By Glen Sparks
Pitcher Johnny Allen featured a fastball, a curveball and a temper. New York Yankees trainer Earle “Doc” Painter once said, “He expects to win every time he pitches, and if he doesn’t win, he may turn on anybody.”
Fortunately, Allen did a lot of winning, especially early in his 13-year career. He put up some snazzy won-loss marks. In his rookie season of 1932, the right-hander went 17-4 (.810 winning percentage) for the Yanks. The following year, he finished 15-7 (.682).
Allen put together a 20-10 season (.667) for the Cleveland Indians in 1936 and a 15-1 campaign (.938) in 1937 for the Tribe. Through his first seven seasons, he was 99-38. The native of Thomasville, N.C., retired with a 142-75 (.654) career mark.
Now, the hurler did get some help. His New York teammates included the original bash brothers, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Allen didn’t worry about losing 1-0 or 2-1. He could give up some runs and still win.
In fact, after recording a solid ERA of 3.70 in his rookie campaign (ERA+ 110), he posted a tepid 4.39 number in his sophomore year (ERA+ 89). Of course, Allen fans can point out that the pitcher finished with a 3.44 ERA in ’36 (149 ERA+, second in the American League) and a 2.55 ERA in 37 (176 ERA+, third in the A.L.). So, yes, Johnny Allen could pitch.
He could also throw a fit. Allen’s “sour attitude” led the Yanks to trade him following the 1935 season despite going 50-19 in four seasons with the Bronx Bombers. He didn’t work and play with others.
Allen was at his most stubborn on June 7, 1938, pitching against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. Boston’s Jimmie Foxx ripped a two-run home run in the first inning, one of 534 dingers that “Double X” would hit in his great career.
When the inning ended, Boston’s player/manager Joe Cronin walked out to umpire-in-chief Bill McGowan. Those tattered sleeves on the sweatshirt Allen is wearing underneath his jersey are a distraction to the batter, Cronin said. (Apparently, they didn’t bother Foxx.) McGowan agreed; he told Allen to get rid of the sweatshirt.
Allen left the mound and headed to the clubhouse. But, he didn’t go in there to change. He went in there to simmer. He had no intention of changing. Indians Manager Ossie Vitt fined Allen $250 and put in Bill Zuber to pitch.
Later, Allen said Cronin only complained as a gag. He also said McGowan was out to get him. “Whenever McGowan works a game I pitch, there’s always been a lot of petty, sniveling stuff going on.” McGowan, for his part, said he read the rulebook word-for-word to Allen. No tattered sleeves allowed.
The following season, during the 1938 All-Star break, Allen suffered an arm injury. He was 12-1 at the time, but he went just 2-7 the rest of the way with an ugly 6.29 ERA. In the final six years of his career, Allen pitched for Cleveland, the St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. He went a combined 43-37 and once attacked an umpire on May 27, 1943, in Forbes Field. Of all the loose cannons in the baseball world, Johnny Allen was among the loosest.
Allen left baseball to get into the real estate business in Florida. He also became a part-time minor-league umpire, much to the shock and delight of some sportswriters. One guy wrote that Allen in an ump’s uniform looked “about as much at home as a camel in a camel’s-hair coat.”
The temperamental pitcher/umpire died March 29, 1959, at the age of 54. His famous sweatshirt, tattered indeed, is part of the permanent collection at Cooperstown. Allen sold it to Higbee’s, a Cleveland department store, for something between $50 and $600. The store wanted to put the quickly famous garment on display in a window. “This is the shirt that cost Johnny Allen $250,” a sign read. Higbee’s donated the sweatshirt to the Hall of Fame in the offseason.
McGowan, elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1992, said he fined Allen $250, that in addition to the club fine. The umpire said later that Allen sold the sweatshirt for $600, on the high end of the estimates. “So,” McGowan concluded, “he made $100 on the deal.”