Lee Allen, Baseball Historian

This article was written by Ted Patterson

This article was published in 1972 Baseball Research Journal

I was winding up another night in front of the sports microphone at Armed Forces Radio in Washington when the first bulletin of Lee Allen’s death came over the wire. My initial reaction, that night in May 1969, was one of sudden shock, and then of deep sadness for this unique man who had gone out of his way to help me in so many ways over the past three years. Only a few weeks before his untimely death, I had received a letter from Lee in Florida, saying he was looking forward to the summer in Cooperstown because he was going to bring his wife and children up with him. In the past he had always spent the months at the shrine alone.

In the same letter he mailed me a picture of himself, Waite Hoyt, and former baseball broadcaster Dick Bray, taken on the eve of the centennial season. And now, without warning, he was gone.

It was no secret that Lee Allen was not a well man, and that his tremendous dedication to his work might have contributed to his premature passing. When we would walk down Cooperstown’s main street we would often have to stop a minute or two because “his ticker had to catch up with him.” But in 1968 he had lost over 30 pounds and told his friends he had never felt better.

As a collegian seeking information on old baseball broadcasters, I had first come into contact with Lee Allen by mail, after which he invited me up to the Hall of Fame to do research. He opened up his extensive library and his heart to me for over a week one summer. We sat across a table from each other, he writing articles and answering letters (he thought it inconsiderate not to answer mail promptly no matter how busy) and me searching for old radio items. Even though I was a neophyte, he made me feel like s peer, and in future visits he would always introduce me as the historian of my subject.

He had waited so long for the new Hall of Fame library, opened in 1968, because it would give him needed privacy and more time to devote to his myriad of activities. The old library and office had been on the second floor of the museum, and all day long people were interrupting his work; and his work never let up. In the winter of 1967-68 he wrote that he got up every morning at 4 o’clock so that half his day’s work would be completed before his wife made him breakfast in mid morning. His last two books, devoted to the World Series and to the gigantic encyclopedia in which he had 20 full-time helpers working in New York City, placed heavy burdens on him because of short deadlines. But he never tired, he just worked harder. At the Hall of Fame he worked from seven till seven, seven days a week, and still couldn’t keep up with all he had to.

Even though he was baseball’s greatest living history book, he always maintained he knew very little about baseball. “I’m amazed at what is not known, and as the years go on we know less and less. There are things that will never be found out and this infuriates me, along with the realization that we’ll never be able to acquire complete knowledge of the game’s past.” He was very concerned about this and it bothered him that more people did not share his concern. For this reason and a hundred more, baseball could ill afford to lose a man like Lee Allen who gave the game his life, but who will never be given the credit he deserves.

Those behind the scenes, engaged in such an unspectacular but essential occupation as history, rarely do receive this recognition. “Research is my favorite pastime,” Lee once told me. “I don’t think any writer really likes to write. It’s hard work. But research is fascinating because it’s like detective work and you’re really looking for clues all the time. There are several ballplayers from the past who we know nothing about and it’s like finding radium to come upon a gem printed somewhere that might give us a new light on a men.”

Lee Allen was a patient man in one sense; he was philosophical in his approach to life. Involved in such slow, tedious, and laborious research tasks forced him to take refuge in tobacco and he smoked unceasingly, the effects of which produced a malingering cough and a constant, familiar clearing of the throat. He never took himself too seriously. Oh, he could speak very sarcastically, but he always seemed to give it away when he broke into an impish, innocent grin.

“My first climb into a ballpark was at the age of 8,” he remembered, “and the first job I ever had in baseball was in the press box of what we then called Redland Field (later Crosley Field) in Cincinnati. The press box was down where the upper deck is now, in the first few rows. I used to get 75c a game to sit next to the Western Union operator and phone the scoreboard to give them scores of out-of-town games. However, I used to spend about $1.25 a day on peanuts and hotdogs. So it was s losing proposition, and sometimes I think it still is.”

Once, while sitting across the library table, I took the liberty of asking Lee to name his personal all-time team. He quickly footnoted his comments by saying that as a fan he did have the prerogative of naming a dream team, even though it might disagree with the one voted on by the Hall of Fame. “Bill Dickey would be my catcher,” he began. “At first base I’d put Lou Gehrig, at second base Rogers Hornsby. The shortstop would be Honus Wagner, and Pie Traynor would be at third. In the outfield, I would have to go along with the standard combination of Cobb, Speaker, and Ruth, so you might say that I’ve conformed pretty well with the accepted team. Now, the real oldtimers, the ones who go back to the 1880’s, and there aren’t many of them left, will tell you Buck Ewing was the greatest catcher who ever lived. Well, of course, I didn’t see Ewing. I didn’t even see Johnny Kling or Roger Bresnahan. But what’s the difference because it’s jibberish to compare eras in the first place, and it doesn’t mean anything anyway.”

His favorite managers were Connie Mack and Bill McKechnie. He thought Mr. Mack had the respect of his ballplayers to a greater degree than any other skipper except the Deacon. “McKechnie, to me, was just as great as Mack, and the success of both can be traced to the uncanny ability they had to keep the team together, in good spirits, and always trying their beat. That might seem like a locker room pep-talk, but actually there is very little difference in managers. Anyone at the big league level knows when to bunt or hit-and-run. They know how to run a ballgame. No fan could possibly look at a game and, if the manager didn’t leave the dugout, be able to tell who was managing the club. There simply isn’t that much difference in how clubs are handled. The real art is handling a team off the field, keeping them in the right frame of mind, and this is where Mack and McKechnie excelled. McKechnie won pennants in three National League cities but I often think some of his greatest work was at Boston where he took a club expected to finish eighth, and would consistently finish fourth or fifth with them. I’ve heard people say that anyone could have managed the great Yankee teams and still have won pennants, but it isn’t true. Not everyone can manage. It’s a simple fact that managers get too much credit when they win and too much blame when they lose.”

Over a specially prepared dietary meal at the Alexander Hamilton Inn in Clinton, N.Y., near Cooperstown, Lee talked about modern baseball. “I think the players are better than ever, but they’re playing a different game and I don’t particularly like it. It’s a game of home run or out, and the recent All-Star games have been a perfect illustration. A pitcher, throwing as hard as he can, faces a batter who is swinging as hard as he can. The result is either a home run or a strikeout. The game I like is the game that was played in the Twenties. I like hitting and a lively ball. I like a lot of players hitting .300, and I like games with a lot of runs. I do not like this game in which the pitcher seemingly has the advantage because he holds batting averages to a ridiculously low level despite the great number of home runs hit. I like singles, doubles, and triples, and we don’t see enough of them. But this doesn’t worry me because there have been these trends before and they always reverse themselves. The public in the long run gets the kind of game it wants, and when they indicate by non-attendance their dissatisfaction, there will be another type game.”

Things weren’t exactly rosy for Lee Allen in the mid-1940s after he returned from military service duty in the Aleutian Islands. Several personal problems weighed heavily on his mind and it began affecting his work performance. He seemed to turn the corner, however, when his first book was published in 1948. It was an informal history of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were always his favorite team, from the days of Edd Roush and Hughie Critz. Up until the day he died, he couldn’t go to bed at night without knowing how the Redlegs had done.

“It’s awful hard to get started as a writer,” he said. “You just can’t get out of college and say I’m a writer, hire me! I noticed while working with the Reds, that Putnam had begun printing a series of club histories. I wrote them cold, and of course they had never heard of me. I told them I wanted to write the book on the Reds and a fellow wrote back saying they didn’t know anything about me as a writer and that they hadn’t decided who they would assign the Reds book to. Since I had asked first, they told me to go ahead and take a crack at it. So I wrote the book, they accepted it, and it got me started. Once you write one book it’s like a bottle of olives. After you get the first one out, the others come easily.”

That was the beginning of a whirlwind 20-year span that saw Lee write ten more books, countless articles, and for ten years hold down the responsibilities as the official chronicler of baseball’s history at Cooperstown. Now that he’s gone, baseball can only be grateful that a man of his ability and dedication chose to channel his lifelong efforts into the diamond sport, and not another field of endeavor. What a tragedy that would have been. He was a man who entertained and enlightened millions, and he probably never stopped to think that he might be more important than the athletes he wrote and talked about. He never found time to do all the things he wanted, and only now, probably, is he catching up. Can’t you see him up there, with the great and small players of the past, reviewing with the “Great Umpire” the game he loved.