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Mike London column: Remembering Catawba star Benny Callahan

Benny Callahan’s last day on the mound for Catawba — April 30, 1980 — was his most memorable.

Catawba was in Raleigh to play two seven-inning games at St. Augustine’s and needed a sweep to keep alive slim hopes of qualifying for the district playoffs.

Callahan pitched a complete-game four-hitter, but errors made him a hard-luck 2-1 loser in the opener.

Catawba’s season was essentially over, but the big right-hander wasn’t willing to go out like that. He went to coach Steve Shaughnessy and volunteered to pitch the second game as well.

Shaughnessy consented, and Callahan delivered. He threw the first no-hitter by a Catawba pitcher in 38 years.

In 14 ironman innings that day, he struck out 18 batters.

“Benny was a phenomenal athlete, and he could do things that would just blow you away,” said former teammate Skip Kraft. “Benny was a joker off the field, but once he crossed the chalk he was serious, just an unbelievably fierce competitor.”

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Callahan’s recent death at age 49 stunned former baseball and basketball teammates.

At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, in his prime, he was the indestructible golden boy, the hub of every game, the good-natured life of every party.

The son of a bail bondsman, Callahan starred at Surry Central in Dobson and signed with UNC Pembroke.

He didn’t like it at Pembroke, but he found a home when he transferred to Catawba. The country boy brought his shotgun and a 150-pound dog named “Lonesome,” to his dorm room, and Catawba was never quite the same.

“Benny was larger than life, he was outgoing, and he just knew everybody,” said Catawba basketball coach Jim Baker, who played with Callahan. “Benny brightened every room he ever walked into. Things were a lot more relaxed then, and he sort of turned our dorm into ‘Animal House.’

“Those were the best of times.”

Callahan’s arrival was timely for Catawba coach Sam Moir’s basketball program. Moir was facing the 1976-77 campaign without star Herman Miles, who had been felled by a knee injury.

Callahan’s offense was ahead of his defense, but he was a terrific shooter and could score from anywhere on anybody. Moir used him as an instant-offense power forward off the bench his first year.

Callahan’s career started bumpily — five points in his debut against Earlham (Ind.) — but he became a factor after he scored 19 in a hurry to help knock off Pfeiffer 76-70 at Merner Gym in December.

In mid-January, Callahan was a catalyst in one of Catawba’s greatest victories at Goodman Gym. Down 16 points to Gardner-Webb, the No. 1 NAIA team in the nation, the Indians rallied to win 108-107 in overtime. Eric Harris scored 29 points. Callahan had 20, including a three-point play that ignited the comeback and the free throws that sealed the game.

Callahan averaged 7.6 points for a championship team his sophomore year, and he was a dominant scorer his last two seasons — averaging 20.8 points as a junior, 22.2 as a senior. When he wasn’t hitting 20-footers, Callahan was cracking up teammates by breaking backboards in practicce or instigating snowball fights.

Callahan opened his senior season with a 36-point, 15-rebound outing in a 109-105 victory over Limestone. That season was capped by 26 points and 12 rebounds in a loss to High Point at Goodman Gym in his final college game.

Callahan shot 53 percent from the field in three seasons and 80-plus at the foul line. He scored 1,352 points.

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Callahan headed to the baseball diamond after basketball ended each spring.

In his Catawba baseball debut in 1977, he beat Concord 9-1, striking out 13 batters.

When he wasn’t pitching, he was in the lineup as the designated hitter, the left fielder or the first baseman. He hit 23 homers in four seasons, most of them as a senior in 1980.

On opening day of the 1980 season, Callahan led the Indians to a doubleheader sweep of Elon, hurling a gem and hitting a homer in each game.

UNC-Pembroke had a one-run lead over Catawba in the Carolinas Conference tournament but made the mistake of throwing Callahan a high fastball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. He hit a two-run homer for a 6-5 Catawba victory, a blast that also made him the winning pitcher.

Then there was that doubleheader at St. Aug’s, which cemented Callahan’s place among Catawba’s legends.

“Benny owned the plate when he pitched,” Kraft said. “And he could hit. The trees at Newman Park were smaller then, but he hit so many towering shots over them.”

The New York Yankees drafted Callahan in the 31st round in 1980, and his future was bright after a dominant 1981 season in Class A ball.

Callahan had 13 wins, threw six complete games and struck out 120 batters for Southern League pennant-winner Nashville in 1982. He married his Catawba sweetheart, Robin Benson, the daughter of former big-leaguer Vern Benson, that summer.

Callahan, who was throwing 93-94 miles per hour and owned a nasty slider, was placed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster for 1983.

He was assigned to Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) after Spring Training but was called upon to pitch the Mayor’s Trophy Game against the Mets at Shea Stadium in April. When he pitched six strong innings to beat the Mets, Yankee Stadium didn’t appear very far away at all.

Instead, Callahan and fellow prospect Marshall Brant were traded to the Oakland Athletics for veteran pitcher Matt Keough in mid-June.

Callahan was in the majors shortly after the trade. He pitched for the A’s in Kansas City against the Royals on June 22, entering the game in the 11th inning. He was charged with the loss in the 12th.

Callahan’s first start came on June 27 and was a resounding success. He handcuffed a Royals lineup missing George Brett and still had a shutout when he was relieved in the seventh.

The losing pitcher that night was all-star Larry Gura, but that would be Callahan’s first — and last — major-league victory.

Callahan was knocked out in the second inning by Texas in his next start, with Mickey Rivers and Buddy Bell doing the damage.

Two days later, Callahan made his fourth and last big-league appearance, struggling against the Rangers in a mop-up role.

After that, he was back in the minors. He had success in 1983 and 1984, but arm trouble wrecked his opportunities to return to the big leagues.

Callahan’s personality made him successful in business after his playing days, and he was a devoted family man, raising two children.

He was elected to Catawba’s Hall of Fame in 1994 and is remembered for his vibrant personality and the rare talent that allowed him to play two sports at a Hall of Fame level.

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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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