This article was written by Warren Corbett
Roy Cullenbine’s greatest skill was unappreciated in his time. Cullenbine walked in 17.8 percent of his plate appearances, the seventh-highest rate in history.1 He set a record by drawing walks in 22 consecutive games. But his extraordinary ability to get on base didn’t impress the people who signed his paychecks. One general manager said he was too lazy to swing the bat.
When he did swing, he was a switch-hitter with power. He batted in the middle of the order for two pennant winners, played all four corner positions, and had one of the best outfield throwing arms in the majors. He wore expensive suits and a smile, and was a skilled golfer and bowler. Yet his reputation in the game was toxic.
In 10 years, from 1938 to 1947, Cullenbine was passed around to five of the eight American League teams and two in the National. Sportswriters labeled him a playboy and a problem child. Early on, he was branded a hothead. After he calmed down, some of his managers thought he just didn’t care. One of them, Bucky Harris, said, “Cullenbine could have been a great hitter if he had stuck to his work.”2
Roy Joseph Cullenbine was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 18, 1913, to Roy Cullenbine and the former Ruth Hood. His father had been a tap dancer in vaudeville, but moved the family to Detroit and got a job as a clerk at Ford’s Highland Park plant.
Young Roy hung around Navin Field, a few blocks from home, and the Tigers hired him as a batboy in 1929 and 1930. He played ball in the Detroit Municipal League, a well-organized sandlot circuit. Tigers president Frank Navin and scout Wish Egan spotted him working out at the ballpark and steered him to a sandlot team run by the former batting champion Harry Heilmann. Cullenbine was 20 years old when the Tigers signed him to a professional contract in 1934.
Cullenbine climbed through the Detroit farm system for four years, becoming a switch-hitter along the way. In 1938 he made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster as the regular left fielder. But he failed to hit and was sent down to Double-A Toledo in May, where he batted over .300 for the second straight year. His hot hitting continued in a September recall to the majors, earning him a spot on the Tigers’ bench in 1939.
He hit his first home run on July 3 as a pinch hitter against the 20-year-old phenom Bob Feller. The next time he faced Feller, 2½ months later, he slammed two more. But he finished the season batting just .240 in 75 games. “He’d fight himself,” manager Del Baker said later. “He’d get sore and fly off the handle.” Baker said Cullenbine eventually conquered his temper because of his love of golf. His tantrums on the course infuriated his playing partners, so he learned to control himself.3
In January 1940 Cullenbine became a pawn in Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s futile crusade to stamp out the farm system. Landis thought farm systems would destroy the independence of the minor leagues—he was right—and believed farming could trap major league-ready players in the minors—right again. A couple of years before, the commissioner had declared dozens of Cardinal prospects (including Pete Reiser) free agents because Branch Rickey had flouted the rules governing relations between major and minor league teams. Now Landis freed 91 Detroit farmhands—more than half the players in the Tigers system—after he found the parent club guilty of rule violations. Cullenbine was one of the beneficiaries.
The prize, infielder Benny McCoy, signed with the Athletics for a reported $45,000 bonus. Eight teams joined the bidding for Cullenbine. The St. Louis Browns, whose manager, Fred Haney, had managed him at Toledo, offered $22,500. Brooklyn sent its manager, Leo Durocher, to interrupt Cullenbine’s Miami vacation. Durocher charmed the young player and ushered him onto a plane to New York, where he signed for $25,000.
Cullenbine used some of his windfall to buy a house in the Detroit area. He had married Margaret Bader and they had a baby daughter, Patricia. When he reported to the Dodgers spring camp, he immediately landed in Durocher’s doghouse. He and veteran pitcher Wes Ferrell missed the first workout because they were playing golf. Durocher informed them that their greens fee was $50 apiece.
Cullenbine opened the 1940 season as the Dodgers right fielder, but fell into a slump that dragged his batting average down to .180. Nobody knew or cared about his .405 on-base percentage; the term on-base percentage did not yet exist. Durocher wanted him to drive in runs rather than wait out the pitchers. The Brooklyn Eagle’s Tommy Holmes called him a failure and a mystery: “You look over Cullenbine’s baseball talent, ask out loud what he can’t do, and the echo answers ‘nothing.’” Other newspapers were calling him the “$25,000 lemon.”4
On May 27 the Dodgers traded Cullenbine to the Browns, where Fred Haney still believed in him. Haney’s faith was tested when Cullenbine batted .230 in 86 games. Some thought the big bonus had gone to his head; Haney said it had gone to his stomach. “You can be a great ballplayer,” the manager told him, “or you can be a bum.”5
For once, Cullenbine seemed to heed advice. He spent Detroit’s cold winter playing handball, table tennis, and badminton, and reported to spring training in 1941 slimmer and more determined. At the All-Star break he was batting .367 with a .507 on-base percentage, but few people noticed because Ted Williams was hitting over .400 and Joe DiMaggio was putting together his 56-game streak. Cullenbine made the All-Star team as a reserve; Cleveland’s Jeff Heath joined Williams and DiMaggio in the starting outfield. Cullenbine pinch-hit for Bob Feller and grounded out.
He cooled off in the second half to finish at .317/.452/.465 with 98 RBI and 121 bases on balls. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy called him the most improved player in the league. The Browns were a sixth-place team and he was their best hitter. They traded him.
Luke Sewell had replaced Haney as manager in midseason. Sewell believed some of the players “had a defeatist attitude,” and put Cullenbine in that category. General manager Bill DeWitt said, “Sewell would give him the hit sign and he’d take it, trying to get a base on balls. Laziest human being you ever saw.”6 When Cullenbine started slowly in 1942, the Browns swapped him to Washington in June.
The Senators manager, Bucky Harris, had managed Detroit when Cullenbine was a batboy. Cullenbine hit .286/.396/.390 for Washington, but Harris couldn’t stand him. The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich said Cullenbine was part of a clique of “playboys” who “big-shotted it all over the circuit [and] didn’t seem particularly unhappy when the Nats lost.”7 The Nats were losing regularly and attendance was tanking. Owner Clark Griffith needed to turn some players into cash.
With draft calls growing as the US military ramped up to fight World War II, Tommy Henrich left the Yankees in August to report for duty in the Coast Guard. GM Ed Barrow targeted Cullenbine to take Henrich’s place in right field. Since the trade deadline had passed, Griffith and Barrow arranged a gentleman’s agreement with other teams to let Cullenbine slip through waivers to first-place New York. Povich wrote, “[W]hen the Yankees claimed him Harris whooped for joy.”8 But Griffith demanded more than the $7,500 waiver price.
Barrow played hardball. He knew Griffith planned to sell another of his playboys, pitcher Bobo Newsom, to the Dodgers for $30,000, but first Newsom had to clear waivers. Barrow threatened to block the deal. Griffith, who could do math, parted with Cullenbine, packed Newsom off to Brooklyn, and pocketed $37,500.9
Cullenbine, jumping from seventh place to first, was even happier than Bucky Harris. “I have hit the jackpot,” he said.10 The Yankees had a comfortable eight-game lead when the sale went through on August 31, just in time for Cullenbine to be eligible for the World Series. He inherited Henrich’s locker, his number 7, and his third spot in the batting order in front of DiMaggio. And he started playing like a champion. In his first week in the lineup, his ninth-inning homer beat the Athletics, 6-5. In 21 games he hit .364/.484/.532.
Cullenbine could savor sweet revenge against his critics when he took the field for the World Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit safely in each of the first four games, knocking in two runs in Game 4, but the Cardinals won in five. His new teammates voted him a generous half-share of Series money worth more than $1,600, a significant jackpot for a man making $7,500 a year.
After playing for three teams in 1942, Cullenbine was soon on the move again. The Yankees were losing shortstop Phil Rizzuto and first baseman Buddy Hassett to military service. Although the news had not yet broken, the club may have known that DiMaggio would enlist. Some fans and writers had jeered him as a draft dodger even though he had a perfectly legal deferment as a married father, like Cullenbine and millions of others.
In December New York sent Cullenbine and catcher Buddy Rosar to Cleveland in exchange for a replacement center fielder, Roy Weatherly, and a potential first baseman, Oscar Grimes. At least, that was the public explanation. It looked like a “good riddance” trade by the Yankees. Rosar had left the team for several days during the season, defying Joe McCarthy’s orders, to take a police department entrance exam and check on his pregnant wife; he had to go. McCarthy had no use for playboys; he probably had tolerated Cullenbine only as an emergency stopgap.
Whatever the circumstances of his quick exit, Cullenbine remained a McCarthy fan. “I played with the Yankees two months,” he said later, “and saw more smart baseball than I have seen before or since. If you ask me, McCarthy won pennants with ball clubs that would have been lucky to finish in the first division under most managers.”11
Cullenbine’s reputation preceded him in Cleveland. Plain Dealer writer Gordon Cobbledick introduced him to Indians fans as “a fellow who likes the bright lights and dislikes severe training rules.”12 With Bob Feller in the navy, the Indians were a middling club. Cullenbine’s .289 average led the team in 1943. The next year he mastered a left-handed uppercut swing and clubbed 16 home runs with the deadened wartime ball, nearly twice as many as he had ever hit before. He was chosen for his second All-Star team, but did not play.
When the Indians lost third baseman Ken Keltner to military service before the 1945 season, manager Lou Boudreau auditioned Cullenbine to replace him. Cullenbine had played a little at third for Washington, but Boudreau didn’t like what he saw. On April 29 Detroit was in Cleveland for a doubleheader. Cullenbine went hitless in the first game, making him 1 for 13 on the season. His name appeared on the lineup card for the second game, but he never took the field. The Indians and Tigers worked out a trade between games: Cullenbine for a real third baseman, Don Ross, and another infielder.
The deal sent Cullenbine back where he had started, to his hometown, and into a pennant race. Detroit took over first place in June, riding the arms of Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout and a lineup featuring only one man under 30. Cullenbine and first baseman Rudy York provided most of the offensive punch until help dropped from the sky.
Hank Greenberg, who was drafted before Pearl Harbor, had spent more than four years in the Army Air Corps. Discharged in June, he became the talisman for the hopes of all players in the armed forces. If a 34-year-old could regain his form after such a long layoff, maybe they could, too. After a couple of weeks’ batting practice, Greenberg played his first game on July 1. It took him about two hours to find his stroke; he homered in his fifth time at bat.
Greenberg hit 13 home runs and batted .311 in 78 games. Putting an exclamation point on his comeback, his ninth-inning grand slam beat the Browns on the final day to clinch the pennant.
Cullenbine and York tied for second in the league with 18 homers. Cullenbine was one of the AL’s most productive hitters, finishing second with 93 RBI, .402 on-base percentage, and .846 on-base plus slugging percentage. He led the league in walks and led all right fielders in assists for the third straight year. Although he was the top run-producer for the pennant-winning club, Cullenbine finished a distant 13th in the writers’ Most Valuable Player vote, attracting less support than his teammates, pitcher Hal Newhouser, second baseman Eddie Mayo, and catcher Paul Richards, who played in only 83 games.
The 1945 World Series is remembered today as the last one for the Chicago Cubs in 70 years and counting. At the time, it was seen as a farce. Before Game 1, Chicago writer Warren Brown looked over the wartime replacements populating both clubs’ rosters and predicted, “I don’t think either one of them can win it.”13 The Tigers and Cubs did their worst to make him a prophet. The box scores say they combined for 11 errors in seven games. That didn’t count the balls that dropped untouched between fielders, base runners who fell down, and other fumbles and foolishness that Brown summarized as “incredibly inept incidents.”14
Cullenbine did his part in the ninth inning of Game 5 when he and center fielder Doc Cramer chased after a fly ball. Cullenbine yelled, “All right! All right!” Cramer put on the brakes and the ball plopped to earth between them. Cullenbine said, “I meant it was all right for you to take it.”15
Cullenbine drew eight bases on balls in the Series, still the fourth-highest total in history, and went 5 for 22 with four RBI. Detroit beat Chicago in seven games, or, if you prefer fanciful history, the Billy Goat Curse doomed the Cubs.
Although the military draft eventually started taking married men with children, Cullenbine was never called. Like everyone else who played through the war, his accomplishments were suspect. Hal Newhouser, the American League MVP in 1944 and 1945, acknowledged the doubts: “Well, yeah, you’ve been winning, but now the big boys are back. What are you going to do?”16
Seven Tiger outfielders returned from service in 1946. The 32-year-old Cullenbine was shunted aside as a backup corner outfielder and sub for Greenberg at first base. When a combination of injuries and slumps opened a spot in right field, he proved he was no wartime wonder. Against genuine big league pitching, he turned in the season of his life, a .335/.477/.537 batting line in 113 games. He powered three home runs in a Fourth of July doubleheader and two more the next day. From July 4 to the end of the season, he was the league’s most dangerous hitter at .391/.530/.620.
Cullenbine had a regular job in 1947 because of an aging slugger, a headline-seeking reporter, and an angry owner. An offseason story in The Sporting News proclaimed that Greenberg longed to finish his career with the Yankees in his native New York. Greenberg hadn’t said any such thing, but the bogus story enraged Detroit owner Walter Briggs. He wanted Greenberg gone and would send him anywhere but New York.17 Greenberg wound up in Pittsburgh, with Cullenbine taking over as the Tigers first baseman.
Cullenbine hit a career-best 24 home runs, fourth in the league, and his .401 on-base percentage was third highest. His 137 bases on balls set a team record. From July 2 to 22, he walked in 22 consecutive games, a major league record. With hits as well as walks, he reached base in 31 straight. It was a banner season in every way except the one that counted most: He batted only .224, and a hitter was judged primarily by his batting average. The Tigers brass focused on that, plus his defensive shortcomings playing out of position at first base. General manager Billy Evans, in an over-the-top exaggeration, said, “Someone, I think it was Steve O’Neill, estimated we lost around 15 games last season because of Cullenbine’s play around first”18
When the Philadelphia Phillies went shopping for a power hitter in the fall, Evans was happy to offer Cullenbine. No other American League team claimed him on waivers, and the Phillies paid something more than the $10,000 waiver price. Joining his seventh major league club, Cullenbine reported to spring training in 1948 overweight, acting like a man whose job was safe. It wasn’t. A 21-year-old outfielder up from Class A, Richie Ashburn, dazzled the club in Florida. The Phils released Cullenbine before Opening Day to make room on the roster for Ashburn.
And there his career ended. Many players in that era went back to the minors when they were no longer wanted in the big leagues, but Cullenbine never played again. Did he walk away or was he blackballed? The available record offers no clue.
Cullenbine worked for many years as a manufacturer’s representative for a potato chip company, and scouted for the Tigers in the 1950s. He won the retired players’ division of the springtime ballplayers’ golf tournament in Florida several times and competed in other amateur tournaments including the National Public Links Championship. When the Tigers retired Al Kaline’s number 6 in 1980, they invited Cullenbine and Pat Mullin, who had worn the number before Kaline, to attend the ceremony.
Cullenbine was divorced from his first wife, Marge; they had daughters Patricia and Nancy and son Roy Jr. In 1950 he married Virginia Tyson Falbo, daughter of the Tigers broadcaster Ty Tyson. Cullenbine was 77 when he died of heart failure on May 28, 1991, in Mount Clemens, Michigan. His third wife, Maxine, survived.
Cullenbine retired with a .276/.408/.432 slash line and more than twice as many walks as strikeouts. Statistics didn’t track on-base percentage during his career, but his excellent batting eye was no secret; it just wasn’t valued. Ted Williams, who walked more frequently than any other player, also drew fire for taking when conventional wisdom called for swinging.
The most startling find in Cullenbine’s stat lines: His 132 adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+), adjusted for the leagues and ballparks where he played, is equal to that of Joe Morgan and Tony Gwynn, and a bit better than Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, and Roberto Clemente. Of course, Cullenbine had a much shorter career than those Hall of Famers, and he played three years against weak wartime competition. But his two best years came before and after the war.
As always, the stats tell an incomplete story. The full story lies in the undiscovered country that scouts call makeup: desire, discipline, and work ethic. Cullenbine’s personality, not his talent, made him a baseball nomad.
1 For players with at least 1,000 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs.com.
2 Jack Hand, “Bucky Harris Likes Irv Noren for Rookie of Year Crown,” Associated Press-Sacramento Bee, June 30, 1950, 29.
3 David Cataneo, “A Garden of All-Star Memories,” Boston Herald, July 9, 1990, 75.
4 Tommy Holmes, “Cullenbine’s Failure to Shine One of the Mysteries of Baseball,” Brooklyn Eagle, December 19, 1942, 6; Dick Farrington, “Roy Cullenbine, a ‘$25,000 Lemon’ in ’40, Became $50,000 Peach by Peeling Poundage, Plunking Apple,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1941, 3.
5 Unidentified clipping (1941) in Cullenbine’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.
6 William B. Mead, Baseball Goes to War (repr. Washington: Broadcast Interview Source, 1998), 69, 71.
7 Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, September 3, 1942, 12. This was savage criticism from the usually mild Povich. His column appeared after Cullenbine was sold and no doubt reflected the view of the Senators management.
9 Ibid., September 6, 1942, page illegible.
10 J.G.T. Spink, “Looping the Loops,” The Sporting News, September 10, 1942, 1. Editor Spink’s column was usually the work of a ghostwriter.
11 Gordon Cobbledick, “Plain Dealing,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 18, 1943, 18.
12 Ibid., December 20, 1942, 86.
13 Warren Brown, The Chicago Cubs (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946), 229.
15 Frederick G. Lieb, The Detroit Tigers (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946), 269.
16 David Jordan, A Tiger in His Time: Hal Newhouser and the Burden of Wartime Baseball (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1990), 167.
17 Dan Daniel, “Hank Hints He’d Like to End Career as Yankee,” The Sporting News, January 1, 1947, 11; Hank Greenberg, The Story of My Life (New York: Times Books, 1989), 173-177.
18 Associated Press-Rockford (Illinois) Evening Star, March 14, 1948, 48.