Cooperstown Confidential: Thinking of Johnny Callisonby Bruce Markusen
October 14, 2011
It’s been five years since we lost a very good ballplayer, one who developed something of a cult following during his days in Philadelphia. Johnny Callison, who had struggled with a variety of heath problems for several years, died in 2006. For some reason, his passing was treated as an afterthought, even though he was both a productive player and a Philadelphia icon.
If you like stories of ballplayers with modest roots overcoming hardships, then Callison’s saga is one for you. I must admit that I’m a sap for these kinds of stories. Callison had to overcome a difficult upbringing as the son of migrant workers. Born in 1939 in a place called Qualls, which was undoubtedly one of the poorest places in the state of Oklahoma, Callison, with his family,had to deal with life in the dying days of the Great Depression.
Through a combination of hard work and natural talent, Callison signed a contract with the White Sox organization. Callison had a beautiful left-handed swing, terrific power, and a cannon-like throwing arm that was the envy of most outfielders not named Roberto Clemente or Al Kaline. He was one of those five-tool players we hear so often about; he could steal bases and hit home runs, and put together two terrific seasons at Triple-A Indianapolis, the Sox‘ top affiliate.
After he debuted in 1958 at the age of 19, the White Sox called him up for the stretch run in 1959. While the “Go Go” White Sox would win the American League pennant, Callison looked like he still belonged in the minor leagues. He batted only .173 with a scant three home runs in 49 games.
Regardless of his September swoon, Callison should have called right field at Comiskey Park his home for years, but the White Sox made the mistake of trading him after the 1959 season. They sent him to the Phillies for journeyman third baseman Gene Freese, a proven power hitter but a player with a far more limited ceiling than Callison.
Much like the White Sox, the Phillies did not see immediate dividends from Callison. In his first two seasons, he failed to hit with much power, falling short of double figures in home runs both times. But there were signs that he would be a good player eventually. He drew some walks, stole an occasional base, and basically terrorized opposing baserunners with his throwing arm. (From 1962 to 1966, he easily outpaced Clemente in assists, 103 to 76.) He also became a master of playing right field at ancient Connie Mack Stadium, where a 34-foot wall often made long fly balls into carom-filled adventures.
Callison emerged as a very good player in 1962, when he made the All-Star team for the first time. For the season, Callison put up a career-high OPS of .854. Two years later, he returned to the All-Star Game in high style, ending the Midsummer Classic by clubbing a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to give the National League a 7-4 win at Shea Stadium.
Reaching the 30-home run and 100-RBI plateaus in 1964, he seemed destined to win the National League’s MVP Award. But the events of the last fortnight of the season doomed him. By frittering away a six and a half game lead over the final 12 games of the season, the Phillies not only committed one of the great collapses in 20th century history, but they also denied Callison the MVP. Callison had to settle for a second-place finish to Ken Boyer, the All-Star third baseman of the pennant-winning Cardinals.
Boyer’s numbers were actually better than Callison's, and he also played the more demanding position, but it’s doubtful that Boyer would have won the MVP if the Cards had finished second. The statistics of the two players were close enough that the man fortunate enough to play for the pennant-winner would stake claim to the MVP. As it was, Callison did little to contribute to the Phillies collapse. During the final 12 games of the season, he had two three-hit games, a two-hit game, and single safeties in four other games.
In a Sept. 27 game against Milwaukee, Callison put together one of the most memorable performances of his career by hitting three home runs, but he could not prevent a blowout loss to the Braves. Two days later, manager Gene Mauch sat Callison down because he was racked with the flu, complete with a high fever and a set of bone-piercing chills. Despite his condition, Callison appeared late in the game as a pinch-hitter, delivered a single, and insisted on running the bases himself. Feeling simultaneously chilled and fevered, Callison needed help from teammate Bill White, who helped him button his warm-up jacket. It was the kind of heroic moment that would have felt like a fitting scene in The Natural.
Callison continued to play down the stretch—in fact, he did not miss a game the entire season—but he could not prevent the slumping Phillies from coughing up the lead to the Cardinals. To his credit, Callison did not allow the disappointment of the late-season freefall to affect his performance in 1965. He remained a very good player; in fact, he elevated his performance for the Phillies, as he achieved career highs in home runs and slugging percentage.
Phillies fans came to appreciate Callison, not just for his production, but his style and personality. They loved his toughness. They appreciated his personable nature. They watched gleefully as he made rocket-like throws from right field that often removed runners from the basepaths. They enjoyed his silky left-handed swing, which perfectly complemented the right-handed power of Richie Allen.
At 27, Callison appeared to be in his prime. The Phillies anticipated that he would remain a star for several seasons. Yet, injuries started to take their toll in 1966; problems with his legs and back essentially prevented him from putting up what could have been a Hall of Fame resume. The injuries also added to his tendency to worry and fret. Even in his best seasons, Callison lacked confidence, his psyche racked with doubts. By his own admission, Callison worried far too much, and that also affected his performance adversely.
From 1966 to 1969, Callison put up mediocre numbers. Convinced that he was done, the Phillies sent Callison and an obscure right-hander named Larry Colton to the Cubs for hard-throwing reliever Dick Selma and a young outfield prospect named Oscar Gamble. Now playing for Leo Durocher, Callison responded with a bounce-back season in 1970, hitting 19 home runs and drawing 60 walks for the Cubs.
But Callison ultimately clashed with Durocher over a lack of playing time. Durocher felt that Callison needed to be platooned, Callison bristled at such a reduced role, and the manager placed the veteran outfielder into his doghouse. After the 1971 season, the Cubs sent the unhappy Callison to the Yankees for veteran reliever Jack Aker.
Growing up in Westchester County, I remember Callison best as a member of the Yankees in 1972 and ’73. I knew he had been a star, but I wondered why he now struggled. Little did I know that he was simply an aging player who was a fragment of his former self. In 1973, Callison’s hitting fell off the map. With the Yankees struggling to stay in the American League East pennant race and Callison’s average sitting at .176, the team needed to make room for first baseman Mike Hegan, just acquired in a trade with the A’s. In the midst of a road trip, manager Ralph Houk asked Callison to come to his hotel room. Houk informed the 16-year veteran that he was being released. Left stranded because his wife was vacationing at the Jersey shore, a stunned Callison remained at the hotel for two days
Sadly, Callison’s post-playing years would be marred, not by injury, but by illness. His health deteriorated in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the 1980s, he developed an ulcer that hemorrhaged, necessitating the removal of half of his stomach. While in the hospital, he suffered a heart attack, underwent a quadruple bypass, and saw his weight drop to 135 pounds. Then in the 1990s, he developed an aortic aneurism that caused a large bubble to form in his belly. He had to undergo a five-hour operation to remove the aneurism.
Then came a bout with cancer in the 2000s. This time, Callison would not recover. His 67-year-old body ravaged by so many years of ill health, he died on Oct. 12, 2006.
Several years after Callison’s career ended, I became a fan of M*A*S*H, the groundbreaking 1970s TV show about life at a medical hospital during the Korean War. And then, while looking at some of Callison’s Topps cards, I was struck by how much he looked like the actor who portrayed the memorably psychotic “Colonel Flagg” on M*A*S*H. Flagg was played brilliantly by character actor Edward Winter. In one episode, Flagg intentionally injured himself by ramming his head into a metal locker. On another occasion, he deliberately broke his arm by pinning it under a heavy piece of x-ray machinery, as Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) looked on in stunned amazement.
In contrast to Colonel Flagg, the injuries that curtailed Callison’s career were not self-inflicted. Players have enough problems staying healthy without ramming themselves into metal pieces of furniture. Callison’s injuries were simply the result of bad luck, along with the natural effects of aging on a ballplayer. With a little more health and a lot more luck, Callison’s five-tool talents might have translated into a place in the Hall of Fame.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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