1964, the year Allen was voted National League Rookie of the Year, the Phils set the futility standard by blowing a 6½-game lead with 12 to play.

Although the book is set entirely in the 1960s, it focuses on the often-contentious connection between baseball and blacks, which affects the sport to this day.

Kashatus has also written on the Underground Railroad, baseball in the eastern Pennsylvania anthracite coal-mining region, and the seemingly oxymoronic history of Quakers at war.

While "September Swoon" sometimes gets bogged down in game accounts, Kashatus' book is worthwhile reading for its coverage of race and baseball, particularly in reference to Allen, regarded as baseball's first black superstar malcontent.

Allen doesn't come off totally innocent in the book — Kashatus reveals that he sometimes showed up drunk for games before the Phillies finally gave in to his demand for a trade. But the author, who says Allen's numbers make him worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration, also talks about the treatment he got from Phillies fans, which led to the trade demand.

The relationship between Allen and Philadelphia fans was sprained during the 1964 season as the team collapsed in the stretch and into 1965, when the team failed to live up to the expectations that carried over from the previous season's relative success.

By the end of that season, the relationship was hopelessly fractured, thanks largely to a run-in between Allen and Frank Thomas, a popular veteran first baseman obtained in a trade with Pittsburgh the previous year. Thomas, who had a reputation for being rough — sometimes brutal — on young players, crossed a line in Allen's view, and the two players got into a scuffle.

A few days later, Thomas was traded and the Philadelphia fans blamed Allen. Phillies management denied the fight and trade were connected, and, today at least, it wouldn't matter to most fans if it was. If a young star and a veteran well past his sell-by date can't coexist in the same locker room, guess which one is gone?

In retrospect, getting rid of Thomas was a no-brainer. But the fans couldn't forgive Allen. And Allen couldn't forgive the fans for their lack of forgiveness, which triggered a vicious cycle that spiraled out of everyone's control and eventually forced his trade to the Chicago White Sox.

Once in Chicago under manager Chuck Tanner — who hailed from Shenango Township, PA, literally just down the road (Pa. Route 18, to be exact) from Wampum — Allen blossomed.

Baseball's problematic racial relationship didn't end with Allen's retirement, although he certainly made it easier for other black players who didn't always get along with fans, most notably Dave Parker, Gary Sheffield, and Barry Bonds.

Were it not for Latin American players, baseball in 2005 would look a lot like baseball in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson breached the color line. Although today, that's not because of then-commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis' overt racism, but because of benign neglect.

While baseball has done little to attract young black athletes, basketball and football began to take root in inner-city communities. The decline in minority baseball participation is evident in the western Pennsylvania region where Allen grew up.

In Aliquippa, a former mill town where Mike Ditka and Ty Law went to high school, the largely minority student population dominates competition statewide in football, basketball, and track, but has a baseball team that regularly gets socked with mercy-rule losses, where games are stopped because one team has a lead of at least 15 runs after three innings or at least 10 runs after five innings.

Sociology plays a part in that. Baseball is a legacy sport — it's passed on from father to son. In inner city minority-dominated neighborhoods, fathers, and even father figures, are in short supply.

Baseball itself is another part of the problem. The game contains a heavy dose of a "hurry up and wait" type of activity, which all but drives kids to constant-action sports like basketball, football and, yes, even soccer — in the May 30 issue of Sports Illustrated, U.S. national soccer coach Bruce Arena said the number of black players in the 70-man (and boy, since it includes 15-year-old Freddy Adu) national team pool would enable him to select an all-African-American squad.

Ironically, the folks who run baseball, once the national pastime, is now attempting to copy the success of soccer, once a fringe sport.

Former major leaguer John Young was well ahead of the curve on this one. In 1989, he began to notice the decline in youth baseball participation among kids in his native, and largely minority, South Central Los Angeles.

Today, the program Young started, now known as Reviving Baseball In the Inner Cities (RBI) has gained momentum and is now the main thrust of a league-wide effort to bring black players back to the game.

The hope is that, as more black kids play baseball, more will make it to the major leagues. And even if they don't, that more will watch the sport as adults.

It's be too soon to see if the program has made an impact on either front — soccer in the United States needed nearly 30 years to become even moderately successful either in international competition or as a spectator sport.

But RBI represents an effort by Major League Baseball to attract black youths to a sport their predecessors once fought to play. And that can't be a bad thing, either for those kids or for the game.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site