It is fitting, in this 50th anniversary year of his time of glory, to pen these poor words in memory of the can’t-catch-a-break major league baseball right fielder Johnny Callison, who once resided in my fair city of Glenside, Pa. Never heard of him, you say. See what I mean?
But there was a time, a brief hour, when he might have become a household word, a contender. At the 1964 All-Star game at New York’s Shea Stadium, Callison hit a game-ending home run off Dick “The Monster” Radatz (nobody hit off Radatz). The only other players to hit game-ending home runs in the All-Star game were superstars Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
It looked like a beeline to fame later that season when Callison’s Philadelphia Phillies were up six-and-a-half games over the St. Louis Cardinals with just 12 games to play in the National League pennant race. There was no way they could lose. But lose they did, dropping 10 games in a row and finishing one game behind the Cards. Callison played well down the stretch, despite a bout with the flu. Earlier that season, he seemed destined to win the league’s MVP award, but he lost that, too, finishing second to the Cardinals’ Ken Boyer.
Callison never seemed to recover his footing after that, trolling along under the 20-home-run mark in his last few seasons in Philadelphia, and being bumped to the Chicago Cubs in 1969 and finally to the New York Yankees in 1972. Bad health, injuries, and back and leg problems kept him from having a Hall of Fame résumé, and misfortune fed doubt and worry, to the further detriment of his performance.
In the 1980s Callison had half his stomach surgically removed, suffered a heart attack, and underwent bypass surgery. In the ’90s he developed an aortic aneurism, and in the 2000s, cancer. He died in 2006 up the road a piece in Abington, Pa.
And in a sense, to know Johnny Callison’s life at a glance is to know every man’s life:
“A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).