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Mudville: July 23, 2024 1:31 am PDT

Jack Cullen

"Man, if he didn’t get hurt on that drain. "

There’s a pretty impressive list of people who can claim Belleville, New Jersey as their home.

In the world of music, heavy hitters like Connie Francis, Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s and lead singer Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance hail from the Newark suburb.

Joe Pesci is from Belleville, and if you’re familiar with the township, that’s no surprise. Neither is the fact that Belleville was the setting and filming location of many scenes in The Sopranos.

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, Lonnie Bunch, MLB umpire Phil Cuzzi, WWE superstar Kacy Catanzaro and David Grant, defensive lineman on the 1988 Super Bowl Bengals all hail from Belleville too.

Hell, even BallNine Editor-in-Chief Chris Vitali, Willie Randolph Hearst himself, grew up on its tree-lined streets.

Not bad for a Newark suburb of 35,000 people.

Despite the fame that has come from the Essex County town, only one person has ever graduated from Belleville High School and gone on to play Major League Baseball.

That man is Jack Cullen, who pitched for the Yankees in the 1960s, and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

The street where Cullen grew up, White Oak Terrace, is located just 11 miles from Yankee Stadium in North Jersey. To many kids who grew up in the 1950s, the Yankees were the only game in town and Mickey Mantle was everyone’s hero..

Cullen was no different in that sense. The difference lies in the fact that after a stellar prep career and a few seasons in the minors, Cullen found himself on the mound at Yankee Stadium pitching with Mantle behind him as a teammate

Cullen debuted with the Yankees 60 years ago this year as a September callup to a Yankees team that was in a dogfight with the Minnesota Twins for the American League title. He debuted against the Red Sox and one of the first batters he faced in the Majors was fellow youngster Carl Yastrzemski, who, like Cullen, was just 22 years old at the time.

The 1962 Yankees went on to win the World Series, although Cullen wasn’t on the postseason roster.

The righty retired in 1966, right around the time he moved from his home on White Oak Terrace in Belleville to neighboring Nutley. Nutley is the home of Martha Stewart, Annie Oakley and recent March Madness star Doug Edert of Saint Peter’s, but that’s a story for a different day.

For now, let’s find out how a kid from New Jersey grew up to play ball with his heroes Mickey, Yogi and Whitey as we go Spitballin’ with Jack Cullen.

” If Ralph Houk used a rookie and something happened, that wouldn’t have been good.”

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Cullen It’s an honor to talk with you. I like to start these interviews out by asking what baseball was like for you as a kid. Can you take us back to your childhood growing up in Belleville, NJ?

I was reading an article in the Belleville Times one day that they were going to have Little League tryouts at Clearman Field. I had an older brother named Tom who passed away years ago. He was better than I was. Bigger, stronger and faster, but he didn’t take the game to heart. My mother told us to go tryout; anything to get us out of the house. We rode our bikes to the field and there was a couple hundred kids there. There were only four teams in the league. They tried everyone out and rated everyone. My brother was the fourth pick by a team called the Demons and I was that team’s second pick. When he pitched, I played short and when I pitched, he played short. We won that division and had a dominating team.

They say I am the only one to make it to the Big Leagues from Belleville which is true, but not 100% true. There was a kid on the Clippers I played against that year named Charles Nash. He was ten years old like me and tall with silvery-blonde curly hair. They nicknamed him Cotton. His father moved to the Midwest and Charles Nash became Cotton Nash. If you look him up, he played in the NBA for the Lakers and in the Major Leagues for the White Sox and Twins. So each of the four teams in the Little League had 13 kids, that’s 52 kids total. To have two of those kids from that one Little League season make the Majors is pretty good.

Absolutely. And with just 20 teams back then, that’s a lot less Big League spots than today. What team did you root for as a kid?

Well my brother Tommy was a big Dodgers fan and I was a Yankee fan. We had one 10 inch Philco black and white TV and the Giants were on a lot too. We used to argue who was going to watch what team. My mother said, “I’ll solve this. You watch one inning of the Yankees, then switch it over so Tom could watch one inning of the Dodgers.” My brother complained because the Yankees would be up for a half hour and the Dodgers would always go down one-two-three! My mother said that she would just shut the TV off instead and we’d watch nothing. So we had to compromise and work it out.

What was your experience like playing sports at Belleville High School?

I played basketball and my coach was John Westlake for my senior year. Jitty Wische was my coach before that. He was there a long time and really a well-known coach. I played baseball of course too for Ed Berlinsky at Belleville, I remember my last game that I pitched. Berlinsky, would save me for our conference games in the Big 10, but because of rain, I got to pitch in a playoff game against Montclair. They were 17-0 and a very good team. We had them beat about 6-0 and I threw an inside pitch that a guy hit for a little nubber down the first base line. I ran over and grabbed it but when I went for the tag, the heel of his left foot came up and hit me on the nose. I finished the inning, but couldn’t go out the next inning because my nose swelled up so bad and I couldn’t see the signs. My dad took me to the doctor and they sent me to the hospital because my nose was broken so bad. All the guys from the team came in after the game and I said, “Did we win? Did we win?” They told me that we lost. Other guys came in after me and gave it up. I had really good stuff that day and we would have won. I take that from my high school career.

How did you make the jump from Belleville High to the New York Yankees?

My senior year we were playing against Irvington and I struck out five guys in one inning. I threw some curve balls that the catcher missed between his legs. There was a birddog scout there and I got invited to a tryout at Yankee Stadium. This was a few weeks after I graduated and there were about 200 kids there. They were gonna form a Yankee youth team of high school kids from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. I did well there and pitched two or three games on that team for them and did really well. Myself and Gene Domzalski signed with the Yankees. Two scouts came to our house and offered me a contract and gave me a choice. They said I could go to Albany, New York or St. Petersburg, Florida. I said, “That’s no choice, I’m going to St. Pete!” I played there in 1959 and on that team we had Horace Clarke, who of course made it to the Yankees. We also had these two guys on our team. They were the sons of Charlie Keller, who was great for the Yankees in the 1940s. They were fair players, but not Major Leaguers.

You mentioned being a Yankees fan as a kid. I am sure you had to love Mickey Mantle. What was it like to grow up and become his teammate?

It was a dream come true. Mickey Mantle was a great guy and he liked to kid around. He won the Triple Crown in ’56. Man, if he didn’t get hurt on that drain. He could run like a deer and he could really throw. I remember one time in Detroit they had a lefty pitcher named Hank Aguirre scheduled to go against us. We had a lefty batting practice pitcher named Spud Murray. He laid these pitches in for Mantle and he hit seven in a row on the roof or over the roof at Tigers Stadium batting righty. I was in the outfield shagging fly balls. You couldn’t believe the crack of his bat. The next guy got up and you could hear a difference. He was so strong it was unbelievable.

You were in the same rotation as Whitey Ford too. What was that like?

Whitey Ford was a great guy too. I pitched a 1-0 game in 1965 against Baltimore. I remember going into the clubhouse and Whitey Ford said, “Hey, we’ve been looking for a shutout pitcher all these years and we finally found one.” Whitey was such a nice guy. He and I were about the same size. He even gave me some of his shoes because he had a contract for sporting goods with Rawlings.

That’s great to hear the guys you rooted for as a kid were really nice to you when you got up to the Majors. Were there others who helped you out?

Elston Howard was also good. I remember my first year before my first game, we went over the batters. He’d say, “Frank Robinson, don’t hang one on him or he’ll lose it on you!” After the meeting which took about 20 minutes he said to me, “Jack, tomorrow your name will be in the box score with either a W or an L. If there’s a time in the game when you want to shake me off, don’t be afraid to do it because it’s your game.” What a great guy. He was the MVP in 1963. In the minors, sometimes you’d shake a catcher off and they got upset. Here’s Elston Howard, an MVP, telling me it was ok to do that. What a nice guy. He would have made a great manager. He knew the game and nobody was gonna mess with him. He even got between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in the dugout.

I played three years in the Majors. In 1962 they were fighting for the pennant when I got called up. One of the games I pitched I closed out Ralph Terry’s 23rd win with a save. He was a really nice guy. I pitched another inning against Washington too, but they couldn’t really use me because they were in a close race. If Ralph Houk used a rookie and something happened, that wouldn’t have been good.

The year before you got called up was the great home run chase in 1961. You were in AA at the time. Were you able to follow Mantle and Maris that summer or were you too focused on your own season?

I was in Amarillo, Texas in ’61 in the Texas League. I don’t know if you know where Amarillo is, but it’s right on the Texas and Oklahoma border and it was the hottest place I ever played. We played all night games. We’d get on the bus in Amarillo, drive for an hour then stop to eat then drive all day. We would play in Brownsville which was 750 miles from Amarillo. We’d get off the bus at 6:00 and the game would be at 7:00. We’d get off the bus and it would be 100 degrees and we’d play the game. I followed along with the home run race a little bit, but not really. I was pulling for Mantle. He had been there all those years and Maris was relatively new.

Anytime I interview a former Yankee from your era, I like to just throw out the names of some Yankee legends to see what your thoughts are on them. Let’s start with Joe DiMaggio. During your time with the Yankees did you ever get to meet him?

One year when I was at Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Joe DiMaggio was down there as an instructor. I was right on the side in the locker next to him. Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse guy, used to bring him coffee. I was too scared to say anything to him though. He was a little aloof and always stood back. He wasn’t friendly like Mantle. He was a super-superstar, but a different personality. Not that he would have done anything to me, but I was just too afraid to talk to him. I was only 21 or 22 at the time.

What about Billy Martin? Did your path ever cross with him?

I never had any dealings with or played for Billy but he was at Denver in AAA when I was down in Spokane. It would have been tough playing for him because he was so demanding, but he got the most out of everybody. Every place he managed, he turned those clubs around, but I think he was a hard guy to play for.

How about Phil Rizzuto?

Phil was a really nice guy. My senior year at [Belleville High] we had a banquet in Kearny and Phil Rizzuto was the guest speaker. I had the chance to talk to him then. I remember one time during the season I was up in the booth with him. I must have been on the disabled list and he was announcing. He made a call and mentioned a wrong name. I told him it was another guy and he thanked me. He lived in Hillside, New Jersey and in those days when he played, he had to work at the Men’s Shop down in Newark in the offseason. He and Gene Hermanski worked there. They didn’t make the money they do today. Thank God for Marvin Miller, he was the difference in the players getting the money they do now. When I played, I made $7,000 my first year. I won 17 games and went and asked for a raise to $10,000. Ralph Houk was the GM and he didn’t take too kind to that. When I played, you needed five years to get a pension and I only got to four.

I wanted to ask about your pension situation. You’re in a group of about 500 living former Major Leaguers who weren’t grandfathered in to the MLB pension after the labor dispute of 1980. I know it’s a complex situation, but you were able to get a little stipend, even though the MLBPA now refuses to talk to your group or consider putting you in the MLB pension system. With the billions of dollars that passes through the sport, what are your thoughts that the MLBPA won’t go to bat for you guys?

We get a little check every year for our playing time, but we’re not in the pension system. With the recent lockout, we heard that we might not be getting those payments anymore. But I called [the MLBPA] and they told me we’re going to get the money we had always got plus a 15% increase for the next five years. It’s not a lot of money, but when you talk about the cost of living now, everything helps.

It’s been amazing to talk to you, Mr. Cullen. Thank you so much for your time. One last question for you. This year is going to be the 60th anniversary of the 1962 World Champion Yankees, which was also the year you made your debut. Looking back 60 years later, do you have any final reflections on your Major League career that you can leave our readers with?

Sometimes I reflect a little bit. I really enjoyed my career in baseball. I played ten years between the Majors and minors and got to meet a lot of great people. I saw the whole country travelling to so many towns. Out in the Pacific Coast League we went to Hawaii, Canada and Mexico and I would have never had that chance if I didn’t play baseball. I have no regrets that I spent the first ten years of my adult life playing baseball. I miss the competition though. Still do.  

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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