This article was written by Mark Armour
In an era very favorable to pitchers, Ray Culp strung together a fine 11-year career, including a four-year period as the ace of the Boston Red Sox. After he put up a 112-79 record before his 30th birthday, a series of arm ailments limited Culp to a 10-22 record after hitting that milestone. Still, the two-time All-Star had a fine career.
Raymond Leonard Culp, Jr. was born on August 6, 1941, in Elgin, Texas, a small town 25 miles east of Austin, to Raymond Culp, Sr. and the former Melba Olive Cottle. Ray was the eldest child, and was followed by brother Samuel and sister Mary Jo. Ray ran track and played baseball and basketball at Stephen Austin High School in Austin, though it was on the diamond that he became a local hero. He won six postseason games, including a no-hitter, to lead his team to the state title in 1958, and ran off 18 consecutive victories over two seasons until he finally lost 1-0 in the state tournament in 1959, his senior year.
Culp was scouted by 15 of the 16 major-league clubs (only the Milwaukee Braves failed to offer a contract) before finally inking a $100,000 deal with Philadelphia Phillies scout Hap Morse. Morse had landed Austin high school shortstop Danny Cater for the Phillies a year earlier, and had scouted both Cater and Culp for a few years prior to landing them. “I stayed in Austin for three straight months,” Morse later said of his 1959 signing of Culp. “I was about ready to register to vote in Austin. I simply neglected the rest of my territory to concentrate on him. I saw every inning he pitched and nearly every practice.”1
Ray’s father was a fine softball pitcher, and taught him the finer points of pitching a hardball in their backyard, helping him through Little League, junior baseball, and high school. He was forbidden to throw a curveball until his junior year, though he later relied on the pitch often. A right-handed pitcher, Ray would grow to 6-feet tall and 200 pounds as a young man.
Culp was not yet 18 when he reported to Johnson City, Tennessee, to play for the Phillies’ Class D Appalachian League affiliate. He pitched just four games there, losing his only decision and posting a 5.29 ERA in 17 innings. He split the next season with Asheville, in the Class A South Atlantic League, and Des Moines, in the Class B Three-I League. He started well for Asheville but was demoted after getting shelled in three straight starts. He finished 2-3 with a ghastly 9.00 ERA for Asheville, then 6-7 and 6.59 for Des Moines. In 1961 the story was similar – Culp struggled at Williamsport of the Class A Eastern League (0-4, 10.23, in four starts) before being sent back to Des Moines and pitching poorly again (6-12, 5.87).
After the 1961 season Culp had struggled in three minor-league seasons, but he was still just 20 years old and the Phillies had not given up on him. For 1962 they again tested him at Williamsport, and Culp finally made the grade. Starting 27 games, Ray finished 13-8 with a 3.20 ERA. With considerable help from outfielder Dick Allen, Culp led the Williamsport club to the league pennant, ultimately losing to Elmira in the playoffs. After the season, Culp was invited to pitch for Arecibo in the Puerto Rican winter league. Culp later related that he simply was not ready to pitch his first few years in the minors, but had a pretty fair year in 1962.
The 21-year-old Culp, seen as a disappointment just a year earlier, was now out of options and was brought to the major-league spring camp in 1963. An offseason injury to Dennis Bennett created an opening, and the Phillies decided to bring Culp north with the club, at least for a few weeks. In his debut, on April 10, he pitched two innings of relief and picked up a victory against the Cincinnati Reds. After three more relief appearances, including another victory, Culp spent the rest of the season in the starting rotation, finishing 14-11 with a 2.97 ERA in his rookie season. He finished eighth in the league with 176 strikeouts, and fifth with five shutouts. He was named to the All-Star team, and pitched a scoreless fifth inning in the National League’s 5-3 victory in Cleveland. At the end of the season Culp was named by The Sporting News as the National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year.
The next spring Culp was able to reflect on his path to the major leagues. “It [the bonus] had a psychological effect,” he said. “It gave me the feeling that I just had to make good, that everybody was looking at me. If I had been myself, instead of trying to pitch up to that check, I’d never have come up with that sore arm.”2
Unfortunately, Culp’s elbow bothered him again in 1964, and he struggled to finish 8-7 with a 4.12 ERA. In the event, he did not start a game after August 15, and his absence was a contributing factor in the Phillies’ heartbreaking collapse that cost them the 1964 pennant. At the time, manager Gene Mauch said of Culp, “He doesn’t want the ball,” a charge Culp vehemently denied. Catcher Clay Dalrymple believed that Mauch had a vendetta against Culp. “Gene wouldn’t pitch Ray because he gained ten pounds during the season and Mauch was a bitch about gaining weight.”3
Culp returned to form the next year, finishing 14-10, 3.22, but the Phillies dropped out of contention, finishing sixth.
In 1966 Culp suffered through his worst big-league season, winning 7 of 11 decisions but seeing his ERA rise to 5.04 in 34 games. He started just 11 times, and struggled both when starting and relieving. The Phillies had a number of other starters pitching better and more often, a fact that caused Culp to ask to be traded after the season. “I simply won’t report to the Phillies next spring,” he said, “and I am completely serious when I say that.” Manager Gene Mauch answered that he still believed in Culp, and had no intention of dealing him.4 Nonetheless, on December 7 Culp was traded along with some money to the Chicago Cubs for Dick Ellsworth, another young pitcher who had struggled after early promise.
Culp pitched much better, and more often, with the Cubs, fashioning an 8-11 record in 30 games and 22 starts, with a 3.89 ERA. Nonetheless, after just the single season in Chicago, he was dealt to the Red Sox on November 30 for minor-league outfielder Bill Schlesinger. Culp’s stock had fallen substantially in the past two seasons.
The Red Sox were coming off a surprising American League pennant, but were in need of starting pitching, even more so after ace Jim Lonborg broke his leg in a December skiing accident. The club also acquired Dick Ellsworth, the pitcher who had been traded for Culp just a year earlier. A good spring earned Culp a spot in the rotation, but barely – he started the fifth game of the season. He failed to last the fourth inning in his first two starts, earning two losses and a 15.95 ERA in 7⅓ innings. That got him out of the rotation for a few weeks, though a few strong relief outings got him back in.
The secret to Culp’s turnaround was his use of a new pitch – the palmball, taught to him by Roger Craig back when both were with the Phillies. “It’s a funny pitch,” said Culp. “You hold the ball deep against the front of the hand, in the spread between the thumb and the first finger. You don’t throw it hard. In fact, you couldn’t if you wanted to – the fingers are in all the wrong places. But if you use your thumb correctly you can get a lot of spin on the ball.” Batters tended to react quickly, as if it were a fastball, and hit the ball into the ground. Culp did not use the palmball in a game until mid-1968, but it became a staple for the rest of his career.5
Once he settled down, Culp pitched great baseball the rest of the year. He threw a four-hitter against the Yankees on May 18 for his first win, and finally got his ERA under 4.00 in early August. Beginning on August 27, he reeled off seven straight complete-game victories, including a string of four shutouts, culminating in a one-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Though he lost the team’s last game of the season, he still ended 16-6 with a 2.91 ERA and six shutouts – a fine recovery after his terrible start. Despite fine seasons from Culp and Ellsworth (16-7), the Red Sox fell to fourth place in 1968.
After barely making the rotation in 1968, Culp entered the 1969 season as the staff ace. Like all pitchers, he would be facing a smaller strike zone and a lower mound, steps taken to increase offense after the dismal showing of hitters in 1968. “I think the new mound will affect my control until I get used to it,” he said in the spring. “I find I tend to pitch high because I am releasing the ball sooner and higher than I want to. My foot hits the ground sooner than it used to with the higher mound.”6 Culp would rely on his good fastball and curve, and his new palmball, which he used as a change of pace.
Culp started 1969 the way he had ended 1968, logging a 9-2 record by June 1, after finishing the previous season 12-2 in his last 14 decisions. He was selected to the All-Star team for the second time, logging another scoreless inning, facing three batters and striking out Tony Perez in the AL’s 9-2 loss in Washington. He won his 16th game on August 9, highlighted by his third-inning home run off California’s Pedro Borbon, the only home run Culp would hit in his career. He won his career-high 17th game on August 23, and with at least seven starts to go seemed likely to win 20. But he hurt his arm in his next start, and then shut it down for the season. He finished 17-8, with a 3.81 ERA.
Culp pitched well again in 1970, though he had a bit worse luck getting run support from his teammates. On May 11 in Anaheim, he tied a major-league record by striking out the first six Angels to face him. The Red Sox ended up losing the game, 2-1 in 19 innings. Culp again won 17 games, finishing 17-14 but improving to a 3.04 ERA, a fine season in hitter-friendly Fenway Park. “Culp is well respected in Boston,” wrote Larry Claflin, “because he never blames anyone else for his difficulties. He could have been a 20-game winner this year with a little bit of luck.”7
In 1971 Ray got his first Opening Day assignment, and beat the Yankees 3-1 at Fenway Park. He was hit hard his next few outings and had a 6.37 ERA in five April starts. His 1-0, two-hit shutout over Bert Blyleven of Minnesota on May 2 started a summer of fine pitching, but his four September losses ended the season on a sour note. Culp’s final line –14-16 with a 3.60 ERA, was solid, but the worst of his four Boston seasons.
Culp struggled mightily in 1972, moving in and out of the rotation with a sore elbow. He finished just 5-8, and had shoulder surgery in September. He was removed from the Red Sox’ 40-man roster in the fall but was invited to spring training. He began the season with Triple-A Pawtucket, and in his first outing gave up 15 hits and eight earned runs in seven innings. After posting a 6-5 record in 11 starts, Culp returned to Boston and spent a few weeks in the rotation. In ten games, he posted a 2-6 record and 4.47 ERA in his final big-league innings. On October 25, 1973, the Red Sox released the 32-year-old right-hander. He had a career record of 71-58 for the Red Sox, and was generally considered their best pitcher over his first four years with the club.
Just 32 years old, “I was way too young to be going home. I had planned on pitching a lot longer.”8 During his career he had worked in real estate and operated a small ranch outside of Austin. When his career ended, he returned to Austin and opened his own real-estate company, 123 Inc., so-named because of Culp’s .123 lifetime major-league batting average. He worked in both commercial and rental real estate, and the company earned him a good living for many years.
Culp married his high-school sweetheart, Sharon, and had three daughters (Mitzi, Sherri, and Tammi) during his baseball career. After returning home, the couple had three sons (Wes, Clint, and Cody). Culp spent many years involved in youth baseball coaching, and all his sons played baseball; Wes made it the furthest, pitching three years in the Atlanta Braves system.
Having pitched for the 1964 Phillies team that fell short, and pitching several years for the Red Sox between their 1967 and 1975 pennants, Culp never got to experience the postseason. “I had a lot of success in the big leagues,” he said in 2005, “but I never got a ring. That’s my one regret.”9 In the final analysis, his teams fell short because they didn’t have enough players who performed as well as Ray Culp.
This biography is included in the book “The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies” (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
1 “Landing Culp for Phillies a Three Year Job for Scout,” Baseball Digest, May 1966, 89.
2 The Sporting News, April 11, 1964, 38.
3 William C. Kashatus, September Swoon (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004), 138-39.
4 The Sporting News, October 22, 1966, 15.
5 Phil Elderkin, Christian Science Monitor (reprinted in Baseball Digest, August 1969).
6 The Sporting News, March 29, 1969, 8.
7 The Sporting News, September 5, 1970, 10.
8 Steve Buckley, Boston Red Sox: Where Have You Gone (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2005).