CD's Connect the Dots... Return To Camelot

If ball players can be equated to objects in the night sky, then former Phillie outfielder Johnny Callison was more comet than shining star. His stint among the brightest objects on the celestial ballfield lasted but four seasons before fading from view. Yet, with his death, an entire generation of Philadelphia baby boomers has a chance to remember a brief, shining moment; a...return to Camelot.

Ah, Camelot. The mythical, mystical land of King Arthur. A distant land famed for its Knights of the Round Table, a place where "right makes might." There are many historians who insist such a place never existed, that it is a mere figment of an author's vivid imagination for a more wondrous romantic land. These historians are wrong. Long time Philadelphians will tell you that they found their Camelot during that brief but magical Summer of 1964, when everything was right with the world and a long time downtrodden franchise suddenly became the center of the baseball universe.

If Camelot had its King Arthur, then surely Philadelphia's Arthur was manager Gene Mauch that year. And there was no more trusted and reliable servant in Arthur's court than a dashing and handsome young knight named Sir Lancelot. Johnny Callison was Mauch's Sir Lancelot. And at no time was he more dashing, more brave, more trust worthy, than during the Summer of '64 when it appeared that this Phillie team, dead last in 1961, and the not so proud owners of a 23 game losing streak that inglorious campaign were actually going to win the National League pennant.

Yet, in the end, much like in the demise of Camelot, Philadelphia phans were left to lament what might have been, as two terrible weeks in late September washed away 24 weeks of heroism and beauty that the city had never seen before and probably never will see again. It was a tragic ending to a storybook season, one that has left indelible scars that can be witnessed even today. But, we are getting ahead of our story here and this is not a tale of sadness but of the celebration of one of Philadelphia's most beloved and treasured baseball players, John Wesley Callison.

Qualls, Oklahoma is such a small town located in a state mad about one sport...football. Yet it was here that Johnny Callison was born on March 12, 1939 and where he would eventually become the town's most famous resident. Still, it was not football that would allow Callison to leave the small town life but baseball, and it is no minor irony that another famous baseball player was born in Oklahoma. Mickey Mantle. For it was Mantle that Callison was often compared to during his formative days as a Chicago White Sox farmhand.

In fact, there are still old video clips out there if you can find them of a White Sox promotional tape that features Johnny Callison. The tape was made in 1958 and spoke in glowing terms of a fledgling outfielder who reminds long time baseball scouts of a "young Mickey Mantle." Of this was Callison introduced to the world of major league baseball. This was, of course, absurd, Callison was a solid player, Mantle a once in a generation type athlete.

Perhaps even more telling was the choice of their numbers. Mantle's number was 7, the perfect number, the number signifying completion. Callison instead chose the number 6, the number of man, the number that speaks of imperfection and struggle. And, truth be told, Callison did struggle in his brief two seasons with the White Sox in 1958-59. It was a revealing portrait of the man that he never wore the 1959 World Series ring he received for being a part time member of the Go-Go Sox of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox.

Despite a late season burst that included a five RBI game during the final weekend of the '59 campaign, Callison was left off a World Series roster that included such lesser lights as Jim Rivera and Al Smith. In truth, he really did little to earn a spot based on his seasonal average of .173 but the slight stayed with him throughout his baseball career. It is another irony of fate that this would ultimately be as close as he would ever come to performing in a World Series game.

If Callison didn't impress the White Sox brass he certainly made an impression on the Phillies General Manager, John Quinn, who remembered the promotional video and acquired the young outfielder in the winter of 1959 for slugging third baseman Gene Freese. If Callison viewed this as an opportunity for playing time and stardom, he didn't make it apparent at the start. He professed that he wanted nothing to do with the Phillies, a team that was considered underfinanced, underachieving and completely under the radar screen.

They say that timing is everything in life and Callison's career was about to make a symmetrical connection with an equally youngish and feisty manager hired to breathe life into a moribund and lifeless team. A few months after Quinn acquired Callison, he hired Gene Mauch, a former struggling major league player who had but one aspiration in the world...to become the greatest manager who ever lived. Mauch knew Callison from their days together in the minor leagues, but if this was eventually to be a marriage made in heaven, the ascent northward was a slow and painful one.

In fact, during their first season together at Philadelphia in 1960, Callison was listed no higher than seventh on the outfield depth chart, behind such journeymen as Wally Post, Harry Anderson, Bobby DelGreco, Bobby Gene Smith and rookies Tony Curry and Ken Walters. it didn't help matters that Callison also was performing with an injured knee, one that would bother him all season. His first season with the Phillies was miserable and his .260 season reflected this unhappiness.

Still, Mauch saw something in this lithe and powerful youngster and set out to make him a major league player. What he saw was a player blessed with five-tool talent and an incredibly insecure makeup to his personality, something that would follow him throughout his career. Mauch became the Arthur figure to Lancelot's talents and together they would eventually make Philadelphia history. Not, however, without some difficult times when winning seemed as far removed from the landscape as the moon.

Their second season together in 1961 was a year that was made famous by a mid-summer streak that seemed to last forever. It actually only lasted a bit over three weeks but during this time, Mauch and Callison would become forever partners in what is still baseball's longest continued losing streak, a stretch that lasted 23 games. It was nightmarish yet out of the ashes came the embers...and those embers would eventually flame the success that was to culminate in the near miss of 1964.

As if survivors of a terrible ordeal, players like Art Mahaffey, Chris Short, Dallas Green, Ruben Amaro, Clay Dalrymple, Tony Gonzalez, Jack Baldschun, Tony Taylor and Wes Covington would join Callison and Mauch in becoming comrades in battle. No longer did they think of themselves as ex-Dodgers, or ex-Braves or ex-Cardinals. They were Philadelphia Phillies and together they had not only withstood this nightmarish baseball purgatory but they had begun to flourish because of their experiences together.

The winning began in 1962 and, not so coincidentally, so did the stardom of Callison, He made the All-Star team that year, led the National League in outfield assists with 24 and even hit .300 for the season, with a bit of help from Mauch. Despite the fact that Mahaffey was attempting to win his twentieth game on the final day of the '62 season, Mauch sat Callison so he would go home as a .300 hitter. He wanted his star right fielder to think of himself of a .300 hitter and in point of fact, Callison never again came close to hitting .300 in his career.

Still, the good times were coming to Philadelphia and in 1963 the team finished a surprising fourth place with an 87-75 record. Johnny Callison had another standout season with 26 home runs and 78 RBI despite an abysmal first half of the year. This did keep him from a return to the All-Star game but didn't keep him from now being mentioned with the greatest outfielders in the game.

Almost every generation insists theirs was the best but a strong case can be made that the group of outfielders that Callison was grouped with during the period from 1962-65 was among the greatest the game has ever seen. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams, Al Kaline, Roger Maris, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Roberto Clemete...and Johnny Callison. Heady company indeed, but no mention of the eras top fly-chasers was complete without mention of the dashing young star of the suddenly revitalized and energized Philadelphia Phillies.

During the winter of 1963, Mauch and Quinn made two decisive moves; decisions that were to completely change the National League landscape and soon make Philadelphia the most moving story of the 1964 baseball season. Camelot was about to arise from the ashes. The two architects of the Phillie revival acquiring an aging but still effective right- handed pitcher from the Detroit Tigers named Jim Bunning and converted a talented rookie outfielder, Richie Allen, to third base. These moves were sheer genius and set in motion a season that is still spoken of in hushed tones throughout the sporting world.

Philadelphia Phillies and 1964. The two will forever be synonymous with monumental success and colossal failure. Indeed, it is impossible to discuss one without mentioning the other. And in this incredible season, when Arthur reigned in all his majesty and Lancelot was forever slaying dragons twice his size, Mauch and Callison became the poster boys for all that was good and great about being a Philadelphia Phillie phan again.

Tote ‘em Home Phillie posters sprung up throughout the city as this oft reviled team, built largely from the same nucleus that lost 23 games a mere three seasons earlier appeared intent on performing a baseball miracle... giving a pennant to the city of Philadelphia. Names like Cookie Rojas, Dennis Bennett, Ray Culp and John Herrnstein became household names. The Phillies had a Boozer [John] and a Wine [Bobby]. They had teenage rookies in Rick Wise and Johnny Briggs and a tremendous twosome pitching combo in Jim Bunning and Chris Short. They had the best rookie in baseball in Richie Allen and a manager commonly known as the Little General in Gene Mauch.

But mostly they had a right fielder having the season of his life; Johnny Callison. He was a very good player having a very great season and it looked for all the world like Callison would not only lead the Phillies to the National League pennant but win the Most Valuable Player Award in addition. Clutch performer, thy name was Johnny Callison and his heroic deeds became the stuff of legends.

Facing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in May, he went 5-for-5. Two days later in Los Angeles against another Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, he went 4-for-4. He hit no less than five game-winning home runs that season and led the league with 12 game winning hits. His powerful and accurate arm was on display all season and if he wasn't winning games with his bat, he was winning games with his arm. He was having a campaign for the ages, and all the while he was carrying his willing teammates wherever he went.

Yet, the burden was heavy and this was a player who at his peak was a mere 5'10" and 175 pounds. Even for a man having a Herculean campaign, the weight on his shoulders often shown. A case in point came in a crucial late July game in Cincinnati against the Reds. The Phils were at the time struggling to maintain their lead in the National League race with the Reds in hot pursuit. The situation looked grim that day as the Reds had overcome a 4-0 deficit to defeat Bunning in game one of a double-header and appeared intent on a double dip sweep as they led 2-1 heading into the ninth inning.

As was their wont that season, the Phils were not about to go quietly into the night and put two runners on base with one out and Callison due up. The Reds brought in an excellent southpaw lefty, Bill Henry, to face the lefty hitting Callison. Certainly here was a situation that called for a Callison like Herculean performance and instead he attempted to bunt. Happily for the Phils, the bunt went foul and Callison hit the next pitch onto the Crosley Field roof top and the Phils escaped 4-3.

Still, Callison was showing the same insecurities that he would feel throughout his career. On the day he went 5-for-5 against Marichal he borrowed Allen's 40 ounce bat because he felt overmatched against the Giant righty. And on the occasion of perhaps his biggest hit that season, the game-winning home run against Dick Radatz in the 1964 All-Star game, he borrowed Billy Williams' 34 ounce bat because he was afraid he couldn't get around on Radatz and his overpowering fastball. This was the enigma that was John Westley Callison. A player blessed with remarkable ability and equally remarkable doubts about those abilities.

Never were those abilities put on greater display than during the Summer of '64, Philadelphia's very own Camelot. A 19-10 August seemed to guarantee a World Series berth and series tickets even went on sale on the morning of September 22, 1964. It is a testament to the magnificent quality of this season that if for years afterward, hanging high above the rafters of the Smithsonian's American History Museum flew a red and white baseball pennant.

Yes, along with Dorothy's slippers, and Fonzie's jacket and Henry Ford's model-T flew a tiny reminder of a dream that eventually became a nightmare; Johnny Callison's nightmare. The pennant has these words placed on the cloth...1964 National League Champions, Philadelphia Phillies. Sadly, it was not to be because summer turned to fall and like the beautiful leaves of summer, they would eventually fade in the fall.

That the 1964 season ended in despair was certainly not Callison's fault. As the 6.5 game lead with but 12 games to play washed away in a sea of ten losses in a row, Callison's comet never shown brighter. He hit over .300 during this stretch with four home runs, including three in one game. It is perhaps poetic that on the day he hit those three home runs, the Phillies fell out of first place for the final time that inglorious season.

Yet it was not those home runs that most Callison admirers remember most about that ten game period but rather a small, seemingly insignificant single he hit in St. Louis during game nine of the losing streak. By this time, Callison was sick, weak and had lost almost ten pounds and was too ill to start the game. However, he remained on the bench despite his sickness and was eventually called on to pinch-hit in the seventh inning.

His single proved insignificant as the team was minutes away from a 4-2 defeat. Rather, it was what happened while Callison stood shivering on first base that forever marked the man and the absolute universal respect his opponents had for him. The right fielder refused to come out of the game and so, against all baseball rules, Mauch sent a pitcher's warmup jacket out for Callison to wear. The Cards, filled with compassion for this amazing warrior, not only did not object to this rule violation but in an incredible show of humanity and respect, zipped up the jacket for him. Bill White, the first baseman who did this, later recounted that watching Callison standing at first base that night was among the most remarkable things he ever witnessed on the ball field.

Of this, are legends made. The Phillies did not win the pennant that year, finishing one game behind the very Cards who had shown so much compassion only days before. Because of this, Johnny Callison was denied the MVP award he so richly deserved, and in many respects, this was to be his defining moment as a major league player.

Oh, technically, his 1965 season was solid with 32 home runs and 101 RBI. He again made the All-Star squad and for the fourth year in a row led the National League in assists and all right fielders in putouts. But in reality the verve and vigor was fading fast, much like the comet as it retreats behind the sun. The Phillies never again challenged for the pennant with Mauch and Callison as their Arthur and Lancelot. The city was suddenly cast into a perpetual cloud of doom and gloom that has in many ways lasted even up to the present. No longer did it seem appropriate to equate Philadelphia with baseball Camelot.

Johnny Callison would play on in PhillieLand through the 1969 season with a noticeable drop in power and production, The Phils, eager to revive his career, sent him to weight-lifters, eye doctors and even hypnotists in search of a renewed Sir Lancelot but it was all for naught. He was eventually traded to the Chicago Cubs where he spent two non-descript and unhappy seasons under Leo Durocher before finishing his career with the New York Yankees in August of 1963 when he was unceremoniously released.

From there he returned to Philadelphia and found work in largely unrewarding jobs as a car salesman and bartender. He remained devoted to his wife of 49 years, Dianne, his three daughters and several grandchildren throughout his post baseball life. His inclusion on Philadelphia's Wall of Fame was but a small testament to the love affair that the city always had with Johnny Callison.

His post baseball life found him with continual and often serious health problems. He had severe heart problems, walked with a limp from a serious fall, and was diagnosed with mouth cancer about a year and a half ago. His passing on Thursday, October 12, 2006 at 67 years of age was another case of a man gone too soon, but never forgotten. He had been in ill health for quite some time and eventually died of pneumonia on Thursday evening.

The accolades have come from teammates like Richie Allen, Ruben Amaro, Dallas Green and Art Mahaffey as well as from opponents like Tim McCarver. They all spoke of his incredible grace under fire, and of his humble spirit combined with incredible baseball talent. Before his death last year, Mauch had called him "the most complete productive player" that he had ever had. This from a man who managed no less than half a dozen Hall of Fame players.

Still, no story of Johnny Callison would be complete without one final reference to the Summer of '64 when a team and its best player so captured the imagination of an entire generation of Phillie phans everywhere. Near the end of the movie, Camelot, the beleaguered and emotionally spent King Arthur comes upon a young lad who has taken refuge in the bushes.

King Arthur discovers the boy hiding in the thicket and asks him why he is about on such a dangerous and dark occasion. The boy proudly proclaims his loyalty to Camelot and the Round Table...a place where "right makes might" and all the people celebrate joyously amongst their peers. Arthur sends the boy on his way but tells him to always remember what he has heard and to retell the story whenever he can.

On this occasion of the passing of Philadelphia's very own Sir Lancelot, Johnny Callison, allow us to once again retell the story of his very own period in this city rich history. His was a story for the ages, and just as the little boy undoubtedly grew up to recount the story to his children, Phillie phans everywhere will continue to recount their stories of Johnny Callison and his exploits during that magical year.

Don't let it be forgotten, that once there was a spot, for happily ever after that was known as a...return to Camelot.

Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories