Alumni Profile: Johnny Callison - One Card Short

The moment is frozen in time..... knees bent, bat slowly being placed on the plate, eyes of the batter, catcher and umpire riveted towards distant center field. Some think it was Johnny Callison's defining moment. The home run Callison hit to win the 1964 All-Star Game, against all odds and fireballer Dick Radatz to boot, was seen by many Phils fans as Callison's career moment, the moment that forever defined his career.

As an unabashed Callison lover, I say that the moment that most embodies the career of Callison occurred more than two months later, oddly in a star crossed moment with the Phils a sadly beaten team. It was Game nine of what would ultimately be a ten-game losing streak that would dash forever the pennant hopes of the 1964 Phillies. Callison, until this streak, the odds on favorite for the MVP award of the National League, was too sick to start. Fighting a strange virus, he nevertheless volunteered to pinch hit in the seventh inning and singled to right field. What happened next would, in my mind, be Callison's forever moment, the moment that most captured what he meant to that team, and the respect opponents had for him.

Rather than come out of the lineup, Callison remained at first base, and against all baseball rules, Manager Gene Mauch sent a warm-up jacket to Callison. Only pitchers are allowed warm up jackets but the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that would ultimately steal his MVP award as well as his pennant, never said a word about the rule that was being broken. And herein lies the story...so sick and shaking was Callison that he could not zip up his jacket, first baseman Bill White of the Cards zipped it up for him. Several Phillie teammates later commented that it was the most poignant moment they had ever witnessed on the ball diamond. Even in defeat, opponents had the ultimate respect for one Johnny Callison, star right fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the early 60's.

During my childhood I absolutely loved two players, Mickey Mantle #7 of the NY Yankees and Johnny Callison #6 of the Phillies. I always found it ironic because the numbers very much represented how people viewed these two players. The number 7 represents perfection and Mantle was the embodiment of perfection on the field, he of the five tool gifts and tape measure power. Callison, on the other hand, represented his number well...6 being the number of man. Indeed, he was a man's man, strong, silent, courageous, yet filled with the frailties that forever haunt man. He was a great player yet was forever borrowing bats, so untrusting was he of his own abilities. Indeed, his game winning home run in the All-Star game was hit with a borrowed bat from Billy Williams. He had an odd habit of never looking at the scoreboard for fear that upon seeing his batting average, it would immediately go down.

Yet for four years, from 1962-65, when you spoke of the great right fielders of the game you mentioned Aaron, Clemente, Robinson, Kaline, Maris...and Callison. Yes, he was that good, and for one season, for one shining moment in time he was the best. 1964 was his year, and it was so sad that in the end he fell just one card short. If Namath owned the Super Bowl in ‘68 and Rick Barry owned the NBA finals in ‘75, then it was Callison who owned the ‘64 season. However, let us digress a bit to the beginning.

Callison arrived in Philadelphia in a 1960 trade for slugging third sacker Gene Freese. Arriving with several other rookie outfielders, Tony Curry, Ken Walters and Tony Gonzalez, Callison barely stood out his first two seasons, hitting only .260 and .266. Yet his 11 triples in 61 offered a glimpse of what was to come and in 1962 his light began to shine. He became a five-tool star, hitting .300 with 23 home runs, 107 runs scored, plenty of doubles, triples and stolen bases...and the reputation of a guy with a cannon for an arm. Those who ran on the arm of Callison where thought to have lots of courage in their hearts, and lots of rocks in their brains. He led the league in assists for the first of five times. Better yet, he was part of a team on the move, and if ‘62 was his coming out party, ‘63 was his graduation as he became the cornerstone of a vibrant young team full of talent and verve. Manager Gene Mauch had assembled a cast of characters primed for Broadway....and ‘64 would put them on center stage.

Ah, 1964! Every veteran Phillie lover still dreams of that year. From Jim Bunning to Chris Short, from Richie Allen to Frank Thomas. From the Days of Wine and Rojas to six more groundballs to Amaro. And the dreams would not be complete without visions of Callison.

For if Bunning was chairman of the board, and Short was the anchor and Allen was the thunder, it was Callison who was the soul of that team. Callison with his clutch hits. Callison, with his great throws. Callison with his timely home runs. Callison with his ability to lift a good team to great heights. Yet forever humble, shy and doubting. Need an example? I will give you two.

Facing Juan Marichal in a May game at Candlestick Park, he was so concerned about his ability to hit the Giants star hurler, he borrowed Allen's 40 ounce bat. He proceeded to go 5-5 and downplayed it afterwards, saying the bat had made the difference. Then there was a key game in Cincinnati shortly after the All-Star game theatrics. Now seemingly a full-fledged star, he came to bat in the 9th inning of a game the Phils trailed 2-1. This was a crucial game as the Phils had lost the opener of the doubleheader to the resurgent Redlegs. With two men on base and no outs, facing veteran lefty Bill Heny, Callison tried to bunt...not once but twice. Think about this. So unsure of his status as the man of the hour, Callison preferred to let the fate of the game in the hands of someone else.

Fortunately for the Phils, Calliosn fouled off both pitches, then proceeded to hit a three-run home run, winning the game. This was a microcosm of his season.... great heroics, great doubts. Callison would carry this performance through the end of the season but the star-crossed team would ultimately fail to win the pennant by one game to the Cardinals.... Callison fell one card short. Though it was no fault of his, as he hit well over .300 and slammed 4 home runs during the ten game slide, including three in one game. Ironically, in this his shining moment, the Phils fell out of first place that day, a 14-8 thrashing at the hands of the Milwaukee Braves.

The defeat in ‘64 probably left scars in Callison that remain even today. He would recover physically and have a standout ‘65 season with 32 home runs and 101 RBI but clearly the 64 season had taken its toll. By ‘66 his power was gone, though his overall numbers remained solid. Clearly, the emotional wreckage of the late events of 1964 had affected him to the point that the magic was no longer there. There were many theories at the time. One was this.....Callison, no giant of a man at 5'10" and 175 pounds, had exerted so much energy to his ‘64 season that he was never able to rise to those heights again......he had reached his threshold of the combination of emotional, physical and spiritual skills needed for such an effort as was given in ‘64.

Another theory was that he was suffering from failing eyesight, indeed he wore glasses in his later years. Whatever the reason, by 1967 Callison was but a mere shadow of his former self and was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1970. He played unspectacularly there for a couple of seasons before retiring as a NY Yankee in 1973.

It is a fitting tribute to the skill Callison displayed that he is still considered by most as the greatest right fielder who ever played for the Phils, even those his star shone brightly for less than half a decade. After baseball, Callison tried several professional endeavors, from selling cars to tending bar. His dream of getting a coaching job in baseball remained unfilled.

Though this disappointment will probably remain with him for the rest of his life, he will always carry with him the memories of 1964, the year he nearly carried a team of relatively inglorious players to incredibly glorious heights.... only to fall one card short.

Thanks for the memories, Johnny!

Author's Note: Comments, suggestions, and questions for CD-authored Alumni Player Profiles are welcome. Please email CD at connectthedots@earthlink.net and he will respond. Thanks!


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