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Mudville: April 20, 2024 9:54 am PDT

A Baseball Enigma

Ask any knowledgeable baseball fan to name the switch hitter who holds the record for highest career on base percentage or OBP, and they will immediately answer Mickey Mantle. Ask them who is second among switch hitters and you will probably get the names of a confused collection of Hall of Famers: Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones, Tim Raines or perhaps from an older fan, Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash.

All wrong. Number two behind “The Mick” is a name that only the most dedicated of baseball aficionados might know: Roy Cullenbine. Even more surprising is how close Cullenbine’s OBP is to Mantle: .421 to .408.

So, who was this ‘baseball enigma,’ this lifetime .270 hitter, run of the mill outfielder-first baseman who achieved a baseball level that sabermetric experts regard as one of the keys to offensive success?  I call him an “enigma” because those who saw him play say he combined great instinctive baseball skills with a lackadaisical approach, a willingness to accept mediocrity that outraged his managers, sportswriters and fans alike.

My interest in Cullenbine began when in 1946 as a 10-year-old I was taken to a Philadelphia Athletics-Detroit Tigers game by my baseball crazed uncle because his idol Hal Newhouser was scheduled to pitch. I don’t remember much of the game other than the A’s won, 2-1 and Newhouser threw his glove into the dugout because Hank Greenberg had failed to come up with slow grounder to right field that drove in the winning run. What fascinated me, already on my way to a love affair with baseball, was an outfielder I had never heard of: Roy Cullenbine.

A portrait of Roy J. Cullenbine of the Detroit Tigers in 1939. (Photo by Sporting News and Rogers Photo Archive via Getty Images)

In his first time up Cullenbine batted lefthanded. The next time because there was a new pitcher, he hit righthanded. I had never seen that before and asked my uncle what he was doing. “He’s a switch hitter and can hit from either side of the plate,” he answered. I was stunned. I was right-handed and didn’t know you could bat both ways. Jolted by something as simple as that, I began to follow Cullenbine’s career along with some of my other baseball idols at the time: Joe DiMaggio, Del Ennis (he was from my neighborhood) and Elmer Valo, the A’s right fielder with a propensity to crash into walls.

Cullenbine had a good year in 1946, hitting well over .300 and the next season while dropping sharply in batting average he hit 24 homers, enough for 4th place among home run hitters and four more than DiMaggio. His home run percentage that season was third behind Ted Williams and Jeff Heath.

Imagine my surprise when in December he was signed by my favorite team – the Phillies – to play the outfield for them. Since my Uncle and I went to about 35 games a season now I would be able to see Cullenbine play or follow him on the radio and in the papers all the time. I don’t remember much of what happened to him in spring training because I was enthralled by what a tow-headed rookie named Richie Ashburn did that spring, hitting close to .500 and winning the centerfield job from the 1947 batting champ, Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker. Just before the season began, I picked up the Philadelphia Bulletin, my favorite source for baseball information, and read that the Phillies had released Roy Cullenbine. He was just 33 and would never play another game of baseball again. I never forgot him the way you never forget your first puppy love.

Roy Cullenbine was born in Nashville, Tennessee on October 18, 1913. The family moved to Detroit where his father worked for several businesses. His mother who had been a dancer in Vaudeville had also been a member of a girls’ softball team. By his teenage years, the 6’ 1” Cullenbine showed considerable athletic talent. He claimed he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.4 seconds and could throw a football 60 yards. He played on former Tiger star Harry Heilmann’s talented local baseball team and made a name for himself on Detroit’s sandlots. In 1930 as a way of keeping an eye on him, the sixteen-year-old Cullenbine served as bat boy for his hometown Tigers. Legendary Tiger scout Wish Egan signed him to a minor league contract in 1932.

“There would be a place for Cullenbine in today’s game. With his ability to walk along with his power and speed he would make a perfect number two hitter.”

Cullenbine progressed slowly up the Tiger minor league chain: Shreveport, Greenwood, Fort Worth, Springfield in the Three I League where after hitting .338 he was promoted to Beaumont of the Texas League. There he demonstrated to the Tigers that he had a future in the majors hitting .284, scoring 86 runs while accumulating 35 doubles, nine triples and nine home runs. He also stole 19 bases. In 1937, the Tigers promoted him to their top minor league club the Toledo Mud Hens where he caught the attention of manager Fred Haney as a player with major league skills. Throughout his minor league career Cullenbine showed his versatility alternating between the outfield and first base. He even played a handful of games at 3rd base for Haney.

Cullenbine got his first taste of the majors toward the end of the 1938 season. In 25 games he hit .284 and showed considerable speed by hitting three triples. He came to the majors for good in 1939 where he played in half of the Tigers games hitting just .240 – but 17 of his 43 hits were for extra bases. It looked like the 25-year-old was ready to take his place on a Tiger team that was challenging the New York Yankees for dominance in the American League. Then Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Commissioner of Baseball, stepped in. He accused the Tigers of what he called “chain store baseball” saying that they had mishandled the contracts of players in their minor league system and freed 91 of them.

Cullenbine found himself in an enviable situation. He had a solid minor league record, proved he could play in the majors and was a versatile switch hitter. The only other players freed by Landis with comparable potential was infielder Benny McCoy – whose trade to the A’s by the Tigers was cancelled. The bidding for the services of Cullenbine and McCoy was intense. Cullenbine hit the jackpot, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a bonus of $25,000, the equivalent of $375,000 in today’s money. Larry MacPhail, in the process of turning the Dodgers into a topflight squad. said that he was willing to go high to get Cullenbine because among other things, Fred Haney had spoken highly of him. Haney is a smart baseball man MacPhail said. “If he thinks the boy is that good, it’s good enough for me.”

A portrait of Roy J. Cullenbine of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940. (Photo by Sporting News and Rogers Photo Archive via Getty Images)

Cullenbine used his bonus money wisely. He told a writer that “Uncle Sam took $5000. I bought U.S. bonds with $10,000 and put the remainder into a house.”

Dodger manager Leo Durocher also was thrilled to get him, saying he had seen both McCoy and Cullenbine play and preferred the latter. “If you’ll notice, six of his 43 hits were home runs, and three were hit off Bob Feller. I believe Roy has a touch of Pepper Martin. He’s always giving his all and, given a steady job, I believe he can be a star.” Not for the first time was someone, in this case a two keen judges of baseball skills like MacPhail and Durocher, let down by Cullenbine.

After an undistinguished 22 games with the Dodgers where he hit .180  with just two extra base hits, Cullenbine – nicknamed MacPhail’s $25,000 Lemon – by the Brooklyn press was sold to the St. Louis Browns then managed by Haney who had given him such an endorsement in the past.

Cullenbine immediately picked up his level of play with the Browns, hitting 11 doubles, 2 triples and 7 homers. Despite a combined .220 batting average Cullenbine managed to draw 73 walks in just over 100 games, the first sign of a keen batting eye that would characterize his career.

After the season, Haney had a fatherly talk with him, telling him that he had gotten too fat and developed an inferiority complex because he flopped while playing in Brooklyn. “You can be a great ball player, or you can be a bum,” Haney told Cullenbine, warning him that if he didn’t pick up his level of play, he would soon be out of baseball.

Haney’s talk must have had an effect. Cullenbine took off 15 pounds during the winter and had one of the best seasons of his career in 1941. While the Browns only finished in 6th place, it wasn’t because of Cullebine. He hit .317, drove in 98 runs and made the All-Star team. His 121 bases on balls were second to Ted Williams’ 145 walks. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy called Cullenbine the most improved player in the American League that season, a nice compliment given that Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games that season while Ted Williams topped the .400 mark.

The 1942 season established a pattern for Cullenbine. After a slow start with the Browns now led by a new manager, Luke Sewell, who took a dislike to his indifferent play—he hit just .193 for the Browns–Cullenbine was traded to the Washington Senators. Sewell was bothered by Cullenbine’s lack of aggressiveness at the plate, complaining that he wouldn’t swing and was content to wait out walks. His 92 walks that season in just 123 games would make him a valuable addition to any team today with the high value it places on base percentage.

UNDATED: 1942 Yankee outfielders Charlie Keller, Joe Dimaggio, Roy Cullenbine, Tuck Stainback and George Selkirk. (Photo by Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)

Toward the end of the 1942 campaign, Washington shipped him to the New York Yankees—Cullenbine called the trade his “escape” from Clark Griffith, a notorious tightwad– who needed a replacement for Tommy Henrich who went into the Coast Guard. With the Yankees, Cullenbine hit .364 and helped them get into the World Series against the underdog St. Louis Cardinals.

After the World Series, the Yankees unloaded Cullenbine despite his contributions. Ed Barrow, Yankee GM, told the press that manager “[Joe] McCarthy didn’t care too much for Cullenbine,” a sharp change from his compliment of Cullenbine the season before. The Yankees traded him to the Cleveland Indians in December 1942 where he played for his sixth team in five years.

Cullenbine played two seasons with the Indians batting over .280 both years. He continued his high OBP walking 96 and 87 times, good enough for third place each season.  He also showed the first signs of power hitting 16 home runs for the Indians in 1944.

Early in the 1945 season, the Tigers who had just missed out on the pennant the previous season by one game to the St. Louis Browns and who had lost their slugging outfielder Dick Wakefield to the military brought Cullenbine back in a trade with the Indians.

The Tigers edged out the Washington Senators by a game and half for the pennant in 1945 and Cullenbine played a crucial role. He hit just .272 but finished second in home runs and RBIs, third in slugging percentage and runs scored while leading the league in, you guessed it, walks. During the Tigers victory over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, Cullenbine only hit .227, barely above the Mendoza line, but in 30 trips to the plate he reached base 13 times for a .433 OBP. He also scored five runs and had four RBI which means he was involved one way or another in producing nine runs in a seven-game series.

Tiger manager Steve O’Neil was complimentary of Cullenbine’s play that season, telling the Detroit press that “he did everything for us. From hitting home runs to playing the best right field in the league. When he wasn’t winning games for us, he was saving ‘em.”

In 1946 despite a better record than in their World Series season, the Tigers finished a distant second, twelve games behind the Boston Red Sox. Cullenbine did his part, hitting .335 for the season in which he missed a number of games because of various injuries. He managed 88 walks in just over one hundred games and had an OBP of 477 as well as an OPS of 1.014.

With Hank Greenberg moving to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Tigers moved Cullenbine to first in 1947 as they had several outfielders including the young Hoot Evers and Vic Wertz plus veterans Dick Wakefield and Pat Mullin.

The Tigers finished second again, this time to a red-hot New York Yankees team that locked up the pennant with a 19-game winning streak early in the season. Cullenbine had one of his strangest seasons. He hit just .224 while finishing fourth in home runs and second to Ted Williams with 137 walks. His walk total is a Tiger record and quite a compliment to a franchise that counts Hall of Famers like the legendary Ty Cobb, Charly Gehringer, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline among its numbers. He also set a major league record still unbroken by walking in 22 consecutive games. Again, his OPS was over .400.

With their supply of talented outfielders and with a highly regarded rookie first baseman, George Vico, ready for the majors, the Tigers sold Cullenbine to the Phillies in December 1947 for a little over the $10,000 waiver price. The Phillies who were beginning to move players from their improving farm system planned to use Cullenbine at first base and the outfield. That all proved for naught as the emergence of Richie Ashburn and the trade for first basemen Dick Sisler from the Cardinals left Cullenbine without a position. The Phillies released him in April 1948 and at age 34 he retired from baseball.

Roy Cullenbine played ten seasons in the majors and put up some remarkable stats for someone who never reached the level of stardom predicted for him. There was something missing in his makeup—a certain lackadaisical quality that held him back from reaching his full potential. I asked his teammate at Detroit George Kell about Cullenbine’s reputation of not performing to the best of his abilities. Kell liked him and said that while a rookie, Cullenbine treated him with respect. Kell didn’t believe that Cullenbine was a lazy player he was just “non-chalant at times.” It was this nonchalant quality that frustrated some of his mangers along with a feeling that he didn’t take advantage of his baseball skills.

There would be a place for Cullenbine in today’s game. With his ability to walk along with his power and speed he would make a perfect number two hitter. His OPS along with his versatility would make an attractive addition to any team.

John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. His most recent book was Baseball and American Culture, Rowman and Littlefield, 2019. He is also the co-winner of the Macmillan SABR Award for best research essay in 1998 for his essay on Bill Veeck’s attempt to purchase the 1943 Phillies.

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