In 1972, the White Sox needed a superhero to save the franchise.
Anyone familiar with the Sports Illustrated cover showing him juggling baseballs, a cigarette jutting from his mouth, knows that Dick Allen was born for the role.
“He was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan,” said David J. Fletcher, co-author with John Owens of “Chili Dog MVP: Dick Allen, the ’72 White Sox and a Transforming Chicago,” edited by Chicago Baseball Museum historian George Castle.
The book takes its title from one of Allen’s signature 1972 moments when Manager Chuck Tanner called on him to pinch-hit in the nightcap against the Yankees. Allen, who was in the clubhouse eating a chili dog, put on a new shirt, donned his uniform bottom with no underwear, stepped up to the plate and hit a walk-off homer.
But Fletcher and Owens show that Allen wasn’t the only hero who salvaged baseball on the South Side.
The cast of heroes included owner John Allyn, who blocked his brother and co-owner Arthur Allyn from selling the team to a Bud Selig-led group that would have moved it to Milwaukee.
The list also included Roland Hemond, Sox director of player personnel, Tanner, pitching coach Johnny Sain, announcer Harry Caray and organist Nancy Faust.
“They saved an important civic institution that was going to leave Chicago,” Fletcher said. “If it wasn’t for this group of people, there wouldn’t be any Chicago White Sox.”
All are important characters in the book penned by Fletcher, a physician and Glenbard West High School graduate who rode CTA trains to get to Sox Park to see his idol, and continued to follow the team when he went to medical school; and Owens, a South Sider who graduated from the same school where Mayor Daley senior and junior matriculated, De La Salle Institute.
Fletcher and Owens teamed to write a comprehensive history of the 1972 team — led by AL MVP Allen — that nearly captured the AL West flag and won back the hearts of a fandom that had seemingly abandoned the franchise.
“I was very fortunate that I got to develop a relationship with somebody who was a hero to me,” said Fletcher, who came to know Allen and his family.
He was with the family at the Hilton Bonnet Creek Hotel in Orlando, Fla., for the Dec. 5 watch party when Allen’s Hall of Fame fate was decided.
The result was a gut punch for the gathering. As he did in 2014, Allen fell short by one vote. “It was sort of like a campaign event where you suddenly find out your candidate loses,” Fletcher said.