Allison finds brain disease toughest foe

October 17, 1990|By Phil Pepe | Phil Pepe,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Twenty-five years ago this past Sunday they played Game 7 of the World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins. Faded into memory was the duel played out with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning -- flame-throwing Sandy Koufax vs. a 31-year-old slugger named Bob Allison.

"It's hard to believe 25 years have passed," Allison said this week from his home in Minnetonka, Minn. "I wish I was still playing."

Once the most physically imposing player on the Twins, Allison often reflects on the '65 Series. "First, the catch I made. Second, the home run I hit," he said. "And third, that last at-bat against Koufax."

In that at-bat, Allison struck out, the last of 10 Ks by Koufax, who stymied the Twins on a three-hitter, 2-0.

But his sensational catch in Game 2 remains one of the greatest in Series history.

"If it happened today, or if it happened in New York," said Jim Kaat, the former Twins pitcher and current CBS broadcaster, "it would have gotten the acclaim it deserved. I threw the pitch. Jim Lefebvre hit a hard line drive down the leftfield line. The field was muddy and Bobby raced to the line, slid in the mud and caught the ball on the foul line."

Allison's home run in Game 6 off Claude Osteen helped the Twins force the seventh game.

"When I think of Bob Allison," said former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, "I think of brute strength. There was nothing fancy about him. He wasn't the most agile guy, but he was strong. That's why it's such a shame what's happened to him."

"He looks healthy," said Sam Mele, who managed the '65 Twins, "but when you hear him talk and see him try to walk, you could cry."

What's happened to Bob Allison is a mysterious disease so rare that there are only 250,000 known cases in the world; a disease about which little is known and for which, to date, there is no known cure.

In medical journals, it's known as olivopontocerebellar atrophy. The more common name is ataxia.

"It's a degenerative disease of the brain," said Dr. Richard Price, head of the Neurology Department at the University of Minnesota. "It affects certain parts of the brain. The cerebellum and its pathways. It develops like amytrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's Disease. It comes in midlife for no known reason, and it runs a variable course. In the worst cases, it's fatal. In Bob's case, it has been protracted and progressive."

"If you see him, he looks healthy," Mele said. "I saw him last summer. I heard he was sick and I expected to see that he had lost weight, but he didn't. You would never know he's sick. Still big and powerful-looking and a handsome guy."

Earl Battey, the former catcher and a teammate of Allison, remembers seeing Allison at an Old-Timers' Game in Minnesota two years ago, soon after the disease first surfaced.

"When he talked and started to move, you knew something was wrong," Battey said. "He suited up, but he wouldn't go into the batting cage. When he was a player, it took an act of Congress to get him out of the batting cage. It was very hard for me to fight my emotions."

As a player, Bob Allison was the picture of health and strength, an Adonis in a baseball uniform. He stood 6 feet 4, and weighed 225 pounds when he retired from the game after the 1970 season. His broad shoulders tapered to a ballerina's waist. He had thick, brown, wavy hair and a matinee idol's looks.

"Girls used to ask me, 'Mr. Griffith, can you get me a date with Bob Allison?' " Griffith said.

Allison attended the University of Kansas on a football scholarship and played halfback and fullback on offense and linebacker on defense in the days of one-platoon football.

"I accepted the scholarship only with the understanding that I could play baseball, too," Allison said. "I almost signed with the Yankees. Tom Greenwade, the scout who signed Mickey Mantle, offered me a contract. But the Yankees had so many good players, so I signed with Washington instead."

In 13 seasons with Washington and Minnesota, Allison played in 1,541 games, batted .255 and hit 256 homers.

"The major problem relates to his coordination," Dr. Price said. Speaking and walking most prominently. He sounds like he's drunk and he walks in a staggering way. It does not affect his judgment or the way he thinks. He's handled this quite well."

Allison needs a cane to get around and fears the next step will be a wheelchair.

The frustration for Allison, his friends and the country's best medical minds, is that so little is known about the disease.

"There are theories, but no facts," said Price. "It may come from a virus. It may be hereditary, something with the genes, with the DNA, early in life. We just don't know."

Kaat has been in the forefront of a drive to make people aware of the disease, serving as spokesman for the National Ataxia Foundation.

In the works is a baseball card and memorabilia show in Minnesota next week with proceeds going to the foundation.

As well as he has hidden his innermost fears from his closest friends, Allison said recently, "I'm having a tough time dealing with it. It's a disease I wouldn't want anybody to have. I can't hit a golf ball. I can't drive a car. I can't walk. I can't write. And it's sometimes hard for me to swallow."

Allison first noticed some symptoms "as far back as 1987. I was playing in an Old-Timers' game and I started chasing a fly ball and something wasn't working right. I thought I was just getting old. Everybody has to get old sometime."

As his coordination began deteriorating, slowly at first, Allison sensed there was some serious problem. He went to the Mayo Clinic and his ataxia was diagnosed.

"I didn't even know what it was," he said. "I had never heard of it. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up one morning and I'll be fine."

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