SABR

Dick Culler

This article was written by Hank Utley and Warren Corbett.

He is Dick Culler in the baseball encyclopedias, but at home in High Point, North Carolina, he was Broadus Culler, star athlete, schoolteacher, basketball referee, entrepreneur and civic leader.

Richard Broadus Culler was born on January 15, 1915, in High Point, a community in the state's central Piedmont region that today calls itself "the Home Furnishings Capital of the World."(1) His father, Claude, was born in nearby Pinnacle and rode a bicycle to High Point in his youth to take a job delivering ice. His mother, Della Krause, was a native of Kansas.(2)

When Broadus graduated from High Point College in 1936, he was acclaimed as the greatest athlete in the school's history. He was a star in basketball (his uniform number 9 was the first to be retired by the college), soccer (player-coach for a state championship team), and as shortstop and captain of the baseball team.

Even before graduation, Culler began playing baseball for pay in 1935 with Cooleemee in the semi-pro Carolina Textile League. The next year he joined Concord of the new Carolina League, known as an outlaw league because it was not part of organized baseball.(3)

In September 1936 the 21-year-old climbed straight from the outlaw league to the American League. Connie Mack brought him to the Philadelphia Athletics. They were a sorry last-place team, but it was still an unlikely leap.

Culler got into nine games with the Athletics, batting .237 while playing second and third bases. A sportswriter noted, "He is slight of build, but fast."(4) He was listed at 5'9" and 155 pounds.

After the season, he married his college sweetheart, Evelyn Williams, and used part of his $500 bonus from Mack to buy a second-hand Ford.(5)

The Athletics traveled to Mexico City for spring training in 1937. Shortly before opening day, Culler left the team to return home because Evelyn was sick. The Athletics released him under a unique agreement he had negotiated with Mack. Showing his characteristic independence and savvy, he had insisted on being released if he was not assigned to the major-league club or to the highest minor-league level.(6)

After his sip of big-league coffee, Culler returned to the outlaw Carolina League in 1937, rejoining manager Jim Poole at Concord. He taught math in the Concord school system after the season.

He started 1938 with Concord, but left the team in June for the bottom rung of organized baseball, the Class D Bi-State League.(7) He spent 1938 and 1939 with the Reidsville, North Carolina, Luckies. (In an early example of corporate sponsorship, the team was named after the Lucky Strike cigarettes manufactured by its owner, the American Tobacco Company.(8) ). In a league known as a "batter's paradise,"(9) he hit .330 and .347. He taught school in Reidsville between seasons.(10)

The Brooklyn Dodgers' Eastern League farm club in Elmira, New York, acquired his rights(11) and traded him to Nashville in the Southern Association, two steps below the majors. In 1940 he joined a powerhouse Nashville team that won the next two league pennants and post-season Dixie Series against the Texas League champions. The 1940 club set a league record by turning 208 double plays. Nashville manager Larry Gilbert declared, "I've seen Culler make plays this year that no shortstop in the game, big league or otherwise, could beat." But he added, ominously, "If he could hit big-league pitching, he'd be a sensation in the majors."(12) Culler batted .277 and .267 for the Vols, but showed no power. Nashville writer Joe Hatcher labeled him "Midget Dickie Culler"(13) and many other stories referred to his small size.

He gained a reputation as a "brainy" player. While on third base in an extra-inning game in Atlanta on Aug. 19, 1940, he shouted "Time! Time!" as the pitcher was winding up. The pitcher stopped--a balk--and Culler pranced home with the winning run.(14) He was so excited he called his wife to tell her about it in a time when long-distance calls were a luxury.(15)

His performance with Nashville earned a promotion to the American Association's St. Paul Saints, at the highest minor-league level, in 1942. He pulled the same "Time! Time!" trick to win a game against Columbus on June 14. The furious Columbus manager, Eddie Dyer, sprang from the bench and bashed his head on the dugout ceiling; the pitcher who was suckered, Ted Wilks, escaped to the clubhouse while his boss was staggering around in a daze.(16)

After hitting .260 with no home runs, Culler was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. In a scouting report, St. Paul Dispatch writer Gordon Gilmore called him "a fielding genius...a fleeting flash of color at shortstop" and "a pest at the plate." Gilmore noted that the White Sox may have had a different draft in mind: Culler's military draft classification was 3-A, meaning he was deferred from service because he was supporting a wife and two children.(17)

After six years in the minors, he was back in the big leagues in 1943. Now the bad news: The White Sox already had a shortstop who was a native of High Point, North Carolina--Luke Appling, who would win the American League batting title that year on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Appling's presence nullified Culler's greatest strength, his sparkling glove work at short. He played in just 53 games, mostly at second base and third, and batted only .216. At the end of the season Chicago sold him to Milwaukee of the American Association.(18) It was bad timing for the team and the player: Appling went into military service in 1944 and the Sox were stuck with journeyman Skeeter Webb, whose .211 average was even weaker than Culler's.

In Milwaukee Culler rediscovered his batting stroke against wartime minor-league pitching, posting a .309 average. Casey Stengel became the Brewers' manager in May and led the team to the pennant.(19)

In September the Boston Braves agreed to send the Brewers four players and a reported $50,000 for Culler and his double-play partner, Tommy Nelson.(20) The Braves' new owners, construction executives known as the "Three Steam Shovels," were determined to dig the club out of the lower depths of the National League standings.

By 1945 the wartime shortage of players was acute; 487 current or former major leaguers were serving in the armed forces.(21) Eighty percent of the starters on opening day 1941 were missing when the teams took the field in 1945.(22)

Now 30 years old, Culler took over as the Braves' shortstop and leadoff hitter. Fans at Boston's home opener observed a moment of silence in honor of President Roosevelt, who had died five days earlier.(23) The surrender of Nazi Germany was just three weeks away; the news told of bombing raids on Germany and Japan and of American infantrymen entering the German city of Nuremberg.(24)

This time Culler held his own in the majors. After more than 400 at-bats, dating back to 1936, he hit the first of his two big-league home runs against the Giants in the Polo Grounds on June 19. The hero of the war in Europe, General Eisenhower, was in the stands. (In a pre-game conversation with the two managers, Ike revealed "the one secret of my life": that he had played minor-league ball in the Kansas State League under the name "Wilson" in his youth.)(25)

Culler batted .262 in 1945 with a .628 OPS. He hung on to his job when most war veterans returned to baseball in 1946, hitting .255 with a .641 OPS. That year he struck out only 18 times, once in every 26 at-bats. In his two seasons as a regular, his production at the plate was about average for a National League shortstop.(26)

He began the 1947 season as the Braves' regular shortstop, playing in the historic opening game against the Dodgers when Jackie Robinson made his debut. But he sprained an ankle while chasing a popup in the season's fifth game(27) and didn't play again for nearly four weeks.(28) The Braves now had other options: Culler shared the position with war veterans Sibby Sisti and Nanny Fernandez, batting just .248 in 77 games. He landed in manager Billy Southworth's doghouse when he argued about his playing time and complained publicly, "I know I'm better than either Sibby Sisti or Nanny Fernandez."(29) After the season, he told a reporter, "I don't like riding the bench. Either I play every day or I'm quitting."(30)

Illustrating his conflict with the manager, Culler later recalled a day when Sisti committed his third error of the game and Southworth barked, "Culler, get your glove." Then Southworth realized that the Braves were trailing by only four runs and countermanded his order, saying, "Sit down, Culler. We ain't giving up yet."(31)

Culler filled in as an umpire on July 10 when two of the regular umps failed to show up in Boston for the first game of a day-night doubleheader against Cincinnati. The Reds' Bucky Walters covered first base and Culler handled third. NL President Ford Frick sent him a thank-you letter and a check as "a little token of my appreciation for the job you did."(32)

Culler was the logical man for that job. During the 1940s he kept in shape in winter, and stayed connected to what he called his favorite sport, by officiating in high school and college basketball games. He quit abruptly in February 1948, sending letters to coaches and newspaper columnists complaining about abusive fans. He had nearly come to blows with one of them.(33)

In reply to Culler's letter, North Carolina State coach Everett Case wrote that he believed the ref's work had been slipping, had noticed his "worried countenance, and had wondered if you were troubled about other matters." Case added, "I just mention the above to let you know that the coaches were concerned about you."(34)

His ragged emotions may have reflected anxiety about his baseball career. By then he knew his days as the Braves' everyday shortstop were over. The club had signed former Louisiana State University football and baseball star, and ex-Marine, Alvin Dark for a $45,000 bonus in 1946, a huge investment for that time. After one full season in the minors, Dark was touted as "a sure shot for the Braves' short field job."(35) Dark did win the job, and the Rookie of the Year award, with a .322 batting average in 1948.

Culler had taken steps to ensure his family's financial security after baseball. In 1946 he opened a sporting goods store in his hometown. In 1948 he founded the Autographed Ball Company. He had invented a technique to stamp facsimiles of players' signatures on baseballs, so team-autographed balls could be mass-produced. The company sold balls through concession stands in big-league parks and paid each player one penny per ball.(36)

With Dark on hand, the Braves traded Culler to the Cubs for another shortstop, Bobby Sturgeon, just before spring training in 1948.(37) The Boston Sunday Globe commented, "Culler was too independent to satisfy Southworth's old school demands."(38)

While the Braves charged to the 1948 pennant, Culler rode the bench in Chicago, drawing a $10,000 salary.(39) He played in only 48 games before he was shipped to the Giants' top farm club at Minneapolis in the American Association.(40)

In 1949 the Giants cut his salary to $7,500(41) and gave him a seven-game trial, but only one at-bat. He survived the May 18 cutdown, when teams had to reduce their rosters to 25. A sportswriter speculated that manager Leo Durocher might have kept the 34-year-old Culler because he was just a few days short of qualifying for baseball's new pension plan; it would pay $50 a month when he reached his fiftieth birthday.(42) Whatever Durocher's reasons, Culler played the last of his 472 big-league games a week later.(43)

He finished the 1949 season with Jersey City in the International League and was claimed by the International League Baltimore Orioles for 1950, but chose to retire.(44)

Back home, Culler continued to run his store and his souvenir business. Capitalizing on his baseball nickname, he had renamed the store "Dick Culler's Sporting Goods."(45) In 1952 the Autographed Ball Company's royalty payments to each of the World Champion Yankees, at one penny per ball sold, amounted to $46.86, while each Cincinnati player earned 12 cents.(46) The company was later headed by Dick Culler Jr.(47) and was still in business in 2004.(48)

Dick and Evelyn and their three children settled into a comfortable life as prominent citizens of High Point. He became a leader in community sports activities, organizing youth baseball and football leagues and coaching an American Legion baseball team. In 1953 he coached the local YMCA basketball team to the finals of the national "Y" tournament. They lost to a Philadelphia team led by 16-year-old Wilt Chamberlain, but Culler's defense held the 6'11" Wilt to 15 points.(49)

He served as president of the High Point Merchants' Association for three years and was named its Man of the Year in 1959. He was a member of the YMCA board and the advisory council of the North Carolina Boys' Clubs and was an associate deacon of the First Presbyterian Church. His business interests expanded to include a 210-acre dairy farm, where he enjoyed fishing in his private lake.(50)

Culler was just 49 when he died on June 16, 1964, at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill.(51) He had been ill for more than a year(52), but the cause of death was not published. He was buried in Floral Garden Memorial Park in High Point.(53)

Sources

Unless otherwise credited, minor league statistics come from The Sporting News; major league statistics come from the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.

1 High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, www.highpoint.org.
2 High Point Enterprise, July 10, 1960, p. 2D.
3 Material from Culler family scrapbooks in the Hank Utley Papers at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County, hereinafter cited as "Utley papers."
4 Sporting News, Oct. 1, 1936, p. 5.
5 Interview with Evelyn (Culler) Foster, the player's widow, Utley papers.
6 Newspaper Enterprise Association story, April 1, 1937, and other material in Utley papers.
7 Utley papers.
8 Sporting News, Nov. 17, 1938, p.2; Ibid., Dec. 21, 1939, p. 3.
9 Ibid., Dec. 31, 1937, p. 8.
10 Utley papers.
11 Notice of assignment in Utley papers.
12 Clipping from The Nashville Tennessean, Utley papers.
13 Sporting News, April 25, 1940, p. 6.
14 Reported by Fred Russell of The Nashville Banner, Aug. 20, 1940. (Utley papers.)
15 Evelyn (Culler) Foster interview.
16 Wilks told the story in an unidentified clipping in the Culler scrapbooks, Utley papers.
17 Sporting News, Nov. 12, 1942, p. 5.
18 Ibid., July 4, 1964, p. 40.
19 Robert Creamer, Stengel: His Life and Times. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), p. 198ff.
20 Sporting News, Sept. 21, 1944, p. 8; Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, Paths to Glory. (Washington: Brassey's Inc., 2003), p. 129.
21 Sporting News, Feb. 1, 1945, p. 15.
22 Ibid., April 12, 1945, p. 7.
23 New York Times, April 18, 1945, p. 27.
24 Ibid., p. 2.
25 Bob McConnell and David Vincent, eds., SABR Presents The Home Rune Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1996) p. 424; New York Times, June 20, 1945, p. 18.
26 According to the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, the average NL shortstop recorded a .638 OPS in 1945, .636 in 1946.
27 New York Times, April 20, 1947, p. 53.
28 Ibid., May 17, 1947, p. 11.
29 Unidentified clipping, Utley papers.
30 Sporting News, Dec. 24, 1947, p. 21.
31 High Point Enterprise, June 17, 1964, clipping in Utley papers. Sisti's .744 OPS in 56 games in 1947 was the best of his 13 years in the majors, but he spent the rest of his career as a utilityman after the Braves acquired shortstop Alvin Dark and second baseman Eddie Stanky.
32 Sporting News, July 23, 1947, p. 15; Ford Frick to Richard Culler, July 11, 1947, in Utley papers.
33 Winston-Salem Journal, Feb. 24, 1948, p. 10; Everett N. Case (North Carolina State coach) to Dick Culler and N.W. Shepard (athletic director at Davidson College) to Dick Culler, both dated Feb. 23, 1948, in Utley papers.
34 Case to Culler, Utley papers.
35 Sporting News, Oct. 1, 1947, p. 13.
36 High Point Enterprise, July 10, 1960, p. 2D, Sporting News, Aug. 13, 1952, p. 16.
37 Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, Eighth Edition, p. 2367.
38 Boston Sunday Globe, March 1, 1948, clipping in Utley papers..
39 Utley papers.
40 www.stewthornley.net/millers_1941_1950.html.
41 Contract in Utley papers.
42 Sporting News, May 25, 1949, p. 10.
43 www.retrosheet.org , player page.
44 Utley papers.
45 High Point Enterprise, July 10, 1960, p. 2D.
46 Sporting News, Aug. 13, 1952, p. 16.
47 Utley papers.
48 See www.autoball.com.
49 High Point Enterprise, June 17, 1964, clipping in Utley papers.
50 Ibid., July 10, 1960, p. 2D.
51 Sporting News, July 4, 1964, p. 40.
52 High Point Enterprise, June 17, 1964, clipping in Utley papers.
53 Evelyn (Culler) Foster interview.


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