Phil Sheridan: Polarizing, captivating

Dick Allen shakes hands with Darren Daulton as Bob Boone watches during the Phillies' Alumni Night ceremonies at Citizens Bank Park.
Dick Allen shakes hands with Darren Daulton as Bob Boone watches during the Phillies' Alumni Night ceremonies at Citizens Bank Park.
Posted: August 08, 2010

Mike Tollin can't explain it, really. He was a kid growing up in Havertown when a young man named Richie Allen started his major-league career with the Phillies. The connection was immediate, inexplicable, and enduring.

"He was my guy," Tollin said before Saturday night's game at Citizens Bank Park. "He came up wearing No. 32 when I was 7. It's like imprinting. There was something about him. I lived and died with him."

More than 35 years later, Tollin, 55, is an enormously successful producer of movies (Radio, Coach Carter) and TV series (One Tree Hill, Smallville) with the clout to do any project he wants. And he has dedicated himself to making a documentary about the enigmatic and "mythic" Dick Allen.

That's what brought Tollin, who lives in Los Angeles, back to one of his favorite places. The Phillies' annual alumni weekend was a perfect opportunity to conduct interviews for the film. It was also an opportunity for Tollin to solicit help: He would love to hear from anyone in possession of video or audio of Allen, especially a 1969 TV special that Tollin recalls seeing. If you can help, send contact info to my e-mail address and I'll pass it on to Tollin.

Why Allen? Why now? Tollin's explanation speaks volumes about the nature of fandom, especially Philadelphia sports fandom. Three decades before Donovan McNabb, Allen might have been the city's first truly polarizing sports figure.

Allen was booed when introduced for his first at-bat, a greeting that confused and disturbed him. He was as adored by some fans as he was despised by others. Allen was the National League rookie of the year in 1964, the season of the Phillies' infamous collapse, and appeared in three consecutive all-star games. He hit titanic home runs and engaged in an epic cold war with some of the fans.

In 1977, Allen was finishing his career with the Oakland A's. Tollin was a senior at Stanford, working on a syndicated radio show. He contrived to get a credential and score an interview with his hero. It didn't go well, so Tollin put his tape recorder away, went back to the clubhouse, and approached Allen again.

"I just said there has to be another version of this reality," Tollin said. "I walked up and said, 'Hi, Dick, I'm Mike Tollin and I'm from Philadelphia.' He said, 'Oh, you are? Sorry about that.' "

Allen offered Tollin a beer and the two struck up a conversation. Over the years, which saw Tollin work in video production for Major League Baseball, the two men became friends.

"Not that many guys get to call their hero a friend," Tollin said.

That friendship led directly to the documentary. Tollin concedes up front that he's not sure how the film will turn out or when it will be finished. He simply wants to chronicle the life and career of a man he sees as "mythic."

"You can make the case from a purely statistical basis that he [should be] a Hall of Famer," Tollin said. "But I think there's another level, in terms of the impact he had and the magnitude - not just of his home runs. He is kind of mythic. He's not just a guy who piled up numbers; he's a guy who piled up memories. He has this enormous following of people who lived and died with him."

Tollin had just interviewed an old-time fan who works two jobs while putting three kids through college, and who spends his free time traveling and compiling old newspaper stories about Allen.

"He's put together a couple of CDs with over 900 articles," Tollin said. "There's this impassioned fan base, even half a century later."

Fans like singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky, whose "Letters in the Dirt" describes Allen's message-writing to the fans who booed him, from the viewpoint of a fan too young to understand all the anger.

"I supported him through the letters-in-the-dirt campaign," Tollin said with a laugh.

Tollin has interviewed Frank Thomas, whose 1965 fight with Allen created much of the animosity: Thomas, who is white, was released after the racially tinged episode.

Overall, Tollin plans more than 100 interviews. He has been with Allen to his high school reunion in Wampum, Pa., and to Little Rock, Ark., where he dealt with segregation as a minor-leaguer.

"His career is always put in the context of racial issues," Tollin said, "and that's not who he is. He's kind of a laid-back, mellow guy. Not a showy guy, not a militant guy in any way. He's the easiest guy with a laugh as anyone I've ever known. He's such a sweet, decent guy."

Allen has proven to be a hero worthy of the title. Now Tollin hopes to create a film as human and as mythic as Allen himself. And who knows? Maybe by the time it's finished, the film can be shown at Allen's Hall of Fame induction.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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