Saturday, July 7, 2012

Remembering Johnny Callison

July 7, 1964, Flushing, Queens, New York. One of the best days of the year for a sports-crazed Philly boy:  the 34th Major League All-Star game, played in Shea Stadium during its inaugural season. 

It was in the spring of 1964 that I began, not only to play baseball (soon to be followed by football and basketball), but to follow the game in earnest.  This was the era of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, the two megastars seemingly joined at the hip ever since their debuts, at the ages of 19 and 20 (did you catch those ages, Ruben Amaro, Jr.?), in 1951.  My dad, having grown up in East Orange, New Jersey, was a long-time Yankees fan.  He told my brother and me that Mays and Mantle were the two best players in the game.  My brother took Mantle for his hero.  I, noting Mays's 12 home runs and .478 batting average after 22 games on May 12, opted for the Say Hey Kid.  My mom, on the other hand, though from Oklahoma, faithfully listened to the Phillies every evening, and I joined her, marveling at the exploits of rookie Richie (later, Dick) Allen, pitcher (and later Senator) Jim Bunning, and fellow Oklahoman, 25-year old rightfielder Johnny Callison.

The Phillies started well, and for most of the summer were involved in a two-team battle with Mays's Giants for the National League lead.  On July 5, Dennis Bennett outdueled the great Juan Marichal, 2-1, to give the Phils a 11/2 game lead over the Giants and a 47-28 record.  In the All-Star game two days later, Bunning acquitted himself well, shutting out the AL stars in the 4th and 5th innings, while striking out 4.  Phillies southpaw Chris Short, on his way to a 17-9 record with a minuscule 2.20 ERA, was shelled in the 6th, however, giving up a two-run triple to Brooks Robinson.  By the time the National League came to bat in the bottom of the 9th, they were still down, 4-3, and had the apparent misfortune of having to face the Red Sox' intimidating relief ace, 6'6'' Dick "The Monster" Radatz.  Mays led off the inning by working a walk, stole 2nd, and scampered home on a bloop to right by Orlando Cepeda.  The game remained tied until Callison came to the plate with two on and two out.

Note the size of Shea's outfield compared to
today's bandboxes

The National League had Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente (all found greeting Callison at home plate) on the roster, and was so stacked with talent that Frank Robinson didn't even make the team.  Yet it was the Phillies' Callison who won the game with his walk-off laser to right, joining a couple of pretty good hitters named Stan Musial and Ted Williams as the only three ever to do that in a midsummer classic.  Johnny, the unquestioned fan favorite in Philly, was on top of the world.

Callison mobbed at home plate after his game-winning homer

 Callison with Willie Mays and winning pitcher Juan Marichal
following the game

The Phillies continued to dominate throughout the rest of the summer.  On September 20, after defeating the disappointing Dodgers, 3-2, they stood at 90-60, 61/2 games ahead of the second place Cardinals.  What then happened is the stuff of infamy, which to this day has left its indelible mark on this Phillies fan's sports psyche.  As a result of the team's historic collapse, Callison, who hit 31 homers, scored 101 runs, had 104 RBI, with 30 doubles, 10 triples, and a league-leading 20 outfield assists, finished second to the pennant-winning Cardinals' third sacker Ken Boyer for the MVP award.  Callison would have one more monster season for the Phils in 1965 before the unexpected and mysterious precipitous decline that would characterize his last 8 seasons.  On the strength of his outstanding 1962-65 seasons, however, he still managed to retire with 226 homers and a .264 average, and remains one of the best, and certainly the most loved, rightfielders in Phillies history.

When my family moved from the city to Havertown in October of 1964, I had no idea we would be moving to within a half-mile from where Callison lived.  After spending his last four big league seasons in Chicago and New York, Callison returned in retirement to the north Philadelphia suburb of Glenside, where he would live the remainder of his days until his death, in October of 2006, at the too-young age of 67.  Ballplayers in the game's Golden Era were not outrageously compensated, and so Callison had to earn a living tending bar in his retirement.  But he always was approachable and down-to-earth until the very end (read newscaster Brian Williams's reminiscences here).  All these many years later, the name Johnny Callison never fails to bring a smile to my face.  To me he is still here smashing homers into the North Philadelphia night and gunning down foolhardy runners after fielding the ball off that massive 50-foot high corrugated metal right field wall at old Connie Mack Stadium.  I may be getting old, but memories of Johnny keep me from feeling that way.

Left: 1964 Topps Card; Right: 1966 Topps Card with the late Wes Covington


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