Zalusky: New book reveals the staying power of Sox great Dick Allen
In 1972, the White Sox needed a superhero to save the franchise.
Anyone familiar with the Sports Illustrated cover showing him juggling baseballs, a cigarette jutting from his mouth, knows that Dick Allen was born for the role.
"He was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan," said David J. Fletcher, co-author with John Owens of "Chili Dog MVP: Dick Allen, the '72 White Sox and a Transforming Chicago," edited by Chicago Baseball Museum historian George Castle.
The book takes its title from one of Allen's signature 1972 moments when Manager Chuck Tanner called on him to pinch-hit in the nightcap against the Yankees. Allen, who was in the clubhouse eating a chili dog, put on a new shirt, donned his uniform bottom with no underwear, stepped up to the plate and hit a walk-off homer.
But Fletcher and Owens show that Allen wasn't the only hero who salvaged baseball on the South Side.
The cast of heroes included owner John Allyn, who blocked his brother and co-owner Arthur Allyn from selling the team to a Bud Selig-led group that would have moved it to Milwaukee.
The list also included Roland Hemond, Sox director of player personnel, Tanner, pitching coach Johnny Sain, announcer Harry Caray and organist Nancy Faust.
"They saved an important civic institution that was going to leave Chicago," Fletcher said. "If it wasn't for this group of people, there wouldn't be any Chicago White Sox."
All are important characters in the book penned by Fletcher, a physician and Glenbard West High School graduate who rode CTA trains to get to Sox Park to see his idol, and continued to follow the team when he went to medical school; and Owens, a South Sider who graduated from the same school where Mayor Daley senior and junior matriculated, De La Salle Institute.
Fletcher and Owens teamed to write a comprehensive history of the 1972 team -- led by AL MVP Allen -- that nearly captured the AL West flag and won back the hearts of a fandom that had seemingly abandoned the franchise.
"I was very fortunate that I got to develop a relationship with somebody who was a hero to me," said Fletcher, who came to know Allen and his family.
He was with the family at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Hotel in Orlando, Fla., for the Dec. 5 watch party when Allen's Hall of Fame fate was decided.
The result was a gut punch for the gathering. As he did in 2014, Allen fell short by one vote. "It was sort of like a campaign event where you suddenly find out your candidate loses," Fletcher said.
For the book, which will be accompanied by a documentary by award-winning producer Andy Billman, the authors conducted an exhaustive series of interviews with the people behind the scenes.
They included everyone from White Sox batboys Jim Riley and Rory Clark, clubhouse attendant Jim O'Keefe, and Sox pitchers Jim Kaat, Tom Bradley, Terry Forster and Rich "Goose" Gossage.
O'Keefe provided a rich source of anecdotes, including tales of outfielder Jay Johnstone's combat with water coolers and use of corked bats, and how weak-hitting outfielder John "Jet" Jeter borrowed one of Allen's legendary 40-ounce bats and was so impressed by the results he ordered a dozen for himself.
The book is about a team's connection to a city. As Owens pointed out, the Sox have played in the same location longer than any other major league team.
The authors also put the season in the context of Chicago's shifting political scene in 1972, especially in the wake of the police raid that claimed the lives of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
The authors also wrote about the city's media landscape and the team's decision to move from VHF television and WGN to UHF television and WFLD, with disastrous consequences for the team's 1968-70 attendance.
Fletcher and Owens found that almost to a man, Allen was beloved by teammates.
This was confirmed by Gossage, who wrote the forward to the book.
By phone from Colorado, Gossage said Allen took him under his wing when the future Hall of Fame closer arrived in Chicago in 1972.
"That first year he put us on his shoulders and he carried us," Gossage said.
Gossage said Allen gave him sage pitching advice, telling him, "Son, that's one of the best arms I've ever seen in my life. You take care of that arm. Always keep a sleeve on it. I heeded that advice."
Gossage also recalled how he, Allen and Bradley would hang out at a Holiday Inn near where they lived and talk baseball.
Allen will likely get another shot at the Hall in 2026.
But, Fletcher said, "Dick still has some baggage, some labeling, that has kept him out, and we got to continue to work on that."
Owens explained, "He had a tough time with predominantly white, older media. That ultimately hurt him after he retired and when he was on the initial Hall of Fame ballots."
But Fletcher said, "From a Sabermetrics point, he's the best, most impactful player not in the Hall of Fame."
Owens said Allen's WAR approaches 59, while Tony Oliva, who was voted in Dec. 5, was at 43.
Allen's OPS+ of 165 from 1964-74 was the highest in baseball.
During an era considered the age of the pitcher, Owens said, "No one -- save Hank Aaron -- approached his numbers during that period."
What is more remarkable is that he played hurt, having severed his ulnar nerve and two tendons when he put his right hand and wrist through a headlight while pushing a stalled car in 1967.
"I got to examine him several times. I actually have pictures of his hand. I don't know how he held a 40-ounce bat, because his fourth and fifth fingers were not functional," Fletcher said.
For more on the book, go to https://chilidogmvp.com.