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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Things Fall Apart
Book Review by Brad Rogers

William C. Kashatus. September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration. Foreword by Gerald Early. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004, 258 pp., $29.95, cloth.

 

Dick Allen once famously said, "I'll play first, third, left. I'll play anywhere—except Philadelphia." According to author William Kashatus, it didn't have to be that way. In a crisp two hundred plus pages, Kashatus lays out some straightforward connections between the Phillies' history of ineptitude and racism, the young and talented team they put on the field in the 1960s, America's struggles with changing attitudes about race and civil rights, and how this all came to bear on the career of Richie Allen.

The book is divided into three parts: the first two chapters deal with the Phillies' woefully slow path to integration and the shameful tactics employed by the team toward Jackie Robinson and other black pioneer players, as well as the first part of the Gene Mauch years. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 tackle the 1964 season in particular, including the amazing collapse. The final two chapters take us through the rest of Allen's troubled career as a Phillie. Throughout, Kashatus attempts to weave together the various strands of his examination into a coherent narrative, and he is largely successful. For example, one needs to understand the Phillies' troubled history of racism in the mid-twentieth century in order to appreciate the many social (as well as personal and athletic) factors involved in the team's later treatment of Dick Allen. From this, one can then begin to understand the attitudes of African Americans toward the Phillies organization, embodied in local and national fan reaction to them, as well as Curt Flood's historic refusal to play for them after being involved in the Allen trade. In essence, Kashatus's reason for writing is to document a series of stark reversals. Among them is that an organization known for its racist past would field such a truly integrated team as the 1964 Phils; that such a team would be so good after so many years of lousy baseball; and that the hero of that team—the very person the Phillies and the city desperately needed—would become the scapegoat for everything that went wrong with the team during the rest of the decade.

Kashatus's examination naturally raises three big questions—questions that have been and will continue to be debated by baseball folks: Were the Phillies operated by outright racists in the 1940s and 1950s, or by more typical white men who clung too tightly to the status quo? Where do we lay the blame for the 1964 collapse? And, was Dick Allen a troubled-but-superlative athlete who rebelled against an unstable social atmosphere for some very good reasons, or was he just a big, talented jerk? According to September Swoon, the answers are, respectively: both, Gene Mauch, and superlative rebel.

While I am being overly cute here, there is little doubt about Kashatus's views on the three questions, and his organization of facts and quotes seems always to underscore them. I don't mean to suggest that the book reads like a long argument for a particular point of view; the book is far more objective and complex than that. Kashatus provides the views of many participants and observers (mostly through quotes) and tackles each question from several angles. Yet despite admissions in the text and the endnotes that some events are disputed, the narrative often smooths over those complications in its path to an appointed clarity. In the collapse chapter from which the book gets its name, for example, the author offers a critique of Mauch's handling of the pitching staff, provides dissenting quotes from others, then finishes by returning to his point: "To be sure, Gene Mauch possessed an exceptional knowledge of baseball, but he certainly did not know how to manage his players." In much the same way at the end of the book, Allen's shenanigans are described, ruminated upon by a selection of peers, and then often excused. After describing Allen's refusal to dress in the team locker room—when he set up his own private dressing room in a storage area during the 1969 season—Kashatus quotes the reasons given in contemporary newspaper accounts for this surprising move, then allows Allen the last word (that he made the move to protect his friends on the team and the younger black players).

By faithfully referring to the endnotes in the course of reading the text, one can see why Allen's view of things is often privileged. His autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen, is a major source of information for Kashatus, including the example referenced above. While I am sympathetic to Kashatus's effort to defend Allen throughout the text, the explanations given for some of Allen's actions in the 1960s seem to gloss over the detrimental consequences his behavior caused the Phillies. Also, by advancing a narrative in which Allen's post-1965 actions are chalked up as a calculated effort on his part to get himself traded out of Philadelphia, Kashatus implies the corollary assumption that once Allen was traded, his rebelling, drinking (the possibility that Allen was struggling with alcoholism, as other writers have alleged, is not discussed), and absenteeism would stop. Unfortunately, we know this was not the case.

In the concluding chapters, Kashatus delves a little more deeply into the sociological underpinnings of Allen's tortured career in Philadelphia and lays bare his argument: "Whether or not he intended to, Allen forced Philadelphia's sportswriters and fans to come to terms with the racism that existed in the city during the turbulent 1960s. He may not have done it with the self-discipline or tact of a Jackie Robinson, but he exemplified the emerging independence of major league players as well as the growing African American consciousness."

 

Though it is not listed as one of his primary subjects in the subtitle, Kashatus devotes a significant amount of attention to the changing nature of the sports media and how those changes impacted the teams being covered—especially if the local practitioners of this new kind of sports journalism were working in a turbulent milieu like 1960s Philadelphia. Referring to this practice as "chipmunk" journalism, Kashatus ascribes much of Allen's mid-1960s torment to the stories begun and perpetuated by the local sports press:

 

Known as the "Chipmunks," [Stan] Hochman and [Larry] Merchant represented a new breed of aggressive young sportswriters who went beyond the statistics and narrative description of the game to focus on the players' personalities and clubhouse controversy. . . . The chipmunk writers' constant emphasis on racial division within the Phillies clubhouse became a self-fulfilling prophecy by 1968, as Allen's rebellious behavior to force a trade fragmented the team.

 

The passages about media coverage often felt the most immediate, as if they were lifted out of today's sports pages. It turns out there's a formula for this kind of snide reporting, where a player's motivations and attitude are as much a subject of criticism as his play on the field—with reporters casting themselves in the role of psychologist and analyst (see, for example, Hochman's treatment of Allen's teammate Ruben Amaro). Anger is the spice for every dish served, an anger that comes out of some feeling of entitlement: you get angry with a team not because you identify with them, but because you think you deserve to have a "winner." While this kind of reporting plays into the alienation of many fans, there are also those who simply respond to disappointment with sadness, lament the losses, and move on.

These two kinds of reactions to a team's heartbreak, so amply demonstrated in the autumn of 1964, are on display in September Swoon too. There are the fans, like historian Gerald Early, author of the book's foreword, who were forever scarred by the collapse but who have learned how to understand it in the context of a young team that was trying to win. And there are those fans, an unfortunate number of whom seem to have become writers, who will never forgive the Phillies for letting them down.

 

William Kashatus has written a slightly different kind of book. It is the story of a season, but it seldom offers the detailed description characteristic of books like David Halberstam's Summer of '49. It is the story of a ballplayer's career, but it spends little time on that career until the final third of the book and then ignores the second half of the player's career. It is a look at how American racism was reflected by and affected Major League Baseball, but the bulk of the research comes from contemporaneous journalism accounts that feature quotes by owners, coaches, and players who mostly deny that racism was a problem. And yet, September Swoon has a lot to say just by trying to encompass all that was going on at that time in 1960s Philadelphia and elsewhere. By focusing on Allen's famous actions, other pundits of the period have tended to miss the incredibly complex nature of racism, especially as it affected a particular personality at a particular time in that individual's life. Kashatus provides some needed context for Dick Allen's career, and he ends up concluding that, unlike sabermetrics guru Bill James, Allen deserves to be reevaluated and revalued as a player. Whether you end up being convinced one way or the other by the book, it does a wonderful job of bringing you into the conversation.



—EFQ

 

BRAD ROGERS is an English teaching fellow at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he plays for the department softball team, the Drowners.

© 2005 Brad Rogers

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