Dick Allen was one of the most controversial athletes of his time. He was the embodiment of a superstar: talented, charming and enigmatic.
But to Louis Santoro, Allen will always be remembered as the unexpected guest his father brought home one night in 1968.
“My dad knew him from the local racetracks,” Santoro recalls. “They both liked horse racing. My dad was a charismatic, friendly guy who knew how to talk to people. He befriended Allen and the next thing you know he’s sitting in our living room.”
The memory of the visit lit a spark in 11-year-old Santoro – and not only because he got a personalized autograph from the baseball superstar that night: “To Louis, my good buddy, best wishes and all the coolness, Your Man, Rich Allen.”
It was the start of a lifelong fascination with the baseball superstar, along with a friendship with Allen (and wife, Willa) that still endures to this day.
Looking back, Santoro explains, “You have to remember that the Phillies and baseball were a big thing to young kids back then. (Allen) was the city’s biggest star.” That is no small statement considering that basketball’s Wilt Chamberlain was playing for the 76ers at the time.
Santoro, a lifelong Phillies fan, was well-aware of the slugger’s exploits and he appreciated Allen’s all-around play. When Allen came up in 1964, at 22, he took the National League by storm, batting .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in and playing in all 162 games while winning the Rookie of the Year award. He was young but not feisty or arrogant, Santoro recalls. “The fabric of his personality had not yet been created. But those changes would occur the following year.”
He began 1965 in similar fashion, leading the National League in hitting .361 on July 3 and was scheduled to bat clean up in that year’s All-Star Game. However, that same day, Allen was involved in an altercation with Frank Thomas, an aging white ballplayer who would only play 43 more games in his career.
What began as teasing and joking with the young black ballplayers turned into something more serious at the batting cage during batting practice. Thomas yelled a slur toward Allen, who was standing at third base with Johnny Callison. Allen took exception to the remark and ran to the batting cage, got into a scuffle with Thomas, who picked up a bat and hit Allen on his shoulder. The injury derailed his season.
To Santoro, that unfortunate incident should not define Allen. Rather, Santoro chooses to remember the baseball slugger as the seven-time All-Star who is one of 26 men to win the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player, the player who swung the heaviest bat, and the legend who swatted baseballs clear out of Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium.
And in the ensuing decades, Santoro has amassed an amazing collection of Allen-themed merchandise: game-used bats, autographed bats and balls, jerseys, Topps baseball card test issues featuring Allen, as well as countless wire photos and newspaper clippings. You name it, Santoro probably has it.
“I have the biggest and best Dick Allen collection in America,” he says proudly.
But Santoro’s collection is not merely trinkets. Santoro has Allen's last contract, which has the signatures of Allen, owner Charles O. Finley and Commissioner Lee McPhail. Santoro also has the scouting report cards from John Ogden, who scouted and signed Allen with the Phillies.
“The game-used items that I have are my most favorite,” he says. His prized possessions include a 1969 Phillies home flannel jersey, a 1974 White Sox home jersey, a 1971 L.A. Dodgers home flannel jersey and several game-used bats. As Allen was noted for swinging the heaviest bat in the game, “these bats are truly unique,” he says, noting that he has several 40-ounce bats and a few 42-ounce bats.
“These pieces of wood are truly legendary,” he says. “Other players in the league could not believe Dick could use a bat that heavy, but he was very strong, perhaps the strongest player in baseball at the time.”
He has so much Allen memorabilia that Santoro can barely fit it all inside his home. No worry as he has the ideal alternate storage location where he takes all of his excess Allen items: His mother’s house.
“Every once in a while she’ll ask me, ‘Where did all of this stuff come from?’”
Santoro’s passion for all things Allen is undeniable. Still, the sportswriters have been less emphatic when it comes to trumpeting his case to Cooperstown. Nonetheless, it appears that Allen may finally be getting his due. Recently, the Phillies announced the retirement of Allen’s No. 15 jersey on Sept. 3, the 57th anniversary of his major league debut.
What’s more, Allen’s long-awaited Hall of Fame candidacy could gain a substantial boost when the Golden Era committee meets in December, the first time since 2014. Notably, Allen fell one vote shy of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015 when the Golden Era committee was headlined by Allen’s formers teammates such as Ferguson Jenkins, Don Sutton and the late Jim Bunning.
He led his league in on-base percentage twice and slugging percentage three times, hitting better than .300 in six full seasons while finishing with a career batting average of .292.
The numbers suggest that Allen has Cooperstown-worthy credentials. According to the analytics for the Hall of Fame, Allen is well beyond the standards needed to secure entry into Cooperstown. Proponents, such as Santoro, note that today’s modern-day analytics, such as on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging, (which takes the OPS and normalizes the number across the entire league) favor his Hall of Fame case.
“When these numbers are examined and studied, Allen’s career is seen in a different light rather than just overall numbers, which doesn’t always tell the whole story,” Santoro says. “He led the league in OPS four times and OPS-plus three times and when you look at his overall OPS-plus of 156, (the numbers) rank up there with the all-time greats.”
While Allen’s career 58.7 wins above replacement (WAR) is short of an average Hall of Fame third baseman, it is better than five Hall of Fame third basemen, most of whom played before Allen. Allen’s career WAR, which is 200th all time among thousands of players, is also superior to Hall of Famers from his era such as Willie Stargell and Tony Perez.
Allen’s peers maintain that he belongs. HOFer Rich Gossage, Allen’s White Sox teammate from 1972-74, says he was the greatest player he ever played with. Another former teammate, Stan Bahnsen says Allen, in his prime, was the greatest player with whom he ever played. Willie Mays maintains Allen is a Hall of Famer. Ditto for Mike Schmidt, who has taken an interest in Allen’s candidacy. HOFer Orlando Cepeda has said that Allen is one of the greatest players ever.
“What better qualifications than having your peers state unequivocally that you belong,” Santoro notes. “They saw Allen and they played with and against him.”
The Golden Era committee was to have voted for the Hall of Fame Class of 2021 on Dec. 6. However, officials voted to reschedule this winter’s two Era Committee elections as a result of uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He’s a really nice guy and perceived differently for different reasons,” Santoro explains. “When he signs at autograph shows, he is very friendly and accommodating, and enjoys all of the fans reminiscing about his home runs over the Coke sign on the left-field roof at Connie Mack Stadium, and that he was their favorite player. Everyone says, ‘No, this can’t be the same guy.’”