October 18th, 2013
The next time I hear James Taylor sing “Walking Man,” I’m sure the name of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant will cross my mind. Roy Cullenbine refused to swing at any pitch that was not in the strike zone. If he played today, he’d probably be an Oakland A and praised profusely in the sports media for his ability to get on base. But Cullenbine played in the 1940’s, during an era when ballplayers were expected to swing their bats at any pitch they could reach and taking too many “walks” was even considered by many to be a sign of laziness. Few paid much attention to on base percentage until Bill James promoted the stat as the sport’s Holy Grail decades later. So when Cullenbine’s OBP reached .477 in 1946, nobody noticed and even though he got on base four out of every ten times he came to the plate the following season and finished second on the Tigers in runs scored, he was still released at the end of the season and forced into retirement.
Cullenbine was born in Tennessee in 1913 but raised in Detroit, where he became a switch-hitting star of the City’s sandlot leagues. The Tigers signed him but then lost him in 1939, when Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that Detroit had violated roster manipulation rules and the Commissioner penalized the organization by declaring several of their prized prospects free agents. Cullenbine then signed for a hefty bonus with the Dodgers, got traded to the Browns and in 1942, got traded again, this time to the Senators.
With WWII raging, every big league team was losing players to military service and when Tommy Henrich joined the Coast Guard in August of the 1942 season, Yankee GM Ed Barrow checked the waiver wire to see if he could pick up another outfielder. He found Cullenbine’s name on the list and claimed him on the last day of August.
Since that season’s Yankee team also had George Selkirk on its roster as the fourth outfielder, it wasn’t clear how much playing time Cullenbine would get from New York’s skipper Joe McCarthy. As it turned out, with the Yanks comfortably ahead of the Red Sox in the AL Pennant race at the time, Marse Joe started Cullenbine just about every game down the stretch so he could give his regulars plenty of rest for the postseason.
Cullenbine took advantage of the opportunity by hitting .364 in the 21 games he played in pinstripes that month, while producing a sky-high .484 OBP. That performance guaranteed him a spot on the Yankees World Series roster. He then played in all five games of the 1942 World Series, batting .263 in New York’s losing effort to the Cardinals.
Most Yankee fans and pundits probably expected to see Cullenbine return to the Bronx on Opening Day 1943. But one week before Christmas in 1942, the Yanks traded him and catcher Buddy Rosar to Cleveland for infielder Oscar Grimes and outfielder Roy Weatherly. The “Walking Man” played real well for the Indians the next two seasons and then got traded back to Detroit, where his big league career ended in the same town it began.
Cullenbine passed away in 1991 in Michigan at the age of 77. He still holds the 38th highest MLB career on base percentage. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee third baseman and this former Yankee reliever.
|DET (5 yrs)||501||1952||1561||268||421||76||11||63||259||10||373||164||.270||.412||.454||.865|
|CLE (3 yrs)||300||1288||1072||167||304||59||9||24||136||7||194||107||.284||.395||.423||.817|
|SLB (3 yrs)||273||1080||867||138||239||47||12||18||143||6||201||97||.276||.414||.420||.834|
|WSH (1 yr)||64||285||241||30||69||19||0||2||35||1||44||18||.286||.396||.390||.787|
|BRO (1 yr)||22||84||61||8||11||1||0||1||9||2||23||11||.180||.405||.246||.651|
|NYY (1 yr)||21||97||77||16||28||7||0||2||17||0||18||2||.364||.484||.532||1.017|