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What’s in a Name? More than You’d Think

15516Today we have a guest post from Mitchell Nathanson, who is Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law and author of God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen, published this spring by Penn Press. Despite talent that earned him Rookie of the Year and MVP honors as well as a reputation as one of his era's most feared power hitters, many remember Dick Allen, signed to the Phillies in 1960, as one of baseball's most destructive and divisive forces, while supporters insist that he is the best player not in the Hall of Fame. Seeking to explain the roots of this controversy, Nathanson presents Allen's life against the backdrop of organized baseball's continuing desegregation process. Drawing out the larger generational and business shifts in the game, he shows how Allen's career exposed not only the racial double standard that had become entrenched in the wake of the game's integration a generation earlier but also the forces that were bent on preserving the status quo. In the process, the book unveils the strange and maddening career of a man who somehow managed to fulfill and frustrate expectations all at once.

Shortly before the season, during an otherwise meaningless spring training game, Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy made a startling announcement.  Startling in that it was, after all, not startling in the least.  The cornerstone of the future of the organization, he announced, the young third baseman upon whose shoulders the resurrection of the franchise weighs, had decided he wanted to be addressed differently going forward.  From here on out, McCarthy informed viewers, Maikel Franco’s last name would no longer be pronounced “Frank-Oh.”  Rather, as Franco had just informed management, who then promptly notified the media, the preferred pronunciation of his surname would from here on out rhyme, more or less, with “Montco.”  The announcement was met with a collectively compliant shrug of the shoulders.  Okay, fine.  Franco, just like Montco, it will be.  It wasn’t all that long ago when such a request was met with a dramatically different response.

In 1964 the organization was in similar straits as it finds itself now.  The franchise’s golden era had passed and the club had recently hit rock bottom.  Amid the nameless, faceless, ballplayers shuffling in and out was one who was neither nameless nor faceless.  He was nothing short of the cornerstone of the future, the young third baseman upon whose shoulders the resurrection of the franchise weighed.  Richard Anthony Allen had arrived and in him fans could see something other than lost Junes and Julys, something other than the long wait for Eagles training camp.  Allen, like Franco, had a similar request.  He didn’t like being called “Richie,” a moniker slapped on him by the city’s dailies upon his 1960 signing with the organization in an attempt to tie the club’s future star with its previous marquee player – centerfielder Richie Ashburn.  He had never been called “Richie” growing up, never answered to it anywhere, going instead by “Sleepy” (a reference to a childhood eye injury that gave him a languid look) if not “Dick.”  The name Richie “makes me sound like I’m ten-years-old,” he told a reporter during his rookie year.  “Anybody that’s close to me and knows me well calls me Dick.  I don’t know why as soon as I put on a uniform it’s Richie.”  Reporters reported this, management acknowledged this, yet both insisted on calling him “Richie” nonetheless. 

For years afterward Allen would correct reporters who repeatedly ignored his wish to be addressed by his preferred name, to no avail.  Perhaps they, as well as Phillies management, considered the issue to be not much of an issue at all.  Perhaps.  But to Allen, how he was addressed was important because it signified the level of respect he was being accorded—he wanted his voice to be heard and respected, he desperately wanted to be treated like a man, not a child. The issue of his name was just another example to him – a small but telling one — of how his career was barreling onward largely without his input. In so many ways he was an involuntary participant in his own livelihood.  Over the next several seasons Allen’s relationship with both the media and the front office deteriorated, to the point where by 1969 what he was being called (by this point it was often names far worse than “Richie”) was the least of his problems.  Soon he was shuffled out of town and with him went the hope of better days ahead as the Phils remained doormats until another third baseman arrived in 1973 with the weight of the future upon him.

Half a century after the drama of “Dick” versus “Richie” and an organization’s and the media’s determination to assert dominance over a ballplayer in the most trivial way possible, Franco got his wish simply by stating it.  The Phils won’t win the pennant this season and may not even win 75 games, their recent success notwithstanding.  Yet I can’t wait for summer and I don’t really care when Eagles training camp begins.

To learn more about Dick Allen, see Mitchell Nathanson's God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen.