Philadelphia journalist Tim Whitaker should have paid his publishers for the privilege of collaborating on this autobiography of baseball great Dick Allen. It's like a long, stitched-together fan letter. Whitaker doesn't even try to disguise his joy of basking in the presence of his boyhood idol while researching this book. But when the approach is this adulatory, the subject had better be fascinating if anything is to be salvaged. Allen is.
Rookie of the Year in the National League in 1964, Most Valuable Player in the American in 1972, Allen had a brilliant, turbulent career. He also liked to drink (before going to the ballpark), smoke (at the ballpark) and hang out at the racetrack (instead of going to the ballpark). He felt unappreciated and misunderstood as a player. He endured a rocky relationship with sportswriters and fans—especially in Philadelphia. The fans in the Phillies' home field, not content with booing, even pelted him with debris. Allen took to wearing a batting helmet in the field as protection, earning the nickname Crash Helmet, abbreviated to Crash.
His ups and downs as a player are covered adequately, and there are a few terrific anecdotes, such as Allen's version of the time he was covering third in a spring training game and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle slid in on a close play: "When the dust finally settles, the ump looks down at both of us sprawled on the ground and shakes his head. 'I've never smelled so much booze in my life,' he tells me and Mantle. 'Get off your asses before you set each other on fire.' "
Generally, though, the book's narrative is disjointed, and Whitaker is prey to such clunky affectations as referring to Allen throughout as the "Ballplayer," as in, "The Ballplayer is driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with the writer...in the Ballplayer's '74 Lincoln Continental."
Allen always wanted his unorthodox temperament to be overlooked in favor of his astounding athletic skills. He was too controversial for that philosophy to work when he was a player. Now he's still on the close-mouthed side about himself and he can't satisfy people with all those RBIs anymore. It takes personality, action and/or insight to carry a biography, and while Crash has a couple of innings, there's not enough to go the distance. (Ticknor & Fields, $17.95)