March 12 – Happy Birthday Johnny Callison
When Oklahoma-born Johnny Callison made his big league debut with the White Sox in 1958, he was being favorably compared to another native Oklahoman who at the time had already won two MVP awards playing center field for the Yankees. Callison could run, hit for average and power plus field and throw. The White Sox back then were loaded with pitching but desperate for some power hitters so after just two years in the minors and that cup-of-coffee preview the season before, Chicago made the twenty year-old Callison their 1959 Opening Day left-fielder. He fell flat on his face. When he was sent back to Indianapolis that June, his batting average was just .163 and his confidence was shattered.
Chicago went on to win the ’59 AL Pennant and then continued their quest for more power by trading for Roy Sievers and sending Callison to the Phillies for third baseman Gene Freese, who had just hit a career high 23 home runs. The Phillies had something that would be very good for Callison’s evolution into a great big league player and also something that would hinder it. The something good was manager Gene Mauch, who would become the young player’s mentor and biggest fan. He handled his new outfielder’s fragile ego pretty close to perfectly and by the third year of their relationship, Callison was an NL All Star. He hit .300 in 1962 and put together two straight 30-HR, 100-RBI seasons in 1964 and ’65.
He would hit 195 home runs during his ten seasons as a Phillie but he would have hit a heck of a lot more if it wasn’t for the that one thing in Philadelphia that proved detrimental to Callison’s power legacy, a 34 foot high wall in right field of Connie Mack Stadium. That wall converted many of Callison’s hardest hit balls from home runs in any other park to just triples and doubles in the City of brotherly love.
In 1966, Callison’s offensive stats began declining. Still one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, he would never again hit 20 home runs in a regular season or drive in even 70 runs. No one could explain why his hitting skills deserted him but by 1969, with Gene Mauch no longer the team’s skipper, the Phillies traded him to the Cubs for Oscar Gamble and pitcher Dick Selma. Though he played decently in Chicago for two seasons, Callison didn’t get along with Cubs’ skipper Leo Durocher and was not at all upset to be traded to the Yankees in January of 1972.
Now 33-years old, the three-time all star loved playing for Ralph Houk, who’s managing style reminded him of Gene Mauch’s. Callison started in right field for much of his first season in pinstripes, averaging .258 in 92 games of action, with 9 home runs but just 34 RBIs. He was hitting just .176 during his second season with New York, when he was given his outright release in August of 1973.
He sold cars and tended bar in his post baseball career and experienced a lot of health problems. He died from cancer in 2006 at the age of 67. This former NL Rookie of the Year, this other former NL Rookie of the Year and this one-time Yankee center-fielder were all also born on march 12th.