Early in his 16-year major-league career, Johnny Callison was labeled “the next Mickey Mantle.” His manager with the Phillies, Gene Mauch, said of Callison: He can “run, throw, field, and hit with power. There’s nothing he can’t do well on the ballfield.”
These encomiums proved burdens that the always sensitive Callison found difficult to live up. His career, briefly with the Chicago White Sox and then for ten years with the Phillies before finishing with short stays with the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, was marked by “what ifs” and “what might have beens.”
John Wesley Callison was born in Qualls, Oklahoma, on March 12, 1939, the son of Virgil (sometimes spelled Vergil) and Wilda (Faddis) Callison. The family was poor and worked odd jobs in and around Qualls in the dying days of the Great Depression. When Virgil joined the Army during World War II, Callison’s mother traveled the path of many “Okies” before her and in 1944 took young Johnny, his brother, and his two sisters and settled in Bakersfield, California.
The quiet and shy Callison discovered that he had exceptional athletic skills. One of his teachers noted that he could run faster backward than most of his classmates could run forward. Sports became his way out of a life of poverty and hardscrabble work. He said later in life that he “found my refuge in baseball” because only on the ballfield did he feel “worthy of measuring up.”
Callison was a star athlete at East Bakersfield High School and especially stood out in baseball. The scouts were on his trail before he graduated from school, with the White Sox eventually signing him in 1957 for a bonus of $7,000 plus another $3,000 under the table. To ease his way into professional baseball, the White Sox assigned the 18-year-old Callison to his hometown team, the Bakersfield Bears of the Class C California League.
Callison made an impressive debut in 1957, hitting .340, rapping out 41 extra-base hits, and stealing 31 bases in just 86 games in a league that included such future major leaguers as third baseman Charlie Smith, pitcher Chuck Estrada, and outfielder Vada Pinson. Callison was named the outstanding rookie in the California League. The White Sox brass believed they had a superstar in the making and jumped him the next season all the way to their Triple-A Indianapolis Indians team in the fast-paced American Association. At 19 Callison was one step from the majors.
Callison’s sophomore season saw the first comparison to his fellow Oklahoman, Mickey Mantle. While Callison’s average dipped to .283, he led the league in home runs with 29 and drove in 93 runs while showing for the first time a cannon-like throwing arm. In September, the White Sox brought him up for a taste of major-league life. He showed signs that he was ready for the big time by hitting .297 while driving in 12 runs in 18 games. The pitching-strong White Sox, who finished 10 games behind the Yankees in 1958, believed that they had a chance to win the pennant the next season. They brought Callison to spring training hoping that he would add some punch to their weak offense.
But Callison was a major flop in the White Sox pennant drive, hitting just .173 with 3 homers in 49 games. The always-competitive Callison was disgusted with himself and felt he had let the White Sox down when he was not put on the World Series roster. More importantly, the White Sox brass decided that they needed to add offense to continue to compete with the Yankees. The White Sox had finished last in the American League in home runs and sixth in batting in 1959. Callison became expendable.
In the offseason, the White Sox made two major trades to add power to their lineup. They got former home run champ Roy Sievers from Washington to play first base and exchanged Callison for third baseman Gene Freese, who had hit 23 home runs for the last-place Philadelphia Phillies.
The trade proved the making of Callison. Going to a developing team where there was no pressure to perform and especially coming under the tutelage of Gene Mauch, he blossomed into one of the premier players in the National League.
Callison’s best years were with the Phillies from 1960 to 1969. His first two seasons were a learning process. Mauch loved his potential and made him a special project. In some ways, Mauch saw Callison as the kind of ballplayer he would have liked to be. Callison was not only Mauch’s special project but also his pet. Mauch worked on smoothing out the 5-foot -10, 175-pound Callison’s left-handed swing and getting him to hit to left field. Mauch also encouraged the speedy Callison to occasionally drag bunt as a way to sharpen his batting eye and upset the defense. By 1961 he was showing signs of brilliance. One-third of his hits that season were for extra bases, including 10 triples, the first of five consecutive years in which he reached double figures in that difficult offensive category. His 84 triples for the Phillies rank him sixth in the team’s all-time list through 2008. He also ranked 11th in doubles and ninth in home runs in Phillies history.
Mauch tried Callison in left field but that didn’t show his great throwing arm to advantage. Beginning in 1961, Callison became the Phillies’ regular right fielder, quickly mastering the tricky bounces off Connie Mack Stadium’s 34-foot-high wall. From 1962 through 1965, Callison led all right fielders in the majors with 90 assists – quite a feat when you consider that the great Roberto Clemente, possessor of one of the strongest arms in the major leagues at the time, had 59.
The 1962 campaign proved Callison’s breakthrough season. He hit .300 for the first and only time in his career – Mauch benched him on the last day of the season to keep his average over the .300 mark. Callison hit 23 homers, tying the record for the most home runs by a left-handed hitter since the right-field wall in Connie Mack Stadium was raised in height. Then he broke that mark in each of the next three seasons. His 32 home runs in 1965 were the most for any left-handed hitter in the history of Connie Mack Stadium. Still, he said, the wall “cost me a lot of home runs. I got a lot of doubles and triples instead.”
Callison’s greatest season came in 1964, the ill-fated season when the Phillies blew a 6½-game lead and lost the pennant. Playing in all 162 games, he hit .274, scored 101 runs, and drove in 104 while banging out 31 homers. He won the All-Star game with a dramatic ninth-inning, three run homer off Dick Radatz. That home run became Callison’s most enduring memory. He said he was asked about that feat so many times that he felt like Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day.
Callison probably would have won the Most Valuable Player Award that season but for the Phillies’ pennant collapse. As it was, he finished second to Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Callison had one more solid year for the Phillies in 1965, hitting 32 homers and driving in 101 runs. Beginning in 1966, his power numbers dropped precipitously. He hit just 11 home runs in 1966 and never hit more than 20 again.
At 27, Callison effectively was finished as a major-league power hitter. What happened to him isn’t clear. He claimed he suffered a number of nagging injuries – to his legs in particular – that destroyed his ability to play. He tried wearing glasses and even adopted a vigorous exercise program that Carl Yastrzemski said benefited his career. But nothing worked. In baseball circles it was believed that Callison had lost his self-confidence. Even at the height of his success in 1964, Callison had admitted that he was “the biggest worrier around” in an article in Sport magazine.
After three more undistinguished years with the Phillies, Callison was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1969 season with pitcher Larry Colton for pitcher Dick Selma and outfielder Oscar Gamble. He stayed with the Cubs for two seasons but clashed with manager Leo Durocher over playing time: Durocher insisted on platooning Callison despite the fact that he hit left-handed pitching well. Callison had his last decent season in 1970, hitting .264 with 19 home runs while driving in 68 runs. After the 1971 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees, and he finished his career there in 1973.
After retiring, Callison worked in a variety of jobs, none of which suited his talents: as a car salesman and bartender. He longed to get back into baseball in some capacity but never found a place for himself. For years he attended the Phillies fantasy camps in Florida, where he was popular with both the fantasy players and his former teammates.
Callison married his high-school sweetheart, Dianne Hammitt, while still in school. Along with their three daughters, Lauri, Cindy, and Sherri, they resided for years in Glenside, a small town outside Philadelphia.
Callison’s health was poor after his retirement from baseball. He suffered from a serious case of ulcers, experienced a heart attack and eventually died from cancer on October 12, 2006, at the age of 67.
This article originally appeared in the book Go-Go To Glory—The 1959 Chicago White Sox (Acta, 2009), edited by Don Zminda.
Bostrom, Don. “Johnny Callison’s Most Memorable Moment,” http/home.onemain.com
Callison, John Wesley, with John Austin Sletten. The Johnny Callison Story. New York: Vantage Press, 1991.
Rossi, John P. The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball’s Most Memorable Collapse. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005.
Westcott, Rich. Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.