Nick Cullop, Minor League Great

This article was written by L. Robert Davids

This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal


In this article, L. Robert Davids takes a look at the life and career of all-time minor league RBI king Nick Cullop.Several times in the past there have been movements to establish a Minor League Hall of Fame to honor the great players who, for one reason or another, never made it in the majors. That dream probably will never be realized now because the structure and the role of the minors have changed so much in the last 20 years. Many of the players who would have been honored in such a shrine have now passed on and the Mexican League is about the only one left where any career continuity exists.

When baseball historians talk about great minor leaguers who should be enshrined, the players usually mentioned most prominently are Ike Boone, who had a minor league career batting average of .371; Buzz Arlett, powerful switch-hitter who played many years for Oakland; Joe Hauser, who once hit 63 homers in a season for Baltimore, and 69 for Minneapolis; Bunny Brief, great run-producer for Kansas City in the 1920’s; and Nick Cullop, who starred for many teams in many leagues between 1920 and 1944.

The one who is probably most representative of the minor leagues is Nick Cullop, who was also a successful manager. First, he had longevity, playing 25 years in all parts of the country in the top minor leagues of his era, and managing 15. He had versatility, starting out as a pitcher and playing the infield and outfield. He was a long-ball hitter, but he also stole 32 bases one season. He was colorful, a swashbuckling German who was called “ole tomato face,” or the “hipper-dipper” because of his prowess as a horseshoe player. He argued with umpires, hit some of the longest homers in the minors, and also struck out a lot. He made it to the majors several times, but never stayed long enough to affect his minor league image.

Cullop was born near St. Louis in Weldon Spring, Missouri in 1900. He was named Henry Nicholas, but became known as Nick because of a major league pitcher named Nick Cullop who was still active when our subject started playing ball in an industrial league in St. Louis in 1919. Nick’s manager was Ralph Works, a former major league hurler with the Tigers and Reds. When the latter was named manager of Madison in the South Dakota State League in 1920, he asked Cullop to play for him in the Great Plains area.

Nick, who now lives in retirement in Columbus, Ohio, does not remember much about his first year in O. B. “I hit my first home run off George Fisher in Miller, South Dakota, but I don’t recall the date. I remember Madison was a tough place to hit homers, but I could connect in Miller and in Mitchell, which had a real bandbox. Jim Bottomley played for Mitchell that year. I was primarily a pitcher in 1920, but also filled in at other positions.” (He won 18 games and batted .341.) On August 29 he pitched and won both games of a twinbill against Wessington Springs. At the end of the season he was sold to Minneapolis, where he appeared in three games.

In 1921 he spent the first of four seasons in the Western League, then one of the top minors. He pitched for St. Joseph and Tulsa in 1921, Des Moines in 1922, and Omaha in 1923-24. It was at Omaha where he blossomed as a regular player because of his robust hitting. On July 8, 1923, he hit three triples and a single in a game at Denver. On September 12 he hit a long homer in the 12th inning to win a game for the home folks at Omaha. They were so exhilarated, they passed the hat and presented him with a $75 collection. Three days later he hit what was described as the longest homer ever hit in Omaha’s Vinton Park. Another time he hit one that was the longest in Oklahoma City.

But Nick was not so successful at all Western League stops. He said the Sioux City park was right next to the Missouri River. “A number of foul balls were hit in there every game. Ducky Holmes, the Sioux manager, would have a guy out there in a boat fishing out balls. He would then put them in a freezer for later use. The ball might look OK to the ump, but you couldn’t hit it very far.”

Cullop hit 40 homers and knocked in 155 runs for Omaha in 1924, but he didn’t lead in either category.

Mule Washburn of Tulsa led with 48 homers in what was a big hitting year. That was the year Lyman Lamb hit 100 doubles for Tulsa, the all-time O. B. record. According to Cullop, Tulsa had a small park with a fairly high fence. Lamb, who collected more than 250 hits that season, “just banged `em up against the wall and pulled up at second base.”

The Yankees bought Nick after his great 1924 season but Manager Miller Huggins didn’t know whether to make a firstsacker out of him or an outfielder. He was sent to Atlanta in the Southern Association in 1925, where he performed mostly in the garden. He hit 30 homers, the most in that circuit up to that time. He knocked in 139 runs and stole 28 bases and the Yankees called him up for the 1926 season.

“My timing couldn’t have been worse,” says Cullop, looking back. “I could play first base, but Lou Gehrig was there. I could play the outfield, but the Yanks were well stocked there with Ruth, Combs, and Bob Meusel. I played in only two games before being sent to St. Paul.” (Nick collected a single in his first trip to the plate, April 14, in a Yankee loss at Boston.)

The Yankees sold Cullop to Washington in 1927. After playing only part-time in only 15 games, the Nats dealt him to Cleveland. He got back at the Senators by hitting a pinch 2-run homer off Bump Hadley of the Nats on July 8, 1927. It was his first major league fourbagger and the only one he ever hit in the American League. He also pitched in one game for the Indians. In 1928 he played briefly with Buffalo in the International League and then it was back to Atlanta where he batted .352. In 1929 the Dodgers bought him, but he hit only .195 for them in 13 games and was shipped to Minneapolis for the 1930 season.

The last time Cullop had played for Minneapolis he was a 19-year-old pitcher in 1920. Now, ten years later, he was a well-seasoned slugger, with 200 pounds nicely placed on his rugged 6-foot frame. In 139 games he hit 54 homers, scored 150 runs and knocked in 152 while batting .359. It was a new home run record for the American Association and was surpassed only by Joe Hauser’s 69 in 1933, when he played for Minneapolis.

“Yes, I know, Nicollet Park was a home run paradise, particularly for left-hand hitters like Hauser. So was

Baltimore, but I never played there. I spent most of my playing time in pretty good sized parks. I made the most of my one year in Minneapolis and I must admit I enjoyed it. My biggest thrill — maybe of all my playing career was hitting two homers in one inning” (August 26, 1930).

Cincinnati picked up Cullop at the end of the 1930 season and he hit another homer there. In 1931 he spent the full season with the Reds, getting into 104 games and hitting only .263. It was a tough season. The Reds had a miserable team and finished last. Redland Park was a difficult place to hit roundtrippers and the Reds hit only 21 in the entire season. Cullop led with 8. The free-swinging slugger led the League with 86 strike outs. He was quoted as saying he would rather play in the minors than with the Reds. He got his wish the next season.

The Cardinals then purchased Cullop’s contract and sent him briefly to Rochester where he hit his only International League home run in a game at Montreal. He then found a home in Columbus, where he played the next five seasons. Red Bird Park was not an easy home run arena for a right-hand batter, but Cullop got his share of extra-base hits. In 1933 he achieved the highest level in A.A. history with 37 doubles, 22 triples, and 28 homers. He knocked in 143 runs. The Red Birds won the pennant with playoffs against Minneapolis in both 1933 and 1934 and also won the Junior World Series against the International League winners both years.

“Ole Nicodemus,” as he was frequently called, then spent two years with the Cardinal farm club at Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, knocking in 127 runs for the Sacs in 1937. He slacked off badly the next season, but blames most of it on being hit in the head by a pitched ball from Bob Joyce of Oakland. He was out several weeks. Nick then spent two years with Houston in the Texas League, coming back beautifully in 1939. He topped the loop in homers, total bases, and runs batted in, and was voted the most valuable player. Not bad for a 38-year-old!

In 1941 the Cardinals made. Cullop player-manager of Asheville in the Piedmont League. He was injured and didn’t play much. The next year he switched to Pocatello in the Pioneer League. World War II had started and being short of players, he pitched one game, his first in many years. Although he lost the game, he remembers it because he hit a home run, one of his last in O. B.

In 1943 Cullop was back in Columbus, this time as manager. The Red Birds won the A.A. playoffs and beat Syracuse in the Junior World Series, and Nick was named Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year. “We had some pretty good pitching with Preacher Roe, Ted Wilks, Ken Burkhart, and Red Barrett. Mickey Heath was our catcher, but we also had a 17-year-old kid named Joe Garagiola. One of the pitchers opposing us for Syracuse was Jim Konstanty — I remember that.”

Columbus finished out of the running in 1944, which also marked Cullop’s last year as a player. He was making only about $5,000 as manager of the Red Birds and asked Branch Rickey for a raise. Rickey, notorious for his frugality, sent him to Cardinal President Sam Breadon, who turned him down. Nick then quit his job in Columbus and was signed by Bill Veeck of Milwaukee for a substantial increase in pay. Cullop and the Brewers responded with a pennant in 1945 and a playoff victory and a Junior World Series crown in 1947, when he again was named Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year.

In 1950 Jack Dunn asked Cullop to come to Baltimore in the International League, where he managed the Orioles for two years. He lost the Junior World Series to Columbus that first season. In 1955-56 he was again manager at Columbus, at which time it had shifted to the International League. The minor leagues were changing then and Cullop was closing out an era of which he was probably most representative. He managed briefly the Fargo-Moorhead team in North Dakota and then in such widely separated places as Macon, Georgia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he closed out his O. B. career in 1959.

Cullop had spent almost 40 years in the game as player and manager. He played in or managed in almost every State in the Nation. A U.S. map which pinpoints the sites of his nearly 430 O.B. home runs indicates that he connected in 55 cities in 11 different leagues. Although some of his records are not available for 1920, he knocked in 1824 runs in his minor league career, more than any other player in recorded minor league history. Only Buzz Arlett, with 432, hit more minor league homers than his 417, and he was one of only nine minor leaguers to collect more than 1,000 extra-base hits.

Nevertheless, Nick is a little bothered when he is automatically lumped with the “good-hitting, poor-fielding” sluggers of his era. “Ike Boone was a tremendous batter, no doubt about it – so was Ox Eckhardt, even though he had a strange batting stance. So was Smead Jolley, but they were all poor fielders. Moose Clabaugh was another one. He couldn’t catch a fly ball. They tried to make a catcher out of him but he was afraid to take off his mask for a pop up. Now, I could run the bases and I could play centerfield, although I usually played right because I had a strong arm. I had quite a few assists. As a batter I struck out quite a bit, but I was expected to hit the long ball. It was the same with the others, like Arlett, Hauser, and Ab Wright – we had quite a collection of power hitters in the Association in the 1930’s.”

Looking back, Nick is somewhat disappointed about his lack of success in the majors. He feels that things did not break quite right for him, particularly when the Yankees owned him in 1925-26. Still, he has no real regrets. He remembers with relish his brief association with Ruth and Gehrig and the other Yankees. He often pitched batting practice and “Ruth I some tremendous fly balls off me. I thought Gehrig actually had more power, but he hit line drives. If he had hit fly balls, he might have hit more homers than Ruth.”

Nick also remembers with affection the times when he went to spring training with the Cardinals and could cavort with gas-housers like Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin. He is also grateful that the Cardinals gave him a chance to manage and for a while he thought he had a chance to move up to the majors.

“I had pretty good success as a manager, but I’m the first to admit that a guy can’t do the job without good players. I had some pretty good ones, and I stood up for ‘em on the field. People thought I argued a lot with the umps. I was just protecting my players. I put on quite a show for the crowd, with a lot of gestures and all that stuff – like I was really sore, but most of the time I was just exchanging a few pleasantries. Some of the other managers couldn’t figure out how I got away with it. When they talked back to the ump they got bounced. Not me, I was just asking the ump how his wife was and whether he wanted to go for a beer after the game. I very seldom got kicked out of a game.”

In recent years, Nick has been in failing health. He is quite crippled in one leg. Since leaving baseball, he had worked in the Ohio State School for the mentally retarded which is near his home in Columbus. He tried to break up a fight between two inmates and had one leg caved in by a chair. But he still has the same barrel chest and the same “tomato face” which is still recognizable at 74 years of age. And when you talk to him about baseball in the old days, he displays the exuberance that made him one of the most colorful of minor league stars.

PLAYERS RECORDING 1000 EXTRA-BASE HITS IN THE MINORS

Years

Player

Games

Hits

2B

3B

HR

RBI

               

1921-48

Spencer Harris

3258*

3617*

743*

150

258

1745+

               

1918-37

Buzz Arlett

2390

2724

594

106

432*

1786

               

1924-47

Johnny Gill

2697

3107

661

154

286

1720+

               

1920-44

Nick Cullop

2484

2670

527+

145+

417+

l824+~

               

1914-46

James Poole

2663

3150

662

95

311

1784+

               

1910-28

Bunny Brief

2426

2963

568+

146+

332+

1273+

               

1932-56

Larry Barton

3020

3045

634

104

299

1751

               

1926-48

Tedd Gullic

2372

2727

557

92

370

1502+

               

1914-39

Fred Henry

3017

3352

671

200

138

1005+

*Minor League Career Leader +Data not complete

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