Some pitchers are more intense than others. Randy Johnson hit 190 batters in an era when brushbacks were frowned upon. Lefty Grove threw furniture in the clubhouse after tough losses. Among the fiercest competitors in history, Johnny Allen took his frustrations out on anyone who barred his path to victory.
Allen’s temper was so notorious that even his 1959 obituary was somewhat unflattering. In it, an Associated Press writer recounted an unpleasant incident that followed a frustrating loss to the Red Sox. Allen had exchanged angry words with opposing pitcher Wes Ferrell during the game, and, unable to contain his fury upon returning to the team’s hotel, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the corridor. That was after upending stools in the hotel bar and kicking over an ashtray full of sand. While Allen’s intensity gave him an edge over batters, it also interfered with his prosperity at various points during his thirteen-year career.
Allen was born on September 30, 1904—a native of Lenoir, North Carolina, and the son of a police chief. When his father tragically died of appendicitis, his mother, Almyra, couldn’t provide for Johnny and his three siblings. She sent three of them (Johnny, Rita, and Austin) to the Thomasville Baptist Orphanage, where Johnny learned to play baseball. After attending Thomasville High School, Johnny landed a job in a Sanford, North Carolina hotel. He met Yankee scout Paul Krichell while working there. Krichell was a former major league catcher who had a keen eye for talent. In nearly forty years of scouting the majors, he signed a slew of Cooperstown greats, among them Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri. Allen told Krichell he was a pitcher, and a tryout was arranged. Krichell was impressed with the right-hander’s talents and offered him a minor league contract.
Allen’s professional career began in 1928. He quickly moved his way up through the ranks in the Piedmont, East Carolina, and Georgia-Alabama circuits. In 1931, he posted a 21-9 record for Toronto and Jersey City of the International League. He earned a roster spot in the Bronx the following year.
In his auspicious major league debut season in 1932, Allen assembled a remarkable 17-4 record and a 3.70 earned run average. With six Hall of Famers in the Yankee batting order (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig among them), the Bombers had plenty of punch to back him all year, including Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, when he staked the Cubs to a 4-1 first-inning lead. Allen retired just two batters that afternoon, but the New Yorkers came back, tagging five Chicago hurlers for 13 runs on 19 hits, completing an efficient Series sweep.
Allen had a lively fastball and elusive curve. He threw from various arm angles. Frequent batterymate Bill Dickey was most impressed with Allen’s sidearm heater, describing it as “the meanest delivery in the league for a right-handed hitter. You simply cannot get hold of it. He’ll buzz it over the bat handle before you can see it.”i Allen’s nasty fastball complemented his on-field persona.
Yankee trainer Earle “Doc” Painter took Allen under his wing, serving as an amateur psychologist of sorts. Explaining Allen’s unpredictable temperament to a writer, Painter commented: “He expects to win every time he pitches, and if he doesn’t win, he may turn on anybody.”ii The moody hurler disliked the way manager Joe McCarthy handled his pitching corps. McCarthy favored right-hander Johnny Broaca as a complement to the one-two punch of Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. Allen wanted more playing time and boasted to the press one day: “If I’m not a better pitcher than Broaca, I’ll eat his shirt.”iii Allen never reached the 200-inning threshold in New York. The Yankees grew tired of his frequent holdouts and sour attitude, shipping him off to Cleveland in December 1935 for pitchers Monte Pearson and Steve Sundra.
Allen notched 20 wins during the ’36 slate, also dropping a career-high 10 decisions in 243 innings pitched. While Allen was facing the Browns early in the season, opposing manager Rogers Hornsby noted that Allen tended to lose focus in response to heckling. The secret quickly got out, as other teams began turning their bench jockeys loose on him. Relentlessly razzed by the Tigers one day, the tempestuous moundsman had to be restrained by umpires when he rushed angrily at Detroit coach Del Baker. Trying to ward off a major problem, the Indians petitioned American League president William Harridge to protect Allen from verbal harassment.
Allen had his finest campaign in 1937, jumping out to a 15-0 record despite being sidelined with appendicitis for several weeks. On the last day of the season, he had a chance to tie the AL record for consecutive wins held by Walter Johnson. He might have accomplished the feat if not for a miscue by third baseman Odell Hale. The play in question happened in the first inning after Allen had surrendered a double to Pete Fox. Hank Greenberg hit a grounder to Hale, who allowed the ball to pass through his legs, scoring Fox. It would prove to be Allen’s undoing, as southpaw Jake Wade held the Indians to just one hit. Allen, of course, blamed Hale for the 1-0 loss and went ballistic after the game. Manager Steve O’Neill had to restrain Allen twice when he tried to assault the error-prone third-sacker.
The following year, Allen was involved in one of the most renowned wardrobe controversies of all time. The ill-tempered twirler had cut the sleeves of one of his sweatshirts and worn it under his jersey during several of his starts in ’38. He claimed that the purpose of the alteration was to let more air in, but the fluttering fabric served to distract hitters. When umpire Bill McGowan ordered him to either remove the sweatshirt or clip the tattered strips off his sleeves during a game at Fenway Park in Boston, he refused and stormed off the field. In blatant defiance of manager Ossie Vitt, he declined to finish the game. The frayed sweatshirt was displayed in a Cleveland department store (with the proceeds of its sale going to Allen) and later found its way into the museum at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
During the ’38 All-Star break, Allen suffered an injury of questionable origin. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened. Many sources agree that something snapped in his shoulder during his All-Star appearance, but it has also been alleged that he slipped on a bar of soap in the shower. Either way, he was never the same pitcher afterward. Off to a 12-1 start, he accrued a 2-7 record with a 6.29 ERA in the second half.
One thing that remained unchanged was Allen’s penchant for causing trouble. In 1940, he took part in a plot to have manager Vitt removed from his post. The Indians were in contention all season, but hit a brief rough patch in June. Notoriously critical of his players, Vitt openly denigrated staff ace Bob Feller after a rough outing against the Red Sox. The following day, he pulled right-hander Mel Harder off the mound. Before taking the ball, he made a snotty remark about the hurler’s salary. Allen and Harder conspired to petition owner Alva Bradley for Vitt’s dismissal along with several teammates. Their ruse failed to produce results, and when details of the scandal broke, the entire team was referred to as “Vitt’s Crybabies.”
The Browns purchased Allen’s contract for $20,000 before the ’41 campaign, but waived him in July. The rapidly fading hurler spent portions of three seasons in Brooklyn, causing numerous headaches for management. In March 1942, he was ordered out of uniform by club president Larry MacPhail for breaking training rules in Havana, Cuba. He was reinstated after manager Leo Durocher and chief scout Ted McGrew put in a good word for him. The following year, he completely lost his composure in a May 27 contest at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Called upon in relief of Rube Melton, he failed to retire any of the four batters he faced. When umpire George Barr called a balk on him, Allen rushed at the arbiter like a wild man. It took several players to restrain him. An article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette stated that the Brooklyn Press Corps admitted to never having seen “such an all-out physical attack by a player against an umpire.”iv Allen was suspended for 30 days and fined.
Unable to deal with Allen’s unstable temper, the Dodgers shipped him to the Giants along with aging slugger Dolph Camilli in return for three players of little note. The Giants released him in April 1945. He played in nine minor league games that year, racking up a 4-0 record and an impressive 1.31 ERA in the Carolina League. He was finished as a professional player after that.
Despite his numerous run-ins with officials over the years, Allen got to see what the game was like from the other side, serving as a minor league umpire.
“[I]t will be interesting to see what happens to the first manager who comes out of the dugout to protest a decision,” reported the Milwaukee Journal when was hired. “The betting in most quarters is that he will be met by a left hook to the jaw.”v
A few years later, Allen the umpire would tell writer Fred Lieb that although he had his share of disputes with managers and players, they were “mostly minor ones.”
“Of course, I still have that old Allen chin, and if they go too far, I still know how to be tough,” he said. “However, I believe a long previous career in the majors also gets you some respect in minor league ball. They figure you’ve been through the mill, and know your way around.”vi
Allen eventually rose to umpire-in-chief in the Carolina League, retiring in 1953. After leaving baseball behind, he entered the real estate business in St. Petersburg, Florida. He left behind a wife (the former Mary Leta Shields, whom he married in 1931) and son (John, Jr.) when he died from a heart ailment at the age of 54 on March 29, 1959.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography will appear in the upcoming book, Baseball’s Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues, available through Scarecrow Press in 2013.
Bill Johnson. “Hal Trosky,” SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproject.
“Allen, Former Major League Pitcher Dies.” United Press International, Mar. 30, 1959.
“Johnny Allen Finally Loses The Big Game.” Associated Press, Mar. 29, 1959.
Goldman, Steve, “You Could Look it Up: Gamesmanship, Dammit,” Baseballprospectus.com, June 2, 2004.
Cleveland Club Asks Protection For Allen” Associated Press, May 13, 1936.
Popelka, Greg. “Tribe Game Vault 6/7/38: The Great Johnny Allen Torn Shirt.” Theclevelandfan.com, June 20, 2012.
i Wint Capel, Fiery Fastballer: The Life of Johnny Allen, Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001, Ch. 1.
ii Fred Lieb, “Johnny Allen Hated to Lose,” St. Petersburg Times, May 4, 1964.
iv Havey J. Boyle, “Allen’s Attack on Umpire Barr Causes One of Worst Brawls Here,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 28, 1943.
v “Johnny Allen, Who Hated Umps, Now Will Try Their Job Himself.” Milwaukee Journal, Mar. 17, 1949.
vi Frederick G. Lieb,“Johnny Allen: Rhubarber to Ump.” The Sporting News, Dec. 31, 1952.