Where were you in '72? | Bleader

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Where were you in '72?

Posted By on 06.12.12 at 04:17 PM

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Dick Allen smoking and juggling in the Comiskey Park dugout: Ah, the 70s.
  • sportsillustrated.cnn.com
  • Dick Allen smoking and juggling in the Comiskey Park dugout: Ah, the 70s.
A couple of sports news items today returned me, briefly, to 1972.

What a glorious time to be a 12-year-old sports fan in the Chicago area.

The first was the news that the White Sox plan to celebrate their 1972 team, led of course by Dick Allen. The Sox are already celebrating those years with their throwback red Sunday uniforms revived from that era for this season. Yet the Chicago Baseball Museum is joining the Sox to celebrate 1972 in particular, citing it as the year baseball was saved on the south side. Allen will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on June 24.

Allen, freshly arrived from exile in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, was named American League Most Valuable Player that year, and rightfully so. He led the league in home runs with 37 and runs batted in with 113, and also led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and—if memory serves—fielding percentage, while hitting .308 and stealing 19 bases. For years, I would say Allen in '72 was the best all-around player I'd ever seen—at least until Ryne Sandberg's 1984 MVP campaign.

He had broad shoulders and a whippet-thin waist from working on his horse farm in the offseason, and he'd whiplash a 40-ounce bat, flexing it forward before swinging it around. What a beautiful player.

Yet he was also, no denying, a bit of an ass who epitomized the 70s. Manager Chuck Tanner tolerated his free-spirit ways—sometimes taking batting practice, sometimes not, and generally playing by his own rules—until he wore out his welcome a mere two years later.

He was once asked about playing on artificial turf—Comiskey had a turf infield and natural-grass outfield at the time—and famously responded, "If a horse won't eat it, I don't want to play on it."

Yet it's overstating it to say he saved White Sox baseball, as there were a couple of other elements at play. The Sox were producing some terrific pitchers, including Bart Johnson, Terry Forster, and Rich "Goose" Gossage, all of whom played on that 87-win second-place team. And there was also another figure freshly returned from exile in California who helped generate interest in the team—Harry Caray, who took a low salary from owner John Allyn in exchange for increases based on attendance that paid off big-time, as the Sox more than doubled attendance from 1970 to 1972, rising to 1.2 million, and going beyond 1.3 million the following year, even as Allen suffered an injury and played less than half the season.

The second item was the news that the great Cuban heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson had died. Stevenson won three straight gold medals in 1972, '76, and '80. He was an elegant, erect, almost regal fighter, quite in opposition to the more freewheeling and free-spirited U.S. sports heroes of the era, like Allen and, of course, Muhammad Ali.

Stevenson never fought Ali, turning down a reported $5 million in the mid-70s to retain his amateur standing and remain true to Cuba. It remains one of the great bouts that never happened.

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