SABR

Dave Callahan

This article was written by Mike Callahan.

The same week Joe Jackson debuted in centerfield for the Cleveland Naps, another minor league star debuted in leftfield. Jackson is a baseball legend. The other newcomer, Dave Callahan, is all but forgotten. Callahan's major league stay was brief, but he played seventeen years in the minors, noted for his defense and timely hitting.

David Joseph Callahan was born in Seneca, Illinois, on July 20, 1888. David's parents, John Cahalane and Hanora Breen, were both from Killorglin, a little town in County Kerry, Ireland.

A devastating famine hit Ireland when Dave's father was four years old, but Dave's grandparents were able to pull their family through these lean years intact. As a young man, Dave's father John was a star athlete at the Irish game of hurling, which vaguely resembles hockey. When John came to the United States in 1871, he took a job with the Rock Island Railroad, and for the next forty years, worked on crews that repaired track and railroad ties. Both John and his brother Michael, a fellow railroad man, found that "Cahalane" was a name that was unusual and hard to pronounce for Americans, and both were called "Callahan," a much more common Irish name, by their fellow workers. In 1883, John finally gave in and formally changed the family name to "Callahan." John and Hanora had eight children, of which David was the youngest boy, born when his father was 47 and his mother 40. He was baptized David Cornelius Callahan, but a family idiosyncrasy was that all the boys -- no matter what their given middle name -- used "Joseph" as a middle name by the time they started school.

David grew up in Seneca until he was 10 or 11 years old, at which time his family moved to Harvey, Illinois, just outside the Chicago city limits. After high school, he began working as a machinist. In 1905, he was working in a machine shop and living with his parents in the family residence at 227 S. California Ave., in Chicago. In 1906, his father, now in his 60s, decided to move back to Seneca. David moved back to Seneca with his parents.

By 1907, David, then 19, was working in LaSalle County while playing some semi-professional baseball. He was a gifted player noted for his defensive skills. The next summer, he was good enough to try out for a professional team, Kewanee, Illinois, of the Class D Central Association.

Dave joined the Boilermakers in July of 1908, and a notice that he had signed a contract with Kewanee appeared in The Sporting News in early September. Noted for his speed, he soon won the centerfield job. In about half a season he hit .261 and stole 13 bases but made 6 errors in 62 chances as an outfielder. He played well enough to be reserved by Kewanee for the following season.

Dave played the entire 1909 season with the Kewanee team. He finished 1909 with a .252 average and 40 stolen bases. Most important he improved defensively. He played 78 games in center field and 42 in right field, and this time had cut his errors to only 8 out of 231 total chances. He was drafted in September by the Toledo Mud Hens, of the Class A American Association, then the highest minor league classification. More importantly for Dave's future, Toledo was a farm club of the Cleveland Naps.

He reported for spring training with the Mud Hens in March of 1910. Not surprisingly, Callahan wasn't ready for the American Association. After a month at Toledo, he was hitting .174 and not playing well defensively. When American Association rosters had to be cut on May 1, he was sent to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, of the Class C Minnesota-Wisconsin League. As future events would indicate it was probably an optional sale.

The time spent in the American Association, even if unsuccessful, probably made Dave a better player. By late June, his batting average was hovering around .400, he was stealing bases virtually at will, and he had yet to make his second error in the field despite many spectacular catches and throws. He finished the 1910 season with an average of .365 with 92 runs scored, leading the Minny League in both categories.

The Major Leagues came knocking at Dave Callahan's door in September 1910. The Cleveland Naps had been having a disappointing season, and in September decided to replace their whole outfield by exercising their option on two promising minor league players and converting a young catcher already on the team to an outfielder. "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who led the New Orleans Pelicans to the pennant with a .354 average, was to play center field. Dave Callahan, who led the Eau Claire Commissioners to the Pennant with a .365 average, was to play left field. Ted Easterly, the converted catcher and .300 hitter who had been on the team all season, would play right field.

Dave Callahan's first week in the majors was probably the high point in his baseball career. He made his first major league start in left field on September 14, 1910. This was news back in home town Seneca, Illinois, since he was the first baseball star they had, and the next day a small notice appeared in the local paper. The Naps had played against the Detroit Tigers, Ty Cobb's team, and even though Cobb didn't play, Detroit won, 9-8. Dave scored two of Cleveland's runs. The next day, Cleveland opened a three-game series against the Washington Senators, and Dave went 4 for 11 in the series. The next Monday, against the Philadelphia Athletics, he had another hit, bringing his batting average to .315.

The local beat writer for The Sporting News, Henry D. Edwards, wrote a piece that was fairly gushing over Dave. After giving some kudos to Jackson and Easterly, he enthused, "But the real star of the outfield appears to be an underrated player -- Dave Callahan of Eau Claire, a player who was not good enough for Toledo last spring. In the game today he beat out a bunt, he whipped a pretty single to right, he sacrificed, he stole a base, he came in to make a shoe string catch, he went back and made a very nice overhand running catch, he accepted four other catches and cut down an apparent triple to a double, and held what seemed to be a double to a single. On ground balls he appears to be the fastest and best man who ever played in the Cleveland outfield, and it is no wonder that Jim McAleer [Washington Senators manager] turned to one of his players on the bench and remarked, ‘Isn't he the best outfielder that ever came to Cleveland?' And Jim used to play here himself."

After the first week in the majors, it looked very much like Dave Callahan would be a major league star for some years to come. Unfortunately Dave Callahan had a weakness. When batting, he stood far back away from the plate, and pitchers soon began throwing at the outside corner, making him lunge at the ball. The hits stopped coming, and Dave looked bad at the plate. By the last few games of the season, he had played himself out of the lineup, his batting average having plunged to .182.

But even though the season ended with Dave Callahan out of the lineup, Cleveland was still very high on him, and placed him on their "reserve list" for 1911. They viewed the hitting problem as fixable, and sent him down to the Class A New Orleans Pelicans for the start of the 1911 season, where no-nonsense manager Charley Frank was told to straighten out his hitting stance. Callahan hit .278 for the Pelicans that next year, stole 30 bases, and played well in the outfield. All-in-all, it was a credible performance on a pennant-winning club.

Cleveland recalled him in August, and he rejoined the Naps in September after the Southern Association season ended. But things had changed at Cleveland. Manager Deacon McGuire had been fired a mere 17 games into the 1911 season, and the new skipper was going in a different direction. Even though Dave hit .250 this time around with the Naps, they were fairly indifferent to him, putting him into only 6 games (his four games in the field were in center field). At the end of the season, Cleveland sent Dave back to New Orleans for the 1912 season. When he left Cleveland in 1911, it would turn out to be the last time Dave played in the Major Leagues.

The next year, 1912, the defending champion New Orleans Pelicans stumbled out of the gate. Dave was in somewhat of a hitting slump, and this probably strained his relationship with Manager Frank.

In any case, Charley Frank traded him in June to the Atlanta Crackers, another Southern Association team. Unlike the defending champion Pelicans, the Crackers were a second division team, although they were improving. When the trade was made, some of Frank's critics were quoted as saying that he hadn't given Dave Callahan a chance. Frank fired back in the newspapers that, "Callahan was given every chance, and he didn't take advantage of any of them." Dave's base stealing and defense were still as strong as ever, but his hitting dipped to .250 for the combined season with New Orleans and Atlanta.

But in Atlanta, as he had been elsewhere, he was a fan favorite and viewed as a good teammate. He always seemed to have a positive attitude, and his shouts of "Attaboy!" when his teammates made a good play were heard by players and fans alike. The fans also liked it that although Dave was a spectacular talent as a fielder, he wasn't a showboat. One of the Eau Claire reporters had written about a typical interchange a few years earlier: "The bags were filled. McGraw drove a far one to Callahan. The latter snuffed the ball, and turning, threw to the plate. The ball went true as a die, and Bennie tagged Bancroft close to the platter. It was a grand peg for the only double play of the game. And Cal refused to doff his hat to the crazy, cheering fans. And they liked him all the better for it."

For the 1913 season, through a strange series of events, Dave ended up with the Nashville Volunteers, another of the Southern Association teams. The previous year, Nashville's outfielder Harry Welchonce was called up by the Washington Senators, but never got into a game and was released by them after the season. Atlanta, figuring he was a free agent, wanted to sign him, but Nashville protested that they still held his rights. To make it more interesting, New Orleans was also interested in signing Welchonce. When Nashville threatened action should Atlanta sign him, Atlanta offered Dave Callahan as a sort of a peace offering, and Nashville accepted. At least, that's the way The Sporting News reported it. According to the Atlanta Constitution, Nashville really wanted Callahan and the deal had nothing to do with Welchonce.

Moving to Nashville proved to be very beneficial to Dave. Ironically, as the season unfolded, it was obvious to everyone that Callahan was doing a lot better than Harry Welchonce; it was even noted in The Sporting News that Nashville had got quite the better of the deal, and "the work of the two players would indicate that Callahan is by far the more valuable to a team." In retrospect, Nashville was the place where Dave Callahan matured as a player. In the next two years with Nashville, he turned his hitting -- and his career -- around with averages of .279 and .287 in 1913 and 1914. As fast as ever, he stole 54 bases in 1914, which was high for the league, even though he spent the last month of the season with Louisville. And, as with nearly everywhere he went, he was a crowd favorite.

But in 1914, there was a strong new temptation for minor league players: The Federal League, which was billing itself as a "major league," equivalent to the American League and National League. It started by having several major league stars jump to the new league for more money, then filled up its teams with major league hopefuls or has-beens. Most record books today recognize it as a major league, but at the time, it was viewed as an "outlaw" league. Dave Callahan was a perfect target for Federal League recruiters: an excellent minor league star who was probably hoping to return to the "big show." In August, 1914, the rumors started that several of Nashville's players, including Dave, were being actively recruited for the Federal League.

Although Dave Callahan may have been a perfect target for Federal League recruiters, he turned down the offer. When the story finally broke that Dave had turned down the Federal league, both Nashville management and the fans appreciated it. But they weren't the only ones to notice. Barely a week later, the Louisville Colonels of the AA-level American Association bought Dave Callahan's contract from Nashville. Once again, Dave was just one step under the major leagues. He joined the Colonels in late August, and played left field for them for the remainder of the season.

When the season ended in late September, the Louisville management, skittish about Federal League raids on their players, took the unprecedented step of re-signing their players for the 1915 season by early October 1914. Dave Callahan gladly signed on for another year.

When 1915 arrived, however, it proved to be a strange situation for Dave. Louisville was stocked with outfielders, and for the first two months or so of the season, Louisville used Dave as a pinch hitter and occasionally in left field. Dave did not hit well in this role as a utility player. By June, however, they installed Dave as the club's first baseman, filling in for the injured Ed Weinberg. He spent several weeks at first, and his hitting improved substantially. But then, Weinberg returned and Dave became a substitute once again, playing in the outfield from time to time. By mid-June, it was public knowledge that Louisville was shopping Dave around to other clubs. After an aborted attempt to option him to Wichita in the Western League, he was finally sold back to his old team, Nashville, on July 30.

In Louisville, he had played both in the outfield and at first base, a position he had not played before. After about a half-season at .257, he went back to a city where he was known and appreciated. In early August, they held a "Dave Callahan Appreciation Day" for him, where the club and fans gave him "welcome home" gifts. He hit .302 the rest of the season with Nashville.

But things were changing in Nashville, as they always do with minor league clubs. At the end of the 1915 season, the Volunteers released several players, including Dave. Just before the 1916 season, Dave signed a contract with Wilkes-Barre of the New York State League. After a short time, he was traded to Scranton (Pa.) in the same league, and finished the year with a respectable but unspectacular .270.

Before the 1917 season, an old friend, Paul Sentell, who was now a manager in the Texas League, came and rescued him from the New York State League, figuring he knew exactly the kind of player Dave was and what he could do for his Galveston Pirates. Dave didn't disappoint. In the first month of the 1917 season, he was generally acknowledged to be Galveston's best hitter, and his fielding ability was never in doubt.

But Galveston's club was on very shaky financial ground. The previous year, it was openly speculated that Galveston was going to fold, and that they started the 1917 season at all was surprising to many. It didn't last long, though. By May 18, the Galveston team was bankrupt and they disbanded. Several of the players had jumped when they heard that the team was in danger of folding, but Dave Callahan stayed on until the end, doubtlessly out of loyalty to his friend, Paul Sentell (who incidentally became a Texas league umpire after Galveston's demise).

When the end came for Galveston, free agent Dave Callahan was a hot commodity among the other Texas League teams, many of whom wanted to sign him. He signed with the Dallas Submarines the day after the Pirates folded and was in the Dallas lineup May 19 against Fort Worth. He had played for Galveston the day before in Waco, so he traveled the hour or so upstate to Fort Worth to work for new Dallas Manager and part owner Hamilton Patterson.

When Dave joined the Dallas club, he joined a team with several other excellent players, but one which had been struggling to beat out the Fort Worth Panthers as the top team in the league. Callahan immediately became one of the hometown's favorite players, with his hustle and timely hitting. Reporters called him "Dandy Dave," "Dauntless Dave," and other catchy nicknames. He hit .297 with 30 stolen bases. Unfortunately, he also struck out 88 times.

During the 1917 season, some dark clouds were massing on the horizon that would affect professional baseball the next year: the United States had entered World War I. All able-bodied men were required to register for the draft, and that included baseball players -- maybe especially baseball players.

The 1918 season was perhaps the strangest season ever for minor league baseball. As the season progressed, more and more of the players left to join the war effort, leaving some clubs scrambling to field enough players to hold games. By June, the U.S. Government came out with an edict that men were expected to either join up as soldiers or work in other ways (such as farming) to support the war effort. By early July, it looked hopeless for the minor leagues, and all but the International League suspended operations for the duration of the war, however long that was to be. The Texas League stopped play after July 5. This was to have some unexpected implications for Dave Callahan.

During the 1918 season, Dallas and Dave Callahan continued their excellence and managed to edge out Fort Worth for the 1918 Texas League Championship in this most strange of years. But by late June, it was obvious that things were falling apart in the Texas League, as players prepared to go home or go into the military, and fans were losing interest. By July 6, when the Texas League ceased operations, the International league was interested in "borrowing" two of Dallas' stars, pitcher Sam Lewis and outfielder Dave Callahan. Both had to get permission from their draft boards back home to be allowed to leave the country (it required a passport to go to Canada during the war). The draft boards agreed, and Lewis and Callahan went north to Toronto in the AA-level International League.

Dave Callahan and Sam Lewis reported to Toronto on July 14, 1918. Local papers noted that they were "the pick of the Texas League," and soon their play began to endear them to the locals. Callahan hit .317 during his stay at Toronto, and the local newspaper coverage was mostly positive, except for being chided for an incident where he displayed his "extensive" Texas vocabulary. "Well! That may do in Texas, but we're civilized here in Toronto!" . . .

The race for the International League pennant was hotly contested between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Binghamton club. When Callahan joined the team in July, Toronto was in second place, but they went on a nine-game winning streak. By September, they were neck and neck, with mere percentage points separating the two.

In the end, it came down to a single weekend where both teams were playing double headers. If Binghamton had won both games, they would have won the championship, but they lost their second game. Toronto went to 12 innings to win the second of their games in a thrilling finish that won the championship by two percentage points.

Fred "King" Lear, the Toronto infielder who later played in about 70 games for the Chicago Cubs (batting about .235), was the hero, but Dave Callahan also was productive, driving in two runs during the game.

Minorleaguebaseball.com has selected this 1918 Toronto team as #45 in their listing of the 100 top minor league teams of all time. The local newspapers assumed that Dave Callahan and Sam Lewis would be back in 1919, but the agreement struck to send them to Toronto in 1918 included their return for the 1919 season. The manager of the Toronto team sent a letter to Dallas thanking them for the two players, who made substantial contributions to the team's winning the championship.

The 1919 season turned out to be one of frustration, not only for the Dallas ‘Marines, but also for Dave Callahan personally. Dave started the first week of the season leading the league in hitting with a .458 average, but fell into a slump that soon took his average below .300. On May 14, he sprained his ankle during a game -- the first serious injury in his career -- and was out of the lineup for over a week. When he returned on May 25, he went 3 for 3, but was noticeably limping around the bases and could not realize his usual range in the outfield. For their part, the rest of the Dallas club played very poorly during the opening weeks of the season, losing their first several games and residing solidly in the cellar of the Texas League until June 24. For a team who had won the championship the past two years, this was quite a fall. But Dave pulled out of his injury just in time to continue his reputation as the nemesis of Fort Worth pitchers.

On July 12, Dallas surprised Dave and the rest of the world by optioning him to the Shreveport Gassers (also of the Texas League, in desperate need of a center fielder as theirs was hurt -- no doubt money changed hands). It was a deal where Dave could be recalled to Dallas on the manager's say-so.

Dave hit .333 in his eight games with Shreveport, and Dallas abruptly recalled him a mere ten days after they shipped him out, Dave rejoining the Dallas team on July 22. In the July 31 issue of The Sporting News, it was noted that Ham Patterson played "Indian" and recalled two of his players he had farmed out to other teams. Although Patterson needed the pitcher Stuart Jacobus back because one of his own pitchers had jumped the team, the News said it was not stated why Callahan was recalled, but perhaps because he was playing too well at Shreveport. He hit reasonably well the rest of the year, and Dallas managed to climb to as high as third before fading in the last few weeks, ending in fifth place. Local reporters were divided on Dave's performance during the year, some saying that near the end of the year he was the only consistent hitter while everyone else was in a slump, and others labeling him a fading star who had passed his best days.

In any case, by the end of the 1919 season, Dallas was a team in disarray, and they traded Dave to Galveston for the 1920 season. Whether you considered it a good trade depended on which team was yours. In Dallas, they played up the fact that Dave had had a bad year. The Galveston fans, as interviewed for The Sporting News, thought their manager had really put one over on Dallas and got the better of the trade. As it turned out, Dave played the entire year in 1920 without injury. He led the team in home runs and stole 26 bases, but only batted .251, leading the league with 91 strikeouts.

If Dave's 1920 season with the Galveston Pirates was mediocre, he started 1921 even worse, hitting only .214 in his first 18 games. Galveston sold him to Joe Dunn's team in Bloomington, Illinois, in the Three-I League on May 5, 1921. Although the Dallas Morning News covered the story in a straightforward way, The Sporting News comment was less positive ("The Galveston team rid itself of an outfielder by selling Dave Callahan to the Bloomington team.... Dave may find himself more energetic in the Illinois climate.") Nevertheless, Bloomington was only a couple of hours from his home in Seneca, and Dave responded by hitting .298 for the rest of the 1921 season.

The 1922 season was even better, with Dave hitting .325 for the year, with 19 triples. It was his best year since he led the league in batting at Eau Claire in 1910. But by the end of the 1922 season, Dave was 34 years old, and he had spent his entire adult life playing baseball.

Before the 1923 season started, the Decatur Review noted Callahan and two others had decided to leave the Bloomington team and play semi-pro ball for a West Virginia Mining company team. They reported, "Callahan stated that they were not dissatisfied with the Bloomers, or with any terms offered them, but that they thought they had a better future with the mining company." They thought wrong. He rejoined the Bloomington club on July 28, playing until the end of the season.

Before the 1924 season, he was released, but soon signed on with the Peoria team in the same Three-I League. About a month into the 1924 season, on May 8, 1924, he was unconditionally released by Peoria. He immediately signed with Danville, another Three-I club. Danville was a desperate team, fighting to stay out of last place. By the end of June, 1924, the writing was on the wall. He was being used only sparingly by Danville, in pinch hitter and occasional outfield fill-in roles. After the game on June 29, 1924, Dave Callahan finally retired. No fanfares, no appreciation days, not even a mention in the papers. One day he was in the box score, the next day he wasn't. It was as simple as that.

Dave Callahan went to live in Joliet, Illinois, with his sister Nellie Fisher and her husband James, who were caring for Dave's sick mother. Hanora Breen Callahan died in Joliet about nine months later. It was Dave who reported the death and gave the information for her death certificate.

Dave went back to the Ottawa area near Seneca after his mother died. He met a young woman, Caroline "Carrie" Kohrt, a school teacher who was ten years younger than he, and in 1927, they married in Ottawa. Dave was 38 years old when he got married for the first time, having spent his entire life on the road. David and Carrie bought a house at 528 Guthrie Street in Ottawa. Dave continued working as a traveling salesman for a candy company, a job he had worked in the baseball off-seasons.

Not much is known about David and Caroline's life together, except for a few facts left like "footprints on the sands of time." They were listed together in the Ottawa City Directory at their home on Guthrie Street until 1943. Dave was listed as a salesman and Caroline as a teacher (she taught home economics in the Ottawa public schools for decades). They divorced on October 22, 1943, and Dave was no longer listed in the directory until 1961, although Carrie continued living at 528 Guthrie Street. Dave and Caroline had no children.

About 1961, Dave moved to an assisted living facility in Ottawa, but listed his permanent address as the Guthrie Street home. Dave died in Ottawa on October 28, 1969. After his death, Caroline Callahan was listed in the city directory as "Caroline Callahan, widow," so it is unclear whether they reconciled, or exactly what their relationship was near the end of Dave's life. He was buried in the town where he was born 81 years earlier, Seneca, Illinois, at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.


Author's Note

When I first learned about Dave Callahan, it was sometime in the 1960s. My father mentioned that his Uncle Dave had played major league baseball with Cleveland, but he remembered little more about him. My uncle Johnny Callahan told me, "Yes, Uncle Dave played ball with Cleveland, but that's all I know."

I guess it was in 1995 when I saw his death certificate that I stopped cold. Under "occupation," it said "athlete, baseball." What kind of man, I wondered, listed a job where he played a couple of dozen games almost 60 years earlier as his occupation? I wanted to find out more about this mysterious relative. When I found his 1917 World War I Draft Registration Card and it listed his employer as the Dallas Baseball Club, I had the place to start.

After intermittently doing years of research on Dave's career, reading obscure little comments in long-forgotten newspapers, I finally have somewhat of a feel for the man. Dave's gift was his athletic ability. He was blessed with a talent that was so rare that very few others at any level could do the things he could do.


Sources

Atlanta Constitution: 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914

Christopherson, Jason, 2003. Baseball in Eau Claire. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC.

Dallas Morning News: 1911, 1912, 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921

Decatur [IL] Review: 1922, 1923

Eau Claire [WI] (Daily) Leader: 1910

Kewanee [IL] Historical Society, 2005. Personal communication with Larry Lock (Provided photo)

LaSalle County [IL] Genealogy Guild, 2005. Personal communication with Jenean Jobst.

O'Neal, Bill, 1987. "The Texas League." Eakin Press, Austin, TX.

O'Neal, Bill, 1994. "The Southern League" Eakin Press, Austin, TX.

Ottawa [IL] City Directory: 1928, 1930, 1935, 1940, 1943, 1945, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1971

Ottawa [IL] Daily Times: 1969, 1972

Ottawa [IL] Republican-Times: 1910

St. Patrick's Church, 1888. Register of Baptisms, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Seneca, IL

The Sporting News: 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924

State of Illinois, 1969. Medical Certificate of Death for David Callahan, dated November 3, 1969

Toronto World: 1918, 1919

United States Census Bureau. U.S. Census listings for 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930

Wichita Falls [TX] Daily Times: 1921


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