Tuesday, December 8, 2020

DICK ALLEN REMEMBERED! Fan Interference - A Zisk Anthology

(Blue Cublicle, 2013) If you can find a copy of this great collection of idiosyncratic takes on baseball fandom, grab it. What follows is my piece on Dick Allen's #1 fan that appears in it, one of my favorite interviews I've ever done. Thinking of the late great Dick Allen, amazingly on the precipice of the Hall of Fame, with only a little thing like a global pandemic keeping a committee from enshrining him, I am also thinking of the the living Ziff Sistrunk (who made the news this year by prominently making his way into the coverage of Blago's return home after his Trump pardon). Please remember Allen's amazingness as you read this piece (which I could not find online anywhere and wanted to give folks a chance to read. It is from 2002 so I made a couple updates/edits):

Who Is Dick Allen? by Jake Austen

Richard Anthony Allen should be remembered as one of the greats: he hit over 350 home runs, had over 1,000 RBI, and was the decisive AL MVP in 1972 when he led the league in home runs, RBI, walks, and slugging. Instead, when he is remembered it is often in a negative light, based upon his incendiary chemistry with the fans and press. As Richie Allen he slugged for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1963-1969, where the notoriously brutal Philadelphia sports fans had it in for him.  (These are fans that historically have booed Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Beyonce.) When he came to the American League he found a home with the Chicago White Sox (along with a new name—his experience in Philadelphia was so bad he insisted on being called "Dick" instead of "Richie."). He was a fave with the royal family of Chicago, Mayors Daley I and II, and as one old joke goes, "Who was the first black manager is baseball? Dick Allen, he ran the White Sox from 1972-1974." On the other hand, the press didn’t cotton to his unusual habits (he didn’t practice with the team, he smoked in the dugout, he didn’t give interviews) and the notoriously frank Sox announcer Harry Carey gave him hell, declaring, "Dick Allen has a million dollars worth of talent and 10 cents worth of brains."

Well one man is trying to right the injustices Dick Allen suffered, and that man is Ziff Sistrunk, Dick Allen’s #1 fan. We had a chance to talk with Ziff, and this is how it went down:

Who is Dick Allen?

Ziff Sistrunk: Dick Allen was a famous baseball player from the ‘70s. He was a person who was an example of the true American spirit of independence and freedom...a free spirit. He was a man who had tremendous power. Essentially, the Black Babe Ruth.

When did you become interested in Dick Allen?

I was a bat boy for him in the '70s. In those days they had contests, and I wrote a letter to the Cubs and White Sox, "Why I Want to Be a Bat Boy." I won the contest based on my letter and become the White Sox bat boy from 1973-1974. I was the first Black bat boy in Chicago history.

What is your greatest memory of Dick Allen?

Sparky Lyle on the mound for the Yankees, in front of a gigantic White Sox crowd. It was the second game of a double header, bases loaded, ninth inning. (White Sox manager) Chuck Tanner sent me in to the clubhouse to tell Dick Allen he was pinch hitting. He was sitting out because his contract said he didn’t play the second game of a double header. He came out and hit a screaming line drive into the upper deck. Me and the trainer were jumping up and down, screaming and hugging each other! Dick Allen brought excitement to Chicago sports (comparable to) Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Nancy Faust, the White Sox organist, plays a different song for every player, and for him she played, "Jesus Christ Superstar." I asked her why and she said, "Because he approached the plate like a king!"

Do you consider yourself his number one fan?

Not only do I consider myself his #1 fan (other than his wife and his mother who just died a few years ago...he was a mama’s boy), I am also the official president of the Dick Allen International Fan Club on Race Relations. It is called that because Allen was subjected to a lot of racism, and baseball needs to acknowledge what he went through if the sport is ever to achieve real racial harmony. When he played Triple A for the Little Rock (Arkansas) Travelers he was the first black baseball player in that state. When he first arrived the Governor and 200 fans met Allen at the airport with a sign reading “Don’t Niggerize Our Baseball.” When he went to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Phillies had never had a black superstar. On the field one game Frank Thomas, a veteran on the team who was near retirement, called Allen a “nigger son of a bitch.” Allen knocked him down and Thomas hit Allen on the shoulder with a bat. This was in front of fans, and the Phillies fans turned on Allen. The next day the attendance shot up, just to boo Dick Allen. They brutally rode him out of Philadelphia. He had to wear a batting helmet in the field because they threw things...nails...at him. His life was in danger. If you threw a nail at a player today you would go to jail. Baseball didn’t protect Dick Allen. Can you imagine the mental strain?  You can’t!

What does being his #1 fan entail?

What it does is it has me trying to correct the way that Dick Allen was painted as a bad person or troublemaker. He was an independent person who exercised the United States’ Constitution’s right to free speech. He chose the freedom to not speak to reporters, so of course they wrote bad things about him. I’ve been working on a documentary about Dick Allen for years, but it doesn’t have an end yet. I’m going to take my Dick Allen museum on the road and collect a million signatures, and present them to the baseball commissioner so that he will make a special proclamation. I think Dick Allen should be in the Hall of Fame.  It’s the only way his career could wind up and it’s the only way that baseball can achieve racial harmony in the sport. I was talking to (Allen), and he said he wouldn’t want to be in the Hall of Fame unless they also put me in as the first Black bat boy. That was a nice thing of him to say. You know, this is the 30th anniversary of the season he saved the Sox. They were going to move to Seattle or Florida before Allen doubled the attendance. I am trying to get the White Sox to retire his number and erect a statue. (Former Illinois Attorney General) Roland Burris said it best, he said I’m “keeping Allen’s legacy alive.” No, Channel 7’s Bob Petty said it best, “If Dick hadn’t been like Dick, then there wouldn’t be a Dick Allen!”

What’s the single act that you’ve done that best exemplifies your devotion to Mr. Allen?

I’ve collected over 500 pieces of memorabilia for my traveling Dick Allen Museum—his old uniforms, his bat, his glove.  I went to the Academy Awards to support Michael Clarke Duncan (nominated for The Green Mile) who I went to King High School with, and he told me he had Dick Allen’s glove, which I thought was strange. Allen only had two gloves. I didn’t know him and Allen were close. Duncan sent the glove to me and now it’s in the museum.

How would you like history to remember Dick Allen?

As one of the finest ballplayers to ever play the game. He ran like a deer, hit like Hercules, and dressed like the president. When everyone in the locker room had cotton drawers, he was walking around with silk drawers and a big Afro. They say he was a bad guy.  He never threw his bat, never argued with the umpire.  His mother raised him to be at peace with himself and to believe in God. The hostility he was subjected to was unfair. But he went through these things so others wouldn’t have to. Ballplayers are murdering people now, and Dick Allen is supposed to be bad. Yes, he didn’t like playing the second game of a double header, he didn’t go to spring training or take batting practice. He wasn’t perfect; once he had three homers and six RBI and had given the team an eight-run lead in the seventh inning and asked the manager if he could go. He went to the racetrack, and the team lost the lead and the game, and the reporters saw him at the track, so you can imagine how they let him have it. But ballplayers are murdering people now! He wasn’t a bad guy, just a rebel, an independent, free spirit.

How would you like history to remember Ziff Sistrunk?

As a person who stood for what was right in Dick Allen’s case, who put this in front of his own career. This isn’t about racism, it’s about racial harmony. We’re still not over Jackie Robinson. As long as baseball looks at Dick Allen as bad there will never truly be racial harmony in the game.


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