Nick Cullop: Triumph & Tragedy 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. That’s what happened when I was going through a 1925 Dallas sports page and stumbled on an Associated Press article that caused 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 one of the “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues” back in the 1920’s and 30’s. His record of 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 son and his family moved with him to Atlanta for the 1925 season where he rented a third 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 Crescent City 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 three 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 strikeout. 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 and his wife back with open arms. The couple now had a daughter Alice, born in 1927 and their son Henry who would be born in June. If anything, Cullop’s tragedy his previous stint in town made him an even more popular player and he responded by hitting .352 with 17 homers for 1928. 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 bought him from Atlanta. Right from the start of spring training there were rumors that the sale was actually part of a “cover up” that was orchestrated to placate Cullop into thinking he had a chance at the majors again, but in actuality Brooklyn was to return him to Atlanta after they cut him.
The problem with the scheme was that Cullop actually proved to be a good prospect, battering the ball throughout the spring. Then in March he abruptly left the Robins training camp to be with his wife when she had her appendix removed. In an unheard of move, Cullop petitioned Robinson for permission to stay in Atlanta and work out with the Crackers, which was refused. But when the troublesome recruit refused to report, Robinson relented and let him stay, much to the chagrin of the rest of the team. There was talk in the Robins locker room that Cullop was the type of player who would rather be a big shot in a minor league than put in the extra effort to stick in The Show.
By the first of April Mrs. Cullop had recovered enough for her husband to rejoin the Robins in Florida. He arrived on April 3 and was taken from the train to the ballpark where he went 3 for 3 with a double and 5 RBI against Jacksonville. Then in what some sportswriters called his big test, the reluctant Robin went 5 for 5 against his old Atlanta team. Cullop hit a home run, triples, singled, bunted successfully for a hit and walked. When the Robins opened the 1929 season Nick Cullop was wearing a Brooklyn uniform. Unfortunately a .195 batting average in 13 games was not good enough and he was sent back down to Atlanta. This move left a bad taste in Cullop’s mouth as he was now thirty and his playing window was rapidly closing.And then there was the rumors about the supposed cover up…
Cullop thought that he had what it took to be a starter on any other team, but was convinced Brooklyn colluded with Atlanta to bury him in the minors and hide him from other major league teams. There seemed to be solid evidence as Cullop had in his possession a bizarre letter from Atlanta Crackers’ president R.J. Spiller that admits his sale to Brooklyn in 1929 was a “cover-up” and the end game was for him to be returned to Atlanta where the Crackers planned to build their team around the slugger. Why Spiller would admit in writing his part in a scheme that violated the laws of baseball is unknown, but if true, Cullop may have been elligable for free agency. In the meantime, Atlanta had sold Cullop’s contract to the Minneapolis Millers and pocketed the money from the transaction. While Cullop was fine with going to Minneapolis, he firmly believed that because of the shady Brooklyn-Atlanta deal he should have been free to negotiate his own deal with any team that was interested and to bank any bonus money.
There was talk that the Spiller letter was a forgery and the whole affair caused such a ruckus that the case went all the way to Commissioner Landis. Initially, Landis was on the side of the Brooklyn-Atlanta faction, to the point of scolding Cullop for demanding free agency. It wasn’t that the commissioner was against granting free agency to players – he’d done just that the year before when he “freed” five minor league players who suffered from the same “cover up” as Cullop now alleged. The rub was that if Landis was too free with granting players free agency, the whole Reserve Clause system that baseball was built upon could collapse like a house of cards. So in December Landis ruled that the Brooklyn-Atlanta deal was kosher and Cullop was to report to Minneapolis.
That was supposed to be the end of the matter, but the case was re-opened in February when Landis traveled to Atlanta to interrogate President Spiller. In the end the original ruling was upheld and Cullop reported to Minneapolis for the 1930 season. If remaining in the minors and losing out on free agency wasn’t bad enough, things would get even worse for Nick.
During the winter of 1929-30 the Cullop’s remaining son passed away when he contracted a fever and died. Unable to bear the death of another child, Cullop’s wife had a nervous break down and he spent the spring of 1930 nursing her back to health. I have to add here that this story of a second son passing away may not be true. I found reference to this in several short articles on Cullop, but could not find any contemporary newspaper articles to back it up. A family tree on the genealogy website Ancestry.com shows the Cullop’s second son Henry born in 1928 but instead of passing away in 1930, he lived until 1977.
Whether he suffered the death of a child or not, the baseball season started off bad – in his 3rd game Cullop was beaned in the head, temporarily damaging his eyesight and confining him to the bench for a week. 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 two teams started getting closer to a fight, Cullop apparently heard something he didn’t like from the Leaf’s first baseman Lou Limmer, who had played for Cullop the previous season, 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 when Limmer tried to spike Columbus’ Spook Jacobs. Spook knocked Limmer to the ground for the second time that game, igniting a free for all that took eleven sheriff’s deputies and seven local Columbus cops to restore 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.
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The Nick Cullop illustration is part of my 20-card set Bush League Home Run Heroes. This is a very limited-edition set of 20 art cards, depicting a quarter century of minor league home run hitters – from 1890’s proto-slugger Perry Werden to 1970’s champ Hector Espino, this set of original drawings and research brings these little-known heroes to life. Where else are you going to find cards of Frosty Kennedy, Big Boy Kraft and Bunny Brief all in one set? Only here!
Each set of 20 is hand-cut and packaged. The cards are printed on semi-gloss card stock and measure 2 1/4″ x 3 3/4.″ You can pick up a set HERE