As part of the effort to showcase multiple players on one card, a Topps photographer would sometimes attend the All-Star Game, which provided the perfect forum to photograph stars from a mix of different teams. Topps would also feature two or three players from the same team. Either way, the card designers attached an alliterative nickname to the header of the card. So two members of the Baltimore Orioles, Brooks and Frank Robinson, became “Bird Belters.” Four hard hitters from the Pittsburgh Pirates became “Buc Blasters.” A few years later, Topps became even more creative, but without the alliteration. One of Topps’ 1969 cards depicted Washington Senators manager Ted Williams and his pupil, Mike Epstein, under the banner, “Ted Shows How.”
Admittedly, some of this creativity was forced. For example, Topps issued a 1966 card headlined “DP Combo” for the San Francisco Giants’ keystone of Hal Lanier and Dick Schofield. The two journeyman played together in only 81 games in 1965, and even then, didn’t turn double plays at a particularly outstanding rate. A more fitting choice for DP Combo would have been Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley, or the Dodgers’ pair of Jim Lefebvre and Maury Wills.
One headline Topps relied on was “Manager’s Dream.” The card company used it twice, first on a card of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays that appeared in the 1962 set. Six years later, Topps assembled three Latino stars (Roberto Clemente, Chico Cardenas and Tony Oliva), giving them the Manager’s Dream treatment.
Perhaps the most commonly used nickname/headline that Topps featured in the ’60s was “Power Plus.” Topps used it at least three times. The first time occurred in 1960, when Topps placed Rocky Colavito and Tito Francona of the Cleveland Indians within the frame of the design, each man holding a bat on his shoulder with the words Power Plus shouting from the top of the card. In 1963, Topps took a photograph of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron, and adorned the bottom of the card with Power Plus.
Having found a catch phrase of some popularity, Topps dipped into the well one more time during the 1966 season. This time, Topps took two members of the Philadelphia Phillies, Wes Covington and Johnny Callison, and placed them onto a unified card. Rather than merely have the two veteran outfielders hold bats on their shoulders, Topps instructed them to cross their bats for effect. In so doing, Topps created one of the most memorable cards of the 1966 set.
I have long since heard that crossed bats are considered bad luck in baseball. Perhaps Topps had not heard of such a superstition. Covington and Callison appear oblivious to such a belief. Flashing wide smiles, they look genuinely thrilled by the photo opportunity.
If we examine more closely, we can detect the presence of a third Phillie on the card. In between Callison and Covington, in back of the batting cage support column, we can see a partially obstructed head of one of the Phillies’ African-American players. I believe it’s Alex Johnson, who platooned with Covington in the outfield. So there you have it, three Phillies for the price of one.
There’s also an interesting coincidence surrounding the card. Although Covington went by Wes in everyday life, his real name was John Wesley Covington. Callison’s real name was John Wesley Callison? So that’s two John Wesleys. What are the chances of that?
I’m certain such a coincidence had nothing to do with the choices of Callison and Covington, but their elections for Power Plus were interesting, and in one case, somewhat questionable. An extraordinarily popular player in Philadelphia, Callison made perfect sense; he was coming off a 1965 season that saw him hit 32 home runs and slug .509. With an OPS of .836, he ranked second among all Phillies regulars in that category.
The choice of Covington was perhaps a bit more dubious. A sort of 1960s version of Oscar Gamble, Covington platooned with Johnson in left field during the 1965 season. He saw his playing time dwindle and his batting average fall off, sinking to .247. He did hit 15 home runs, but his slugging percentage failed to reach the magic mark of .500. Covington was still a decent player in 1965; he just wasn’t quite as good—or as durable—as he had been during some of his earlier years with the Phillies. In addition, he wouldn’t even play for the Phillies in 1966. More on that later.
By the start of the 1966 season, the most appropriate Phillies choice for Power Plus would have been Dick Allen. He led the team with an OPS of .870, while batting .302 and hitting 20 home runs. Another possibility would have been veteran Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, who hit 28 home runs but did little else of note during the 1965 season.
So why Covington? In all likelihood, it had to do with availability. Topps’ photo library was limited at the time. For example, the company had not yet started using action shots. When it came time to find candidates for the combination cards, Topps had to settle for what it owned and what it had rights to use. I imagine that the Topps photographer found it relatively easy to coax Callison and Covington into posing for a photograph.
In contrast, Allen’s reputation for being difficult, while certainly exaggerated by some of the media, may have been a factor. By 1966, Allen had become one of the game’s lightning rods for controversy. The infamous confrontation between him and Frank Thomas had occurred during the 1965 season, placing Allen even more directly into the center of the storm. Shortly after the heated exchange between the two, the Phillies dumped Thomas, selling his contract to the Houston Astros. Some Phillies fans blamed Allen, even though it was Thomas who started the whole brouhaha by antagonizing Johnny Briggs with some racially charged language.
Allen was such a controversial player by the mid-1960s that Topps might not have wanted to even approach him about the possibility of posing with another player. Or perhaps Topps asked Allen to pose, and he said no. Either scenario is possible.
Whatever the actual reason, Topps went with the combination of Covington and Callison. If you are a believer in bad luck omens, then the Power Plus card of these two hard hitters turned out to be just that. Callison’s play would begin to decline significantly in 1966. He would still cobble together some decent years, but his days as an All-Star were over.
In the case of Covington, his 1966 season turned out so badly that it ended up being his swansong. By the time that this Power Plus card came out, Covington was no longer a Phillie. After the 1965 season, Covington had complained about his dwindling playing time and claimed that manager Gene Mauch had “lost control of the team.” Covington went on to tell The Sporting News that he needed to move on. “I’ve asked for my release,” Covington announced. “I’m sure I can make my own deal. I haven’t played at all.”
The Phillies, feeling that Covington still had value, didn’t want to release him and receive nothing in return. They bided their time until January of 1966, when they decided to dump the 34-year-old outfielder, sending him to the Chicago Cubs for light-hitting outfielder Doug Clemens.
Failing to crack a starting lineup that already included George Altman in left field and Billy Williams in right field, Covington became a little used pinch-hitter. He would bat 11 times, accumulating only one hit.
It was not exactly a large sample size, but the Cubs saw so little in Covington that they released him in May. He would find work less than three weeks later, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Again employed as a pinch-hitter, Covington again struggled. In 33 at-bats, he hit only .121 with a single home run. For the most part, he played the role of cheerleader for the pennant-winning Dodgers. That November, the Dodgers released Covington. No one called. Just like that, Covington was done, at the age of 34. There would not be a Topps card for him in 1967.
As quickly as Covington fell from the baseball landscape, he was a player who managed to carve out a niche for himself in Philadelphia. He is still remembered by Phillies fans of that era, in part because of his distinctive batting stance. Some fans have referred to it as his “parallel to the ground” stance. Covington held his hands very high, near his chin, but he gripped the bat in a horizontal rather than a vertical position. The way he positioned the bat, it ran almost parallel to the ground. More than a few young Phillies fans tried to imitate Covington’s bizarre stance, a practice that drove their Little League coaches a little closer to the edge.
Covington also had a way of irritating opposing pitchers. He loved to step out of the box, part of an effort to disturb the pitcher’s rhythm. He would re-position his cap on his head and move his feet around, sometimes trying to retrace the outline of the batter’s box. His stalling tactics didn’t do much to help the pace of the game, but they seemed to frustrate pitchers to no end. Advantage Covington.
Callison became even more popular in Philadelphia, in large part because of his 1964 season, when he finished second in the MVP voting and hit a walkoff three-run home run in the All-Star Game. But there was more to Callison than just numbers and achievements. He had a cannon-like throwing arm from right field, buttressed by sound mechanics and a strong right shoulder. At the plate, he swung the bat smoothly and stylishly.
In contrast to Covington, Callison’s decline would take place more sporadically and gradually. That decline started in 1966, as Callison’s home run total fell from 32 to 11, and his OPS from .836 to .756. His OPS would remain in the .700 range over the next two seasons, decent for the era, but the Phillies believed that he was an old 30. After the 1969 season, the Phillies traded him to the Cubs for a package of Oscar Gamble and right-hander Dick Selma.
The Phillies turned out to be right. After hitting 19 home runs in his first season with the Cubs, Callison’s body started to give out in 1971. Limited to 103 games, he batted only .210 with little power. He also clashed with manager Leo Durocher, just as he had struggled in his relationship with Mauch in Philadelphia. After the ’71 season, the Cubs shipped him to the New York Yankees for reliever Jack Aker. Callison would play out the next season and a half as a platoon player, before drawing his release in August of 1973. At 34, the same age by which Covington was done, Callison saw his career end, too.
Philadelphia certainly did not forget Callison. His three All-Star Game selections, 30-home run power, throwing arm, stylish manner, and steely good looks all contributed to his beloved status at Connie Mack Stadium. Even as the Phillies moved into Veterans Stadium, fans remembered Callison and what he did for the franchise during the difficult decade of the sixties.
In looking at the Power Plus card some 50 years after it made its debut in stores, I’m still impressed by how visually striking the card is. It’s fun to see Callison and Covington, two chiseled guys having a great time, crossing their bats, and hamming the situation up for the Topps photographer.
At the same time, it’s a little sad. Both men are gone now; Callison died in 2006 and Covington in 2011. The card is also a reminder of how quickly players can decline. One year you’re half of Power Plus, the next year you’re out of baseball. The other half of Power Plus would never again see an All-Star Game. With baseball, “Power Plus” can become “Fade to Black” all too soon.
References & Resources
- Biographical files for Johnny Callison and Wes Covington at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
- The Sporting News