Coming Soon … A Dick Allen documentary!

Filming through this year's Hall vote, acclaimed director Michael Tollin aims for a 2021 release
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He’s the player whom former White Sox player personnel director and GM Roland Hemond said “saved” the franchise. During his three seasons in Chicago, Dick Allen became the highest-paid player in the game, hit baseballs to the farthest reaches of Comiskey Park and almost pulled his White Sox teammates to a division title in 1972 — which would have stopped the Oakland A’s dynasty before it even got started.

To a generation of Sox fans, Allen also was the definition of “cool,” much as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were in Hollywood. From his Mutton-chop sideburns, to his Van Dyke, to his glasses and batting helmet, there was just something about Dick.

I recently read a story at MLB.com with noted film director/writer/producer and sports enthusiast Michael Tollin. You may not recognize the name, but I guarantee you recognize projects like “The Last Dance,” “Fastball,” “Iverson,” “Bluegrass Kingdom: The Gospel of Kentucky Basketball,” “The Real Rocky,” “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL” and “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.”

Tollin, who also has made his mark in movies and TV shows, is arguably the finest sports documentary filmmaker of this century, surpassing even Ken Burns.

Reading the story, he talked about “The Last Dance” and how important it was at this time with most of the world shut down due to the virus, but then he launched into talking about another project he’s working on, that of his boyhood hero, Dick Allen.

That immediately got my attention.

Tollin grew up in Philadelphia, a Phillies fan and as he describes it his first memory wasn’t a good one. 

“My first year as a fan was 1964," he says. "I was one of those kids saying, 'Goodnight, Mom,' and putting the transistor radio under my pillow and having the little cord in one ear and kind of crying myself to sleep for those two weeks. They were my first love. We went to Connie Mack Stadium many times. We always hoped we wouldn’t get a seat behind one of the posts.” 

What Tollin is referring to is the epic Phillies collapse, one of the most dramatic in baseball history, in late September 1964. On September 20 the Phillies were 6 ½ games ahead of the Reds and Cardinals with 12 games remaining. They promptly lost 10 straight, blew the pennant and finished tied for second, a game behind St. Louis.

During that season, Allen (named Rookie of the Year) “mesmerized” Tollin. 

“A lot of people of my generation never saw a talent like that," he says. "There’s something regal about him. He’d stride to the plate with those short steps and baggy uniform and that war club and take those little, short downward cuts. Mike Schmidt talks about how when he came back [to the Phillies in 1975] as a player he taught him how to hit. He taught him how to hit like you’re chopping wood. [Schmidt] gives Dick a lot of credit.”

That turned into a lifelong friendship, as Tollin got older and started working for Major League Baseball. “We tried to write a book together, and that didn’t work," he says. "And then I decided, let’s just make a film together. And I’ve been working on it for more than 20 years. He was in Summer Catch. He was a scout ... Scout in Black Hat, it says in the credits. He was also in a movie called Dreamer, with Kurt Russell. We became friends. We’ve shared a lot of really intimate moments just in terms of sharing stories about our families, actually commiserating a little bit about personal tragedies.”

Tollin is going to follow Dick as much as possible the rest of this year, heading into a potential induction into the Hall of Fame. He missed by one vote the last time and is up for consideration again with the Veterans Committee.

As Tollin explained to MLB.com, this documentary is personal and deeply rooted. “I am going to make this film whether he gets in [the Hall of Fame] or not," he says. "I have hundreds of hours of footage. It’s going to be the most personal thing I ever do. I’ll be in it, because it has to do with our relationship. It has to do with hero worship, and how different that was 50 years ago. I always talk about imprinting. It’s this term from psychology where at a certain point in your life, you have something visual or something that strikes you emotionally and it’s there for life. Let’s just say in an era before TiVo, Mom calls you in for dinner, you can’t push pause. 'Be right in, Mom. Richie’s on deck.'

“Whether he gets in or not will have something to do with a release plan. If the vote this December is successful, which we hope, then I would probably accelerate the post-production and try to get it out in 2021, around the time of his induction or at least before the end of the season. But the story needs to be told as an homage to a really special man. I don’t know anybody whose true self is farther away from the public perception.”

Allen’s career was controversial. He “walked to his own drummer,” didn’t take BS from anyone and went out and performed every day to the best of his ability. The perception about him as a “clubhouse lawyer” and a “clubhouse cancer” came from the media and front office types, never from his teammates.

Allen came to the White Sox from the Dodgers (his third team in three years) in December 1971 for Tommy John and Steve Huntz. The move was a gamble, but Hemond and manager Chuck Tanner thought it was the right move at the right time to the right team. 

“I felt though that Chuck would be the right manager for him," Hemond says. "Chuck is from New Castle, Pa. and Allen was from Wampum, Pa. Chuck had known Dick and Dick’s mom for years. Allen was one of the most talented players to have ever played the game. We felt he could help us.".

In 1972 despite Bill Melton (the reigning AL home run champ) being lost for the season in June with a herniated disc, Allen and teammates like Carlos May, Wilbur Wood, Terry Forster, Ed Herrmann, “Goose” Gossage, Tom Bradley and Stan Bahnsen battled the A’s right into September, finishing 5 ½ games out of first place. Allen would finish the season almost having won the Triple Crown. He led the league with 37 home runs, 113 RBIs, a .603 slugging percentage and 99 walks. He led the Sox with a .308 batting average, drove in 19 game-winning runs, stole 19 bases, scored 90 runs and was only .0005 points shy of leading all A.L. first basemen in fielding. He was the leading vote-getter for the All-Star team and was awarded the league’s MVP that November.

In three seasons with the Sox Dick won the MVP, made the All-Star team three times and led the league in home runs twice. His career with the Sox ended dramatically, in mid-September 1974, when he “retired,” tearfully telling his teammates that he just couldn’t go on anymore.

I asked Chuck Tanner his manager about that afternoon.

“He just came into my office with his spikes tied together and hung over his shoulder like you used to do as a kid and said, 'Lefty, that’s it, I’m done.' I told him that I appreciated how hard he played for me and that I thought he had the greatest year anyone that I managed ever had. I knew he was really hurting. Dick had a very bad shoulder. He was coming off that broken leg suffered in 1973 in Anaheim, and he was tired. He was just tired of dealing with things like the media. There were a number of games where he shouldn’t even have been playing, but he was out there anyway.”

Allen would eventually “unretire” and finish his career with the Phillies and A’s, but his legacy at least in Chicago was sealed.

I had the chance to spend a lot of time with Dick in late July 2012 as I co-hosted the 40 anniversary celebration of Dick’s MVP and the 1972 team put on by the Chicago Baseball Museum and the White Sox. Eight former players off that team and Hemond came back for the three-day affair. Dick was genuinely overwhelmed by the turnout, the tributes and the applause, and he thanked everyone for the time and the recognition. He had the chance to thank White Sox fans and to talk about how much, despite some issues, he enjoyed his stay in Chicago.

So how am I involved in this project?

Well, as soon as I read Mike’s interview with MLB.com, I reached out to him in Los Angeles. As a White Sox historian I have some rare audio and video of some of Dick’s greatest accomplishments with the Sox and wanted to know if he’d like copies of them for possible use. Mike got back to me and we talked for a half hour about our memories of Dick, and this project. He said he’d love my contributions, so I put together “Dick’s Greatest Hits” and shipped them out to him.

I have no idea if everything will make the documentary tracing his time in Chicago, but among the items I sent along were:

  • WABC’s call of Dick’s game-winning, pinch-hit, three-run home run in the nightcap of the Bat Day doubleheader against the Yankees on June 4, 1972. (The famous “Chili Dog” game.)
  • The WFLD video of both of Dick’s inside-the-park home runs at Minnesota on July 31, 1972.
  • Harry Caray’s radio call of Dick’s blast into the center field bleachers below the scoreboard in Comiskey Park on Aug. 23, 1972, again against the Yankees.
  • And the WSNS-TV footage of the ninth inning against Nolan Ryan and the Angels from Aug. 7, 1974 at Comiskey Park. Ryan had a no-hitter and was leading 1-0 when Allen, hustling all the way, beat out a slow roller. Ryan then fell apart; the Sox scored two runs and won the game, 2-1.

Whatever footage or audio is used, or even if it isn’t used, I for one will be anticipating this documentary from Tollin. Those years Dick was in Chicago were memorable, and to a young adult at that time, became etched in my memory. I’ll keep you posted as I get more information from Mike on the project, and when it may be released.