Few celebrities in any endeavor arrive successfully at a point where their private lives and their public images cohabit agreeably—none less successfully, it would appear, than Dick Allen, the wondrously gifted misanthrope who plays first base for the Chicago White Sox. It is Allen's folly to demand privacy in a goldfish bowl, from which he gazes malevolently out on those who gaze curiously in on him. There was a time this spring when he threatened to jump right out of the bowl and quit baseball, forgetting for the moment what happens to fish out of water. Allen will stay in the swim, at least until his three-year, $700,000 contract, the highest in baseball history, terminates after the 1975 season. If there are further rewards perhaps he will stay even longer, although he now professes, possibly with tongue in cheek, to be weary of the whole enterprise.
Both Allen, whose average through last weekend was under .200, and the Sox, with a winning percentage not much higher, have been foundering, but both may be expected to right themselves.
It would be unfair to suggest that Allen views all humankind with distrust, though he has said he sees profounder virtues in racehorses, of which he owns seven. He justifiably commands the respect and admiration, even the affection, of his teammates, and he is favored with the undying devotion of his manager, defender and protector, Chuck Tanner, who is as cheerful in the face of adversity as Allen is morose. They are strange bedfellows, Tanner and Allen, the one open, gregarious, garrulous, the other closed, withdrawn, reticent. But, as Tanner has assured Allen many times, they are inseparable.
Allen is happy enough in the company of his colleagues on the ball field, and he seems truly to enjoy playing the game. It is just that he would prefer to play it in more private circumstances—in a monastery, perhaps—far removed from autograph seekers and intrusive newsmen. Tanner sees this ascetic tendency as a measure of Allen's artistic soul. Would Brahms have submitted to a clubhouse interview?
Actually, Allen enjoyed a relatively carefree 1973 season, if a season in which he broke a leg may be described as carefree. His troubles, which started long ago in Philadelphia and continued with varying frequency in St. Louis and Los Angeles, began again in earnest before spring training this year. First came a newspaper story in which Dr. Gerald Loftus, last year's White Sox physician, suggested that Allen, whose left leg was broken in a baseline collision in June, could have played the final month of last season.
"Dick was very hurt by that story," a White Sox official said sympathetically. So was Tanner. Typically, he reacted outwardly, while Allen fumed inwardly. "What would he have us do, kill the man?" Tanner inquired rhetorically. "Dick tried hard. He always does. He even went 3 for 4 after being out six weeks. But the leg hurt him. He was favoring it, and when you do that you risk getting hurt someplace else. We were out of the race by the time he came back. Why take a chance on a permanent injury? We have to think of the man's future—and ours. We needed him healthy for this year."
Allen did report this year—50 minutes before spring training began—in sound physical condition. Emotionally, he was even more vulnerable than usual. As he has in the past, Tanner allowed Allen to observe his own training schedule. In this respect Allen is not special. Most of the other veteran White Sox—Wilbur Wood, Bill Melton, Stan Bahnsen, Ron Santo, Jim Kaat, Ken Henderson, Carlos May—were also given considerable freedom. But Allen, who went to bat only six times (with one hit) in the spring, was, as always, the most conspicuous. His two absences from camp for a total of 15 days were dutifully reported and commented on in the Chicago newspapers. Allen's not entirely unwarranted reaction was, "Why me?"
Then in mid-March, Will Grimsley, a longtime Associated Press reporter, found Allen taking batting practice with a mechanical pitching device at the Sox' spring camp in Sarasota, Fla. The team, meanwhile, was playing the Red Sox in Winter Haven.
Seeking a routine interview, Grimsley, another reporter and a cameraman approached the solitary batter, only to be summarily rebuffed, as Grimsley reported in searing detail. " Dick Allen recoiled when he saw his private little cocoon invaded by a handful of strangers," he wrote. The story then described how Allen—jesting once again?—offered to buy lunch for the newsmen, or even slip them $50, if they would kindly leave him alone. Grimsley, in print, was outraged. "He [Allen] takes orders from no one," Grimsley wrote. "He submits to no formalities. He is subject to none of the normal niceties that go with being a public figure."
If Allen was hurt, he was now positively mutilated. Shortly before the season began, he approached Tanner and advised him that he would rather quit the game, pay back his huge salary—anything—than cause further embarrassment to his manager and his teammates.