LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Had there been even an inkling of opportunity for blacks to coach or manage in baseball 16 years ago, when Hank Allen was wondering what he would do with the rest of his life, he probably would not be in line to become the first black trainer since 1911 to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
"I wanted to stay in baseball. I begged. I pleaded. I wrote letters to every club in the major leagues. But nothing ever transpired," Allen, 48, said Sunday at Churchill Downs, where he has brought the little-known Northern Wolf to run in Saturday's 115th Kentucky Derby.
'This Is It'
"Now," he said, surveying the morning backstretch rituals in progress, "this is it. I couldn't tell you today who's in first place or who the Rookie of the Year was last season. I just wouldn't know. That was a phase of my life I enjoyed. I'm enjoying this now."
His career statistics support Allen's claim that he never learned to hit a curve ball. He never played more than 116 games in a season in the major leagues, hit only six career home runs and had a lifetime average of .241. He spent more than half of his 14-year career in the minors. He spent the rest of the time fighting for a roster spot as a utility player with the Washington Senators, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox while perpetually in the shadow of his more accomplished younger brother, Dick. Even now, even at race tracks, he is best known as "Dick Allen's brother."
"The high point of my career," he said jokingly, "was standing out there while they played the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' " But he did not go willingly from baseball after retiring as a player in 1973. He wanted badly, Allen said, to coach or manage. Such jobs, scarce even now, were largely unavailable to black men in the early 1970s.
'Keep on Stepping'
"I'm sure (racism) probably did play a role in keeping me and other guys like me out of administrative baseball jobs. But the whys and hows--you can't concern yourself with that. You have to deal with what's going on at the time and work within the realm of what you have to deal with. You don't dwell in the past. You have to move on to something else and keep on stepping."
His appearance Saturday in the saddling paddock probably will be the high point of his training career so far, because the Maryland-bred colt he trains for the Deep Silver Stable is given virtually no chance to win. For Allen, it will be like coming to bat with two out in the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series with his team down 10-0.
When they play "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses parade to the post, Allen may have the same feeling he had during the days when he would stand in the Washington outfield with his cap held over his heart. Whatever happens next is likely to be bad. Still, he is here, a starter in one of racing's biggest games.
He is no more a star trainer than he was a star ballplayer, but Allen has enjoyed modest success, primarily in Maryland. He is here without much chance to win the Derby, but there is historical significance attached to his presence. Not since Raleigh Colston saddled his namesake, Colston, to finish third in the 1911 Derby has a black trained a Derby starter.
'I've Been Blessed'
"Opportunity is everything," Allen said. "You can go around the country and find (black) guys who have only one or two horses but are excellent horsemen, fine trainers. I've just been blessed with the opportunity to train some horses of quality. If a black man hasn't started a horse in the Derby since 1911, all that says to me is that they have been limited by the lack of opportunity."
Allen has a rare opportunity this week, if little ammunition. What he needs now is a pinch runner to send in for Northern Wolf.