This article was written by John Rossi
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
In December 1959 I was studying for my master’s degree in history at Notre Dame. As a Phillies fan since 1946, I was starved for news about the team when one of my friends told me that they had traded Gene Freese to the Chicago White Sox for someone whose name he couldn’t remember.
I was shocked. Freese had been one of the few positive players on a last-place 1959 Phillies team that won just 64 games, their lowest total since 1947.
Freese had hit 23 homers in 1959, including three grand slams and five pinch-hit home runs. He took over third base from the failing Whiz Kid, Willie Jones, early in the season and proceeded to provide the only excitement for a truly awful team. True, Freese was a terrible third baseman. Despite playing in only 109 games at third he led all National League third sackers with 22 errors. My friends and I would try to buy seats behind first base, as you could almost count on Freese throwing a ball into the stands either in infield practice or during the game.
Who did the Phillies get for Freese? I wondered. In those pre-Internet, pre-ESPN days sports news was hard to come by. I finally ran down a copy of the Chicago Sun Times and discovered that they had gotten someone named John Callison in the deal. Being a committed National League fan, I had never heard of him. The Sun Times article gloated that the White Sox had pulled one over on the hapless Phillies. The 1959 American League champs had filled their one big hole at third base while giving up little in return.
Little did the Sun Times and I know that the Phillies’ new general manager, John Quinn, had pulled off a coup in his first trade. Quinn had taken a major step in dismantling the old Whiz Kid team that owner Bob Carpenter hadn’t the heart to break up.
John Wesley Callison was born in Oklahoma in 1939 and his family, like thousands of other Okies, migrated to California at the end of the Depression, in this case to Bakersfield. Callison was an outstanding high school athlete and was signed by the White Sox in 1957. In two years in the minors he showed signs of brilliance, hitting .340 in his first season in Bakersfield in the California League and then making the jump to Triple A Indianapolis in the American Association the next season. There he led the league in homers with 29. He got his first taste of the majors in a brief call-up by the White Sox in late 1958.
Callison’s two sparkling minor league seasons earned him the label “the next Mickey Mantle” because of his power and great speed. It was a label that would haunt him for the rest of his career.
Callison was brought up to the pennant-winning White Sox in 1959 but got into just 49 games and hit a pathetic .173. Callison, who was always plagued with doubts, said he was “embarrassed” and “disgusted” to be a part of pennant-winning team and contribute so little. The White Sox soured on him. Their loss was the Phillies’ gain.
I first saw Callison in the spring of 1960. Quinn and newly hired manager Gene Mauch were trying to rebuild a team that had grown old. To me Callison, who was 5′ 10″ and about 175 pounds, looked small, timid at the plate, and tentative in the field. However, I soon began to follow him closely. Over the next few years he became my favorite player on a Phillies team that gradually won the hearts of the city’s fans.
Mauch played him in all three outfield positions in 1960, where he was part of an all left-handed platoon that consisted of youngsters Tony Curry and Tony Gonzalez. Callison proved a mediocre left-fielder but Mauch saw something that the fans and the always tough Philadelphia sportswriters missed and moved him to right field in 1961. He blossomed there and became one of the best right fielders in the National League, no mean feat when you consider the competition: Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron.
From 1962 through 1965 Callison led all National League outfielders in assists, demonstrating a throwing arm that was both powerful and amazingly accurate. During those four seasons he totaled 91 assists. For comparison’s sake, Aaron had 43, Robinson 35, while Clemente had 59 in those four years. Even the best American League outfielders couldn’t come close to Callison’s figures. Al Kaline had 21 in those four seasons while the Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski totaled the most assists over that period, just 63.
Callison’s was one of the first of the new faces that Quinn and Mauch developed in the awful 1960 and 1961 seasons, when the Phillies finished in the cellar with the worst record in baseball, including an infamous 23-game losing streak in 1961. In 1962 Callison, along with new comers Gonzalez, catcher Clay Dalrymple, shortstop Ruben Amaro, second baseman Tony Taylor, and pitchers Jack Baldschun, Chris Short, and Art Mahaffey, pushed the Mauch-led Phillies over the .500 mark for the first time since 1953.
Callison was Mauch’s pet. He helped turn Callison into a dangerous hitter while carefully protecting his sen sitive ego. Mauch would tell anyone who would listen, knowing it would get back to Callison, about the right fielder’s skills. “He can run, throw, field and hit with power,” Mauch once bragged about Callison. “There’s nothing he can’t do well on the ball field.”
Mauch benched Callison during the last game of the 1962 season to salvage a .300 average for him. Callison’s 23 homers tied the record for any Phillies left-handed hitter in Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium. He broke that record each of the next three seasons, hitting 26, 31, and 32 homers. His 32 homers in the 1965 campaign was most any Phillie had hit since Stan Lopata clubbed that many in 1956 and the most of any Phillies left-handed hitter other than Hall of Famers Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul and Cy Williams up to that time. In fact, in the history of the Phillies only Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, Williams, and Klein have hit more homers left-handed than Callison in a season. His 185 homers is fourth highest of all Phillies left-handed hitters behind Klein, Williams and Bobby Abreu.
Callison’s speed also flourished in the big spaces of Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium. He reached double figures in triples for five consecutive seasons, 1961 through 1965, once leading the National League and once tying.
Callison’s greatest season was 1964, the “Year of Blue Snow” when the Phillies blew a seemingly impossible six-game lead by losing 10 consecutive games with only 12 games remaining.
After starting slowly — he was hitting only .206 early in May — Callison got hot and along with rookie sensation Richie Allen and they provided the offense for a Phillies team that was picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth place. In July he won the All-Star game with a dramatic ninth-inning three run homer off Boston’s premier reliever, Dick “the Monster” Radatz. This was only the third walk-off homer in All-Star history: the others were hit by two pretty good sluggers, Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
Callison said he didn’t run around the bases after that homer, he just floated. Later he was asked about the feat so many times he said he felt like Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over in the movie Groundhog Day.
By August 1964, Callison had his average around the .300 mark, and he hit nine homers in the last five weeks of the season, including a three-home run game during the Phillies’ losing streak. Handsome in a classic Hollywood manner, he was the Cinderella Man of the Phillies. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News both featured him on their cover. With the Phillies seemingly destined to win the pennant, to the surprise of everyone, Callison was the consensus choice for National League MVP But that was not to be. With a suddenness that was shocking, the Phillies’ season unraveled.
The stress of the pennant race was taking its toll on Callison. A constant worrier, he was smoking heavily and acting as if he expected the Phillies’ balloon soon would burst. By the end of September he had lost 10 pounds and came down with the flu. In a famous incident in a game in St. Louis toward the end of the losing streak, the sick Callison pinch-hit a single and then put on a warm-up jacket. He was so weak that the Cardinals first baseman, Bill White, had to button it for him.
Despite his illness Callison was one of the few positive forces, along with Allen, on the Phillies during the losing streak. He hit four homers and drove in 10 runs during those games.
Callison had one more outstanding season for the Phillies. In 1965 he clubbed 32 homers and drove in 101 runs and was regarded at 26 as one of the dominant power hitters in the National League. Then suddenly everything turned sour. In 1966 he hit just 11 home runs, not hitting his first until Memorial Day, and finished with only 55 RBIs. He led the National League in doubles with 40 but seemed to have lost his power stroke.
He also was feuding with Mauch, who was trying to unlock the key to a player he regarded as having all the tools for greatness but who seemed dogged by self doubt. Callison did an article for Sport magazine around that time whose title summed up his problem: “I am the greatest worrier in the world.”
As it turns out, after 1965 Callison was effectively finished as a great hitter. He never again hit 20 homers in a season or drove in 70 runs. It was said that he suffered from a series of nagging injuries, especially to his legs. He adopted the exercise regimen that had helped Carl Yastremski set records in 1967, but it didn’t help. He began to wear glasses, but that proved useless also. In 1969 the Phillies gave up on Callison and traded him and a player to be named to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Dick Selma and outfielder Oscar Gamble. After a couple of seasons with the Cubs, Callison was sent to the Yankees, where he finished his career in 1973.
Callison’s post-baseball career was an unhappy one. He longed to get back to baseball in some capacity, especially with the Phillies, but never caught on with any team. He and his wife Diane and their two daughters continued to live in the Philadelphia area. Callison remained popular with the older generation of fans and in later years would often go to the Phillies fantasy camp to reminisce about his playing days.
His business investments turned sour and he turned to a series of unfulfilling jobs. In 1986 he was operated on for a bleeding ulcer and had a heart attack while in intensive care. He had to have a triple bypass. All this before the age of 50.
Callison died in October 2006 after a long bout with cancer. His career mirrored in many ways the fate of the team he was most associated with, the Phillies, especially the 1964 team. It was one of unfulfilled promise, a case of what could have been.
Still, for five or six years he was the most popular player on a developing Phillies team, an icon for victory starved Philadelphia fans. That’s not a bad epitaph.
JOHN ROSSI is a Professor of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. His most recent baseball book is: The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball ‘s Most Memorable Collapse, McFarland & Co., 2005.