On Johnny Callison and the summer of ’64


Johnny Callison

Johnny Callison was the MVP of the 1964 All-Star Game, and would have been the MVP of the whole season in the NL but for 10 of the last 12 games.

There’s little to add to Steve Wulf’s excellent profile of Johnny Callison, the hero of the 1964 All-Star Game, except to say that if it’s not in the Best of American Sportswriting 2013, then Yasiel Puig is not an All-Star.

Whoops.

Wulf’s piece is longer than Puig’s career, and just as brilliant. It’s topical because the Mets host the All-Star Game Tuesday for the first time since Callison’s home run, and if we didn’t talk about Callison, we’d have to talk about what the All-Star Game has become: baseball’s version of the Miss America pageant, only with answers that aren’t quite as vapid. If only by the margin of a bang-bang play at first (this is the worst week of summer: four days without a meaningful boxscore).

Wulf grew up in upstate New York and confessed he chose to be a Phillies/Callison fan. Here’s hoping some of his later life decisions have been more successful.

Some of us were born into it. In truth, being a young Phillies fan in the early ’60s wasn’t bad — up until the moment Chico Ruiz slid home, having stolen it, the only run of a 1-0 late-September Cincinnati victory and the first of 10 straight losses.

After that, being a Phillies fan was like Mickey Owen’s passed ball, the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs, Greg Luzinski dropping Manny Mota’s flyball and Joe Carter’s home run, all in one 10-game span. Then it got bad.

Looking back, you almost wondered why your parents hadn’t moved to Cleveland. It was only then, when you realized it could have been worse, that you had finally acquired a mature perspective.

A friend theorized recently that 1964 was the cause of all the Philadelphia fan neuroses that followed, and I think he’s right. Before Chico Ruiz, no one had thrown snowballs at Santa Claus or batteries at J.D. Drew (sorry, but throwing snowballs at Jimmy Johnson was a righteous campaign, and Mayor Rendell need not apologize for that; championing Ricky Williams over Donovan McNabb, yes, he should take a knee).

I suspect that those throwing snowballs at Santa in 1968 were really aiming at Chico Ruiz and 1964.

The anger lasted far longer than Callison’s tenure in Philadelphia. He had two introductory seasons after the Phillies fleeced him from the White Sox for Gene Freese in 1960; Freese was no longer a regular when Callison became a star. “It doesn’t beat Rick Wise for Steve Carlton, but it’s in the photo for second-best deal the Phillies ever made,” wrote Stan Hochman at philly.com.

Callison had four great years and four ordinary ones, and then was gone — two years with the Cubs, two with the Yankees and retired at age 34, less than a decade after his homer off Dick Radatz won the 1964 All-Star Game.

He went through a series of jobs before tending bar — a friend used to invite me to the Inn on Blueberry Hill in Bucks County on the incentive that Callison was pouring the drinks. I told him I couldn’t afford it. “If you ask me if he was a good bartender, I would have to say no,” Wulf quoted one of Callison’s bosses as saying. “. . . he was honest. But pity the other side of the bar if Johnny got to telling stories with his friends. Dick Allen would stop in occasionally, and the cash register would stop ringing.” Maybe I shouldn’t have worried about the cost.

He died in 2006 at 67, which made all of us who watched him play sad. He was far too young, and we were far too old.

It’s worth remembering that there may not have ever been a more bountiful time for right fielders than the National League in those early ’60s. There were as many great ones as there were great British rock bands. Callison’s contemporaries were not only Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente — all first-ballot Hall of Famers — but Felipe Alou, a young Rusty Staub and Frank Howard.

And from 1962-65 Callison was about as good as any of them; even the modern metrics say so. Over that four-year period he hit 112 home runs and 47 triples — 28 homers and nearly 12 triples per year — and had 90 outfield assists, 22.5 per season. By comparison, the great Clemente, whose arm was as important to his definition as the Mellons were to Pittsburgh’s, had 59 assists.

Do something as well as Clemente and you’re a great player. Do something better, and it should be remembered.

Callison’s WAR over those four years, according to baseballreference.com was 26.3. Not as good as Aaron’s 31.9, but better than Clemente’s 23.4 and equal to Robinson’s 26.3.

Of course, those four years were only typical of the other three’s long careers. For Callison, it was the top of the bar chart, or more than two-thirds the value of his 38.5 career total.

There were no sabermetrics in 1964, and if there were they would have been beyond an 8-year-old’s understanding. I mastered the magic number that summer, if only to figure out that the Phillies might clinch on Sunday, Sept. 27, the game we had tickets for.

But then the magic number stopped lowering and became the tragic number, and Sept. 27 became the seventh of 10 losses (to me, the sixth really stung, because the Phillies took a lead into the ninth, but all 10 were against teams that finished a combined 60 games above .500). Callison hit three home runs in No. 7, about half as many as the Phillies needed. Jim Bunning started on two days rest and the Phillies were behind 12-3 when Callison hit the first homer, 14-4 when he hit the second, 14-6 when he hit the third in the bottom of the ninth.

I think by then we were walking to the car, and knew only by the roar of the crowd, what little of it remained. Like the Phillies’ lead in the pennant race, it wasn’t much.

I won’t watch much of tonight’s All-Star Game — there are too many players, the stats don’t count, it’s not as important. The drama is false. But I might just watch 1964’s final pitch one more time.

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2 Responses to On Johnny Callison and the summer of ’64

  1. Dudley says:

    A great posting, a great memory on the most popular player in Philly and on our childhood. I am happy to learn that he remand friends with Dick Allen. “Ritchie” was my favorite player as it was my first year following baseball and I had his card from the back of the alphabets box. I was at that age able to recognize that he was the best player on the team (better even than Johnny) even though most of the locals hated him. Johnny was my second favorite, and I don’t remember quite how Bunning and Short and Mahaffey and Taylor ranked in the order of the gods at that time. Bobby Wine was below the Triandos and the other catcher, who was below the slugging slow dark hued left fielder. I would recognize all the names of the rest of the team but can’t recall them this late when just home from work. The centerfielder I do not recall at all. My abilities to evaluate baseball talent have declined since then, but thankfully the racism expressed to Dick Allen has also declined. (I was to young to be aware that color was an issue.)
    1964 Phillies, we loved you.

    • Dudley:

      Your memory may slip a bit — the oft-married Clay Dalrymple was the other catcher, Tony Gonzalez the centerfielder and Wes Covington, who held the bat horizontal to his shoulders, the “slow dark-hued left fielder.” WAR backs you up on Richie Allen — his was 8.83 in ’64 to Callison’s 6.12. Allen was third in the NL that year behind only Ron Santo and Willie Mays (who was more than 11).

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