Monday, January 23, 2012
101. Nick Cullop: Tragedy and Triumph in Atlanta
Anyone who's done their share of baseball research by culling through old newspapers knows how easy it is to get sidetracked by an interesting article totally unrelated to the thing you're looking for. Such was the case a while ago with the mysterious Farmer Dean. Just recently I was going through a 1925 Dallas sports page when I stumbled on an Associated Press article causing me to abandon what I was originally searching for and set my artistic sights on an obscure outfielder whose major league career totaled just 173 games spread over 5 mediocre seasons with 5 different teams.
Despite forging a mediocre career in the majors, Nick Cullop was the “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues” back in the 1920’s and 30’s. His 420 home runs is still the third best in the minors and for a while he held the RBI record as well with 1,857. Despite his early promise, Cullop’s life took several tragic turns on the way to the majors.
He broke into pro ball with the 1920 Madison Greys of the class D South Dakota League where his 18-12 pitching record and .341 average got him a quick promotion to the Minneapolis Millers. A bit out-classed in the American Association he managed only a 1-2 record by the time the season ended. The next spring Cullop was sent down a rung to the Western League where despite early praise in the newspapers including The Sporting News, he went 6-11 and batted a disappointing .229. The following season he played for the Des Moines Boosters and had a bit more success with his 13-16 record for a poor team, but his average improved to .295. Despite his billing as a pitcher, Cullop was traded to the Omaha Buffaloes and converted into an outfielder. Through everyday use his hitting improved in spades to the point of him smashing 40 homers in 1924.
The New York Yankees got wind of Omaha's window-breaking outfielder and bought his contract from the Buffaloes. With the Yankee outfield stocked with fellas such as Babe Ruth, Earle Combes and Bob Meusel, Nick was optioned to the minor leagues for another year of seasoning.
Cullop was sent to the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association where he became the teams' starting center fielder. By now the 25 year-old slugger was married with two boys and his family moved with him to Atlanta for the 1925 season where he rented a 3rd floor apartment in town. The Yankee-in-waiting made the best out of his Atlanta assignment and continued demonstrating his hitting prowess. By the time Independence Day weekend rolled around Cullop was leading the Southern Association with 21 homers and was one of the most popular players on the Crackers.
Cullup went into the holiday weekend riding a hot streak - on the Thursday before the 4th he smashed 2 round-trippers off New Orleans' Harry Kelley and the next day belted another off John Martina. The Pelicans were still in town for the next 2 days and Nick was chomping at the bit getting ready to feast on some more New Orleans pitching.
Saturday morning, July 4th, Cullop was up early and at Spiller Field warming up for the holiday double header. Throwing the ball around to loosen up, Nick was informed that his 4 year-old son Billy had somehow broken through the screen covering the family's window and fallen 3 stories to the street below. Cullop dashed out of the ballpark still in uniform and not taking the time to grab a cab or secure a ride, ran the whole way back to his apartment building.
By the time the exhausted center fielder arrived in front of his home, young Billy Cullop was dead. The lengthy fall had broken his neck and he had died instantly. Cullop collapsed on the sidewalk in grief.
Emotionally distraught, Cullop spent two long weeks mourning his boy and supporting his frail wife and other son. The stress took its toll on the burly ballplayer and he lost over 14 pounds. When he finally became stable enough to suit up, Cullop dedicated the rest of his season to his boy Billy and finished up 1925 with a league-leading 30 home runs. Despite the tragic turn the year in Atlanta took, Nick had successfully battled back from adversity and proved to the Yankees that he had what it took to play in the big leagues. When the New Yorkers' went south for spring training in March of 1926, Nick Cullop was with them.
In his first season in the majors he rode the Yankee bench but did get into two games as a pinch hitter - he had one hit and one strike-out. Because of the sheer amount of talent on the Yankees Cullop was dealt to Washington and then Cleveland. Despite his promising minor league stats Cullop managed only .231 before he was sent back to Atlanta for the 1928 season.
The Crackers' fans welcomed Nick, his wife and remaining son back with open arms. If anything, Cullop's tragedy his previous stint in town made him an even more popular payer and he responded by hitting .352 with 17 homers. The Brooklyn Robins (they were nick-named "The Robins" after their popular manager Wilbert "Robby" Robinson and would be called "The Dodgers" after he left the club in 1932) took notice and when opening day 1929 came around Cullop was roaming the Ebbets Field as one of the Robins' back-up outfielders. Unfortunately a .195 batting average was not good enough to even stay in Brooklyn and he was sent down to Minneapolis for the 1930 season. If a being demoted a second time wasn't bad enough, things would get even worse for Nick.
During the winter of 1929-30 Nick's remaining son passed away when he contracted a fever and died. Unable to bear the death of their remaining son, Cullop's wife had a nervous break down and he spent the spring of 1930 nursing her back to health. The baseball season started off just as bad - in his 3rd game Cullop was beaned in the head. Throughout the first month of the season he suffered from a fear of the ball and in 15 at bats he struck-out 11 times.
With all the bad juju coming down on him, 1930 should have been a lousy season for Nick, but, like 1925 when Billy died, he put his head down and plowed ahead. For Nick Cullop 1930 was to be his best season ever. After that first month he suddenly regained his confidence and for the remaining 130 games he hit .359 and his 54 home runs was the best in the American Association. Just like in 1925 and 1928, the majors came knocking and Cullop was back in the bigs wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform during the tail end of the 1930 season.
Although he made the Reds after spring training in 1931, his final season in the majors was to be as disappointing as all the others. His fielding became so erratic to the point he committed 3 errors on the same play when he charged in on a scorching ground ball - the ball took a bad hop and went through his legs - error number one. Cullop turned to snag the ball when it rebounded off the outfield wall and went through his legs again - error number two. Finally catching up with the darn thing he threw it towards third but the throw, rushed by the flustered outfielder, went wild and eluded the third baseman - error number 3. That fielding lapse plus a .263 average and the most strike-outs in the National league sealed his fate - after the season his contract was sold to Columbus- Nick was back in the American Association again.
For his part he was pretty positive about his brief major league career, noting that the teams he played on already had pretty good talent in place and he never really had the chance to play a full season and show what he could do. Now realizing he was back in the minors to stay, Cullop focused on learning how to manage a ball club. The Columbus Red Birds were part of the Cardinals vast farm system and in 1941 the team put him in charge of their Asheville Tourists club. For the next 19 years Nick was a popular and successful manager, mostly at the AAA level with Baltimore, Columbus and Milwaukee. He retired in 1960, a full 40 years after turning pro.
There's one last story about Nick that I think speaks a lot about the man. While skipper of the Columbus Jets in 1955, he had a black outfielder named Al Pinkston on the team. Although this was 10 years since Jackie Robinson had broke the color line in organized ball, racial tensions were still present and during a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs those tensions were hot and heavy. Toronto's pitcher Bill Miller sent Pinkston diving into the dirt one pitch after another until he finally started arguing about it. As the 2 teams started getting closer to a fight, Cullop apparently heard something he didn't like from the Leaf's first baseman Lou Limmer and knocked him flat on his keister with a left-hook. Cullop was thrown out of the game, but that wasn't all. The two teams remained in a high state of alert and the next inning all hell broke loose after a rough play at second base. Before it ended 40 players pounded on one another before 11 sheriff's deputies and 7 local Columbus cops restored order. Limmer, already hurting from Cullop's left-hook, was hospitalized with severe bruising to the face and body. Nick Cullop was fined $50 and made African-American newspapers and magazines across the country for standing up for his black outfielder.