Heroes in the Dirt and Other Folk Songs

by JohnAllison

I'd like to tell you about hero of mine - Dick Allen, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies. When I was young, I usually fell asleep on the living room floor when my father turned on baseball games. Still, I loved the actors of the game, and spent billions on baseball cards. Dick Allen had all the characteristics needed to be a hero of mine. He had guts, was talented, creative, and always seemed to be in some kind of trouble.

They called him Rich or Richie Allen, since he preferred Dick. Allen was a "super hitter" for the Phillies in the 1960's. He had a rocky time, disliked because he was the first black player in the modern Phillies. They were always looking for a reason to hate him. Early in his career he got in a "fight" with another player who hit Dick with a bat. That player was fired, and Allen was held responsible by the fans because a white player lost his job. They were looking for a reason to boo, and they did. He grew a moustache; he was told to cut it off. Always something. But for 6 days in 1967, he did something amazing, something no one's had done before or since. He wrote in the dirt.

They probably called him Richie because another Philly, Richie Ashburn, had recently retired. Of course Richie Ashburn's nickname was Whitey, so they were easy to distinguish. I should point out that Richie Ashburn is hero material to me as well, because of one game he played on August 17, 1957 in Philadelphia. Ashburn hit a foul ball into the stands. Earl Roth, who was the sports editor for the Philadelphia Bulletin was in the stands and the ball landed right next to him. Unfortunately, right next to him was his lovely wife Alice Roth, who now had a broken nose. Play resumed, and Richie Ashburn hit another foul ball, again into the stands. It wasn't to exactly the same place, still he did manage to again locate Alice Roth, as she was being carried off in a stretcher. Hero material.

Let me get back to Dick Allen. He led the American League in home runs twice. His career batting average was .534, unheard of today. This guy used one of the heaviest bats available, 44 ounces, and hit home run balls beyond 500 feet! The joke in Philadelphia was that Phillies fans boo Allen all the time, because when he hits a home run, there's no souvenir. His fielding was not quite at the level of his hitting, so they moved him around a lot. He once said "I can play anywhere; First, Third, Left field, anywhere but Philadelphia" Still, by the end of his career, he had been compared to Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth. Philadelphia was the last city to integrate black players into their team, so the treatment of Dick Allen is something of which no one is proud of in the City of Brotherly Love.

Dick Allen was black, and he was disliked. For some reason, we could all enjoy Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops, but we couldn't let him in. Horrible signs were hung from the railings of Connie Mac Stadium. They threw things at him when he took the field - ice, trash, flashlight batteries! - so he never took off his batting helmet.

One day in 1967 fans were booing him because he hadn't hit a home run lately, and because he was still black, so he wrote in the dirt, in big letters, between second and third base, C-O-K-E, because he intended to hit a home run over the Coca-Cola sign in the outfield. The next night he wrote B-O-O. The fans did. The Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, was there and didn't like Allen having his own personal blackboard, and between games of the double header, he told him so. In the second game, Allen wrote N-O. Later he wrote W-H-Y. This was an amazing thing to watch. Theatre in the middle of a baseball game! A single man, standing in the middle of thousands who disliked him, having a voice as loud as theirs.

A process had quickly evolved. Allen would write something in the dirt, which would stay there until the end of the inning. At that point, the grounds crew was sent out to erase his words. On his last night of writing, the plate umpire was asked to tell him that the owners wanted it stopped. That was when everything changed, just a little bit. He wrote M-O-M. World's shortest monologue. I think that when the fans were forced to decide between the front office, who was willing to erase the word MOM, and the man who wrote it, they decided, and sentiment slowly started to change. Unfortunately, by that time Dick Allen was tired of the constant battles and no longer found it fun to play baseball. That was too bad. You should also know that, that night, after the inning was over, the grounds staff refused to erase the word MOM, so it remained there for the rest of the game.

While, as I said, I slept through most of the Phillies games on TV as a kid, my father did help me to stay away for those 6 games, to see my one sports hero make history with his toe. There was another kid, a little younger, who was having a similar experience. He lived just outside of town and, unlike me, was a serious baseball fan. His name is Chuck Brodsky, and he grew up to be a Folk Singer. While I know nothing about Folk music, I know that Chuck wrote a song called Letters in the Dirt. While it tells the story of Dick Allen, the song itself is about Chuck's father.

Letters in the Dirt. The first line of the song is: "Me and you, we never booed Richie Allen/ I never understood why people did." Then he tells Allen's story, but ends by returning back to his father. In the closing line, he says "I've since found out all these years later/ now I know a lot more than I did/ and if back then you knew, Daddy/ why all those other people Booed/ thanks for letting me have my heroes as a kid."

It's good to know so many other kids were having the same experience - maybe there's hope for Philadelphia still. Dick, thanks for writing in the dirt for us all. You're as much a hero as those who supported you, and those who let little white boys have big black heroes, back in a very different time.

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