The strange career of Roy Cullenbine

You're probably not familiar with Roy Cullenbine, considering he played in the majors from 1938 through 1947. I've been fascinated by his career ever since playing the old online ESPN Classic Baseball game many years ago. In that game, modeled on a game Bill James devised for STATS Inc., you could draft a team of players from all of baseball history, but you had a salary cap so couldn't load up with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and so on. You had to construct a legitimate team.

Cullenbine was one of bargains in the game; his salary wasn't too high but he was a secretly effective player. You see, Cullenbrine drew walks -- lots and lots of them. He had a career .408 on-base percentage, with seasons as high as .477 and .452. He had some power and was a switch-hitter to boot; he made for a great leadoff guy if you didn't care about stolen bases.

Anyway, in recent weeks I've come across three random Cullenbine references. In writing a review of Dave Heller's new book, "Facing Ted Williams," Bob Feller had named Cullenbine as a hitter tougher than Williams for him to get out. Then Cullenbine's name popped up in an article I was reading on FanGraphs, and then in another article I read somewhere else but can't remember where. So I figured the blogging gods were telling me to write something on Roy Cullenbine.

The first strange aspect of Cullenbine's career: Nobody seemed to want him. He came up with the Tigers -- born in Tennessee, he grew up in Detroit, was a Tigers bat boy as a kid and was a star on the Detroit sandlots -- but was one of the Tigers that commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared a free agent after ruling they had manipulated organized baseball's roster limits. (Most of the players ordered to be released were minor leaguers.)

Brooklyn reportedly gave Cullenbine a $25,000 bonus to sign with them, but they traded him after 22 games to the Browns. From there, he went to the Senators, Yankees, Indians and back to the Tigers for his final three seasons.

The second strange thing: Cullenbine had one of the best final seasons ever. In 1945, Cullenbine was second in the American League in OPS, not that they kept track of OPS back then, and helped the Tigers win the World Series. In 1946, with everyone back from World War II, he hit .335/.477/.537 with 15 home runs. He didn't quite have enough plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboards, but if he had he would have finished third in batting average (behind Mickey Vernon and Williams), second in on-base percentage (behind Williams), third in slugging percentage (behind Williams and Hank Greenberg), and second in OPS (behind Williams). In 1947, his average fell to .225, but he still drew 137 walks, pushing his OBP up to .401, third in the league. He hit 24 home runs. Baseball-Reference calculates his WAR at 4.3 -- ninth among AL position players.

And that was it. He never played in the majors again.

What happened?

Certainly, his skills weren't appreciated at the time, that much is clear. In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," James quotes from William B. Mead's "Baseball Goes to War":

"Cullenbine wouldn't swing the bat, (Browns president Bill) DeWitt recalled. "(Manager Luke) Sewell would give him the hit sign and he'd take it, trying to get the base on balls. Laziest human being you ever saw."

As James wrote, "The lazy bastard had hit .317 in 1941 with 9 homers, 98 RBI and 121 walks."

In Burge Carmon Smith's "The 1945 Detroit Tigers: Nine Old Men and One Young Left Arm Win It All," teammate Les Mueller described Cullenbine's approach at the plate:

"He would not swing at a ball unless it was a strike, you could almost bet on that. ... He concentrated on it in batting practice. You might throw him five or six pitches and they weren't more than just that far from the plate ... and he wouldn't swing at it. He would get you aggravated ... because if they all did that we wouldn't finish batting practice."

Cullenbine wasn't regarded as a good fielder -- Mueller said "he wasn't the greatest outfielder in the world" -- and he had played first base for the Tigers in 1947. His defense was the reason cited when the Tigers sold him that offseason to the Phillies.

I found an AP article in which Hugh Fullerton Jr. quotes Tigers general manager Billy Evans. It's a gem:

"Someone estimated we lost at least 15 games last season because of Cullenbine's play around first. Roy is a fine hitter and a good outfielder, but he's not a first baseman. The rest of our infield should be much better because the players can throw the ball without worrying whether Cullenbine will come up with it. Last year the infielders would hesitate after coming up with a grounder, trying to make sure they made only perfect throws. Even then Roy didn't always get them."

OK, then. You have to love the brutal honesty; we're certainly lacking that in today's kindler and gentler world. People used to say things like that all the time, that a good first baseman was worth 10 or 15 wins a year just on his fielding, and you wonder if it sounded as absurd then as it does now. For the record, Cullenbine was charged with 15 errors in 1947 in 138 games; five major league first basemen made more. The Tigers did tie for the AL lead with 155 errors, so maybe there was something to Evans' comments -- except in 1948 the Tigers again made 155 errors. Their defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) was exactly the same -- .703 versus .702. Cullenbine's replacement at first, Sam Vico, hit .267, didn't draw walks, hit only eight home runs and made 15 errors. The Tigers won seven fewer games.

I'm not exactly sure what happened with the Phillies. I came across one report that said Cullenbine hurt his neck in a minor car accident during spring training; then the Phillies acquired Dick Sisler in early April to play first base. Reports had Cullenbine in the mix for a job in the outfield, but he was released the day before the season began.

At 34, he was done with baseball, didn't return to the minors. Maybe the Phillies thought he was too old. Their outfield would include 21-year-old rookie Richie Ashburn and 23-year-old Del Ennis, plus Harry Walker, who had won the batting title the year before. Maybe his neck bothered him. In my search, I couldn't find the answer. It was a strange ending to one of the most underappreciated players in history.