Former pro's mom was in a league of her own

Casey Candaele and his mother, Helen Callaghan, shared a unique bond

May 8th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

She was born to hit. Called "a little bundle of dynamite," "a polished performer," and the "feminine Ted Williams," Helen Callaghan was a bonafide star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from the minute she left her home in Vancouver for a tryout at the age of 16.

In her five-season career, she won a batting title, stole more than 100 bases twice -- getting called the best basestealer this side of Shirley Jameson (who stole 126 in 1943) -- and proved to be one of the most competitive players to ever step on the ballfield.

She instilled those qualities in her youngest son, Casey Candaele, who went on to be a big leaguer for the Expos, Astros and with Cleveland, before becoming the new manager of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons this season.

While there are dozens of Major Leaguers whose fathers also played -- the Griffeys, the Bonds, the Boones, the Guerreros, the list goes on and on -- Helen and Casey are believed to be the only mother-son professional duo.

"She let me find my own way," Candaele said of his late mother in a recent phone call. "She was more of the mental part -- how to deal with a slump, how to approach the game, how to be a good teammate and how to play the game the proper way. She used to tell me that you can't have a bad day hustling. You can go 0-for-4, make a couple of errors, but if you played the game hard, then you'd still be proud of yourself because those kinds of things happen."

While it was her aggressiveness that she passed down to Candaele, he wishes he had her talent, too. He once told MLB.com's Alyson Footer that he got his baseball talents from his dad. "If I got it from my mom," Candaele said, "I'd be in the Hall of Fame."

But it wasn't just his mother. Helen's sister, and Casey's aunt, Marge, was also a professional. The two starred together with the Minneapolis Millerettes in '44 before they both moved on to the Fort Wayne Daisies the following season. Helen took the outfield, and Marge took over in the infield, usually playing second. While Marge didn't have her sister's bat, she had her legs, swiping 80 bags in '46.

“My reflexes were faster than hers,” Marge said, “and I got started faster, but she always beat me. She finished faster by about a step.”

The two were also alike with their intense personalities and desire to succeed in difficult circumstances. Not only were they young and away from home for their first time and expected to be professional ballplayers -- Marge had to get special permission to leave her wartime post with Boeing to join the league -- but they had to take charm school lessons as well.

"We were supposed to play like men and look like women," Helen told People Magazine. “That was as important to us as our playing. And we weren’t supposed to drink or smoke in public since we were supposed to be ladies at all times.”

Callaghan also had one of the most terrifying injuries possible. In 1948, when she hit just .191 -- the lowest in her career -- she missed the second half of the season after suffering a ruptured tubal pregnancy and needed emergency surgery. And then the next season? After being traded to the Kenosha Comets, she brought her newborn son along for the journey.

Casey finds inspiration in knowing how many difficulties his mother and aunt had to endure just to get on the field.

"I'm sure it wasn't as nice as Major League Baseball is, so they had stuff to overcome and deal with just for the love of the game and to be able to play something that they truly enjoyed in a time where women weren't doing those kinds of things," he said.

The Kenosha News reporting on the Callaghan sisters. Nov. 12, 1948 (via Newspapers.com)

Perhaps most shocking of all was how little Candaele knew of his mom's professional baseball career growing up. The house wasn't stocked with photographs and mementos. She didn't start every day talking about how it was big news when she first joined the league, nor did she share endless stories about winning the 1945 batting title with a torrid hot streak to up her average to .299. To Candaele, she was his mother -- one who just happened to be incredibly good at playing baseball.

"She would just take me out and throw BP and hit ground balls and let me play on my own and give tips here or there, what to do," Candaele said. "She was not pushy about it. I thought everybody's mom was out doing that same thing. But you know, I didn't realize until later how unique it was and how cool it was to have her be able to help me in that area."

One way he learned she was different? She was barred from playing Little League with him.

"There was a mother-son game in Little League one time," Candaele said. "They asked her not to play anymore because she was a little scary for the Little Leaguers to catch the ball as she was hitting it.

"She was a tremendously tough competitor," he added with a laugh. "When she was competing, it was like, 'Hey, this is what it's about.' It was easy to see once she started throwing and hitting and running and doing those things. To see she's very athletic and knew what she was doing on a baseball field."

When Helen Callaghan first took over the lead for the batting title. From the Aug. 25, 1944 issue of the Kenosha News. (via Newspapers.com)

Her competitive streak was legendary. Before she was a pro baseball player, she was also a noted basketball player in Vancouver and once had to be carried off the court after receiving a crack to the head. That didn't stop her.

Nor did the playing conditions in the AAGPBL.

“Fun times, but we played tough, even when we were hurt," Helen said. “After a doubleheader, we’d shower, get dressed, travel all night on the bus, get to our hotel at 8 or 9 in the morning, shower, play two games of baseball in 110 degrees of heat, then do it all over again the next day.”

And just because she wasn't constantly calling her son up to fiddle with his mechanics doesn't mean she wasn't paying attention. Callaghan famously used the heaviest bat in the league, wielding one that weighed a whopping 36 ounces.

Meanwhile, Candaele's bat paled in comparison -- and she made sure he knew. While he was a rookie in Montreal, she went and picked up his bat.

"Oh, this is a twig," she said. "This isn't big enough."

Remembering the story now, Candaele laughs. "Damn, mom," he said, "you're making me feel bad."

Candaele dives for a ball as a member of the Expos.

It wasn't until Candaele's brother, Kelly, made the PBS documentary "A League of Their Own" with Kim Wilson -- later inspiring the film of the same name -- that the family began to really hear about her pro baseball career.

"She felt that her baseball career was something that she had done in the past, and now the most important thing to her was taking care of her kids and making sure that they got the opportunities that she felt they deserved in life. And that was what she was about," Candaele said.

That changed once the documentary came out.

"And then she started saying, 'Oh, yeah, well,' and she would tell stories, and it's like, 'Jeez, took you long enough!'" Candaele said. "She was very humble and she taught that to her children. I look at it and go, 'Man, that is incredible.'"

Casey knows that it's thanks to her that he carved out a nine-year Major League career.

That started when he was a child and his older brothers would be outside playing football. After getting walloped by one of them, Casey would come back inside, where his mother -- who was otherwise kind, caring and compassionate -- made it clear that Casey had a choice.

"Get the hell back out there if you want to play," she said, "or else you can just sit in here and cry. Do whatever you want, but you need to get out there."

"My mom taught me don't let anybody outwork you," Casey said. "There were numerous times throughout my career where there were players that were better than me and more talented than me, but maybe didn't work as hard. I surpassed them and got an opportunity to play in the big leagues. I say a lot that if players that had all that talent would have played as hard as I did, I might not have gotten an opportunity to play in the big leagues. So, for me, it was what drove me and what I felt was a big part of my success."

It's those lessons that he hopes to share with the players that he now manages for the Bisons, his mother's drive and hustle getting passed down to a new generation of players.

"She taught me perseverance and a passion for the game," Candaele said. "The talent is either going to be there or not, but you can continue to work hard and get better. The mental part and how you go about your business is the most important part to me."

"Leader of the All-America Girls' Baseball league in batting and total advanced bases," the caption reads, "Helen Callaghan of the Fort Wayne Daisies is displaying her power at the plate." The Shreveport Times - May 12, 1946 (via Newspapers.com)

In the end, it's not the baseball stories or the life lessons that he remembers most from his mom, who passed away in 1992, shortly before the movie that was loosely based on her and her sister's life was released. It's the memories of sitting and talking with her, sharing stories and laughing and enjoying each other's company.

"Just sitting there talking to her about how proud she was of, not necessarily being a big league professional ballplayer, but how proud she was of the person that I was becoming as an adult," Candaele said of his most cherished memory. "When she was going through some tough times and talking to me -- just being able to share that with her and how much love she had for myself and her other children. Just knowing that she was happy that her kids were doing well. That was one of the best things that we've ever shared together."