SABR

Nixey Callahan

This article was written by James Elfers.

Often referred to today as "Nixey" even though he rarely went by that moniker during his career, Jimmy Callahan was one of the most colorful and versatile figures of the Deadball Era. Equally at home on the pitcher's mound, the infield, the outfield, the stage, the manager's bench or in the business world, Callahan won 99 games as a pitcher and batted .273 as a hitter in a 13-year major league career interrupted by a five-year stint as the operator of one of the era's most successful semipro teams. In the offseason of 1913-14, Callahan put his organizational skills to use as one of the chief promoters of the Chicago White Sox-New York Giants world tour. In all his pursuits, Callahan was one of the game's most respected and admired figures. As Baseball Magazine observed in 1909, "He is bright and brainy, and a hustler. No one has a larger personal following or carries with him so many good wishes for success."

James Joseph Callahan was born to Irish immigrants in Fitchburg, Massachusetts on March 18, 1874. Jimmy lost his father at an early age, and by fourteen left school to support his mother as a sewing machine boy in a clothing mill, earning 75 cents a day. Over the next two years, Jimmy's athletic ability began to attract attention at mill games. He apprenticed himself to a plumber about the same time. At the age of sixteen "Nixey" (a childhood nickname which Callahan abandoned later in life, though local papers often referred to him by that name throughout his career) was promised a dollar if he won a game against another local team. Jimmy won the game and the dollar and soon began pitching regularly for Pepperell, Massachusetts, one of the best semipro teams in the state. Because his employer frowned on his moonlighting on the diamond, he played under the name of William Smith.

The alias was discovered after three years and Callahan was dismissed from his apprenticeship. That really was no hardship however, because by this point he was earning between $30 and $40 a game pitching for Pepperell, and once recorded 22 strikeouts in a single game.

At the age of nineteen, he was spotted by Arthur Irwin, manager of the Phillies. Irwin signed Callahan and brought him south. Jumping directly to the Phillies lineup in 1894, he appeared in nine games, compiling a 1-2 record with a terrible 9.89 ERA. "They didn't pay me enough salary to wreck them or make me," Callahan later joked to John J. Ward of Baseball Magazine. "That way they could afford to take a chance with such a green youth as myself. I pitched a few games but I wasn't a Walter Johnson with speed or a Christy Mathewson with skill so at the end of the season they decided that Philly would muddle along as best it could without my services. In short, they wished me well, propelled me gently through the door and carefully closed the door in my face. I was alone in the wide world."

What would have been a moment of profound doubt and loss of self-esteem to most rookies became a bolt of inspiration for Jimmy Callahan. Realizing there were plenty of jobs to be had in the minor leagues, he wrote a letter to the Springfield (Massachusetts) Ponies of the Eastern League informing them that he "was a player of rare promise." The ploy worked and he was given a starting position on the team.

Jimmy certainly lived up to his own billing, winning 32 out of the 41 games he started, helping Springfield to the pennant. When not pitching, Callahan played the outfield and second base. Kansas City of the Western League drafted Jimmy off of Springfield's roster in 1896. He lasted one season with the Blues before being bought by the Chicago Colts of the National League prior to the 1897 season. Callahan impressed the Colts not only with his pitching, but also with his running ability. Before the season was out he had pitched and played second, third, short, and the outfield. Though he was not a particularly good base-stealer, Callahan developed a reputation as perhaps the fastest man from home to first in the game, and the papers referred to him as the "sprinter-twirler." John McGraw later concluded that Callahan's remarkable speed actually hurt him in the field. "Time after time," McGraw recalled, "when a grounder was hit his way, Callahan darted at it with such terrific speed that he couldn't check himself over the ball, but overran, and the hit went on unhindered."

During the 1899 season, McGraw also characterized Callahan's method of pitching as an imitation of teammate Clark Griffith's, who relied on a polished delivery and excellent control, rather than raw speed and strikeouts, to retire hitters. When Callahan first arrived in Chicago, McGraw declared, "he was a green stripling with plenty of mechanical ability, but lacking the artistic veneer, the finish and cleverness of Clark Griffith. Jimmy became an apt pupil of Grif's, and you will notice that his style of delivery is a reproduction of Grif's." Indeed, like his mentor, Callahan was a durable pitcher for the Colts, completing all but three of his starts in his four years with the team. Like Griffith he also relied heavily on his defense, never posting more than 77 strikeouts in an individual season.

Prior to the 1901 season he became one of the first players to jump to the upstart American League, following Griffith's lead and signing with the Chicago White Sox. Although Callahan missed the first few weeks of the 1901 season with a broken bone in his forearm, he recovered to post a sparkling 15-8 record with a 2.42 ERA. He was just as impressive at the plate, where the right-handed batter hit a career-best .331 for the season, with 11 extra base hits in 132 plate appearances. The combination of Griffith and Callahan on the pitching mound helped Chicago win a second consecutive American League pennant, taking the flag by four games over Boston.

The following season, Callahan slumped to a 16-14 mark with a subpar 3.60 ERA. But he also pitched the best game of his career, a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on September 20. In what marked his final hurrah as a major league pitcher, Callahan set down the Tigers in just one hour and 20 minutes, becoming the first American Leaguer to toss a no-hitter. Named manager of the White Sox the following season, Callahan pitched in just three games in 1903, posting a terrible 4.50 ERA. Callahan transitioned to third base, where he registered a poor .895 fielding percentage but batted a solid .292. Under Callahan's leadership the Sox finished a disappointing seventh.

Callahan remained Chicago's manager for the first 42 games of the 1904 season before he was replaced by Fielder Jones. Nonetheless, he went on to play in 132 games for the White Sox that year, batting .261 and splitting his time between left field and second base. In 1905 he appeared in 96 games, mostly in left field, and finished the year with a .272 average and 26 steals.

Despite that performance, the following year Callahan resigned from the White Sox and became a semipro magnate. Seeing how much money Comiskey cleared as owner and president of the White Sox, Jimmy realized there was tons of money to be made off the game of baseball. He bought the Logan Squares semipro team and their stadium at the corner of Diversey and Milwaukee in the Logan Square section of Chicago. The club very quickly established itself as one of the finest if not the premier semipro baseball team in the country. At the conclusion of the 1906 season, Callahan's club beat both participants in that year's World Series, the White Sox and Cubs, although the team's "semipro" lineup was augmented by several major leaguers, some of whom played under assumed names.

Callahan's business venture did not endear him to organized baseball. The Logan Squares were declared "outlaws" by Ban Johnson and major league teams faced fines or censure if they played the Logan Squares. Walter Johnson was once fined $100 for pitching in an exhibition game against them. Such machinations did little to curb the enthusiasm Chicago had for the local boys. On August 27, 1910, Callahan's club won the first night game ever played at Comiskey Park, defeating the Rogers Park semipro club 3-0 under portable lights, with Callahan himself driving in two of the three runs. Callahan amassed quite a nice bit of money in his role as stadium owner and team president.

After a few years however, attendance started to lag and Callahan began looking for an opportunity to get back into organized baseball. He ran into Comiskey during the winter of 1910. "Commy" offered him the job of president of the White Sox but Callahan, then nearing 37 years of age, convinced him that he was not through as a player. To return to the majors, he had to get his name cleared from the ineligible list. This was accomplished by paying a fine of $700. His return to baseball in 1911 was one of the era's most remarkable comeback stories. In a season Callahan considered his best in the major leagues, Jimmy played left field and hit .281 in 120 games, while also posting career highs in hits (131), home runs (3), RBI (60) and stolen bases (45). Not bad for a man who had been out of the majors for five years.

During the off-season he added stage performer to his repertoire, taking a turn in front of the flood lights in Chicago as a monologist. His specialty was telling funny Irish stories, complete with the brogue. It wasn't great theater, but it satisfied his audience.

So impressed was Comiskey with Callahan's performance in 1911 that he re-appointed him manager of the club in 1912. The club finished in fourth place that year with a 78-76 record, and Jimmy, in his last full season as a player, batted .272 in 111 games. The following year manager Callahan confined himself to the bench for all but six games, and the White Sox again won 78 games, though the club dropped to fifth place.

From October 1913 to March 1914 Callahan's White Sox and the New York Giants took their baseball teams on a world exhibition tour. Along with Comiskey and McGraw, Callahan was a major force behind the tour, putting up an undisclosed amount of money to help pay the teams' traveling expenses. The teams barnstormed across the United States then set out for Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, France, and Great Britain, with a personal side trip to Ireland. As far as Callahan was concerned the best parts of the tour were the teams' visit with the Pope and the game in London, played before 20,000 fans, including King George V.

The tour was wearying however, and the White Sox got off to a flat start in 1914 and finished the year a disappointing tied for sixth. Just before Christmas 1914, Callahan was bumped up to the White Sox front office to make room for Eddie Collins, whom Comiskey had just acquired, to serve as player-manager. (Collins didn't want the job, however; it later ended up going to Pants Rowland.) The Pirates selected Callahan as manager in 1916. He led the team to a sixth place finish. Callahan was dismissed midway through the 1917 season with the Buccos mired in last place.

Following his baseball career, Callahan became one of Chicago's most successful contractors, building the entire waterworks for the Great Lakes Naval Station. On October 4, 1934, Callahan died of natural causes while visiting friends in Boston. Survived by his wife, the former Josephine Hardin, Callahan was buried in St. Bernard's Cemetery in his hometown of Fitchburg.


Sources

John J. Ward. "Callahan, The Cast Off Manager." Baseball Magazine. August, 1916.

Baseball Magazine. "Who's Who on the Diamond." May, 1909.

Obituary, New York Times, Chicago Tribune.

Frank McGlynn. Striking Scenes from the Tour Around the World.. Baseball Magazine, August, 1914 to December, 1915.

Bill Lee. The Baseball Necrology, McFarland, 2003.

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