In the decade that encompassed the World War II years, professional baseball was undergoing a tremendous growth spurt. A new phenomenon, the farm system, was threatening to destroy the fabric of competitive balance in the game. The war threatened the very nature of American society, but after FDR gave his approval for baseball to “play on” during the war years, the national pastime found its footing and survived a tumultuous era.
Many unusual things took place in baseball in the 1940s. Baseball welcomed nubile teenagers, old men, and even a man with one arm, to play professional baseball. The product on the field was not as good as it had been in the days of Babe Ruth, but it was still major league ball and it served as a diversion for Americans. Among the men who played the game the best in that era was the largely forgotten Roy Cullenbine, a tall, sturdy man whose primary strength on the baseball diamond was not appreciated by most of the men he played with and for.
Like Willie Horton a generation later, Roy Cullenbine’s family moved to Detroit when he was a child so his father could work at an auto plant. Like Horton, Cullenbine was an outfielder who signed with the Tigers. But after a few trials with Detroit in 1938-39, Cullenbine was let loose of his contract when the commissioner freed half of the young players in the Detroit farm system due to rules violations. Set free, the switch-hitter signed a contract with the Dodgers for $20,000.
Cullenbine’s stay in Brooklyn lasted only two months: he hit below .200 and quickly became the target of boo birds who called him “The $20,000 Peach”. The Dodgers shipped him to the Browns, where he made the All-Star team in 1941. He was an unusual collection of talents: he had a very strong throwing arm, he hit well from both sides of the plate, and he could play any of the four corner spots on the diamond. His best attribute was his ability to tell a ball from a strike. His walk rate is one of the ten best in history.
He came full circle when the Indians traded him to the Tigers early in the 1945 season. Hitting in the #5 spot behind Hank Greenberg, Cullenbine churned out 52 RBIs in the last two months and helped lead the Tigers to the pennant, finishing second in the AL in home runs. He got on base 13 times in the seven-game World Series win over the Cubs.
He had an incredible season in 1946, reaching base 199 times in only 419 plate appearances for a .477 on-base percentage. That year from July 4th on, Cullenbine hit .391 with a .530 on-base percentage. The following season he walked 137 times, but the Tigers still didn’t understand him: forced to play him at first base when Greenberg was traded to Pittsburgh, manager Steve O’Neill often hit Cullenbine seventh in the lineup, wasting his amazing ability to get on base. That’s because O’Neill judged Roy on his .224 batting average that season, but his OBP was .401 and he hit a career-best 24 home runs, which ranked fourth in the league. Cullenbine reached base in 31 consecutive games, and set a major league record by drawing a walk in 22 straight in ‘47.
Detroit’s front office and coaching staff blindly focused on Roy’s perceived deficiencies. General Manager Billy Evans later said, “Steve O’Neill estimated we lost around 15 games last season because of Cullenbine’s play around first.” Of course no such thing is possible, and given Cullenbine’s record-setting skills at getting on base, he was one of the most valuable players on the Tigers. In spring training in 1948, the Tigers placed him on waivers, and when no team in the AL claimed him(!), they gladly traded the 34-year old to the Phillies. But Cullenbine reported out of shape and was cut before the season started. His career was over, only one season after finishing fourth in the league in home runs, only one season after walking 137 times. But back then, professional baseball men didn’t always know a good ballplayer when they saw one.