Thursday, February 22, 2007

100 Greatest Red Sox >> #67 Ray Culp

Ray Culp, SP, #21 (1968-1973)

71 wins, 58 losses, 155 GS, 51 CG, 13 SHO, 794 Ks, 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

Quick. Name an ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a native of Texas, who wore No. 21.

That, in a nutshell, is why you’ve never heard of Ray Culp.

Culp had a solid career in Boston after being given up by two teams, winning at least 14 games in four consecutive seasons, hurling four consecutive shutouts during the Year of the Pitcher, and tying a league record for most strikeouts to begin a game. Yet he played for the forgettable, almost-good-enough teams that bridged two of the Red Sox’ most famous seasons – 1967 and 1975 – thus relegating his fine work to near-obscurity as time has gone on.

Raymond Leonard Culp was born Aug. 6, 1941 in Elgin, Texas. A high school star in Austin, he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies after graduating in 1959. Four years later, he made his Major League debut, coming on in relief and picking up the win in two innings of work against Cincinnati.

By many measures, Culp’s rookie season of 1962 was one of the best of his career. He went 14-11, started 30 games, completed 10 of them and pitched five shutouts. In more than 203 innings, he struck out 176 batters and posted a career-low 2.97 ERA, (not as impressive, however, when considering the league average was 3.22). Culp, named to the All-Star team, finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting, garnering one first-place vote but losing to some joker named Pete Rose.

Culp never could produce such results consistently in Philadelphia, however. In 1964, he threw a one-hitter – but he tanked in far more games than he excelled. His ERA soared to 4.13, and he finished a mere 8-7. By the end of the season, he was in the bullpen. His 1965 season was much better (14 wins, 3.22 ERA); 1966 was much worse (7 wins, 5.04 ERA, an appalling 72 ERA+).

The Phillies shipped Culp to Chicago in the offseason with cash for Dick Ellsworth. In his lone season with the Cubs, Culp was a little better – but still not very good. For the first time, he finished with a losing record; his ERA for the third time in four years was below league average. Perhaps telling of his season, Culp helped create a Major League record when the Cubs and Braves combined for five home runs in the first inning. He won the game, despite the two dingers he allowed.

The Cubs, too, had seen enough, and on Nov. 30, 1967 – just more than a month after the Impossible Dream had ended, the Red Sox traded for him in exchange for Rudy Schlesinger, who finished his career with one at bat and three different stints with the Boston organization. It was an unheralded move, but it was a steal for the Sox.

Steve Buckley’s “Red Sox: Where Have You Gone?” tells the story of Culp’s arrival:

"Looking for a change when he joined the team, he tossed out his old uniform number – 37 – and asked for a new one. Turns out that another Texas native, Cecil “Tex” Hughson, had worn the number in the ’40s, so Culp picked it up for himself. Years later, still another Texan, Roger Clemens, claimed the number … "

Culp also developed a palmball, which clearly improved his performance (the fact that it was 1968, a year in which teammate Carl Yastrzemski set a record with the lowest ever league-leading batting average, certainly didn’t hurt). His ERA improved by a run, to 2.91. He finished 16-6 (second in the league in winning percentage), completing 11 of his 30 games started and tossing a career-high six shutouts. Four of those shutouts came consecutively, as Culp did not allow an earned run for 39 straight innings, stretching from the seventh inning on Sept. 7 to the first inning on Sept. 29.

Innings 18 through 26 of the streak came against the Yankees in the Bronx. It was a beauty – a one-hit, one-walk, 11-strikeout performance that, according to my research, stood as the best game ever thrown by a Sox pitcher against the Yankees in the Retrosheet era (post-1957) until Pedro Martinez’s 17-K one-hitter in 1999.

In 1969, Culp was nearly as good, winning a career-high 17 games and pitching a career-high 227 innings. He also was named to his second and final All-Star team, pitching a scoreless ninth and striking out two. He also hit a home run on national television that season, the dugout TV microphones capturing his assertion that it was the second og his career. When baseball legend/color commentator Sandy Koufax informed Culp it was actually just the first, Culp replied: “Oh, that (other) was in a spring training game. But when you’re as bad a hitter as I am, you count everything.”

On the mound, doing what he did best, Culp wasn’t finished yet. In 1970, he won another 17 games (though he lost 14), posted the third-best ERA of his 11-year career and posted a career-high 131 ERA+. He completed 15 of his 33 games and set a career high in strikeouts, with 197, good for fifth in the league. He also tied an American League record on May 11, when he struck out the first six Angels he faced.

In 1971, Culp was decent, though his record didn’t reflect it. He finished 14-16 with a 3.60 ERA. He compiled at least 150 strikeouts, 215 innings pitched and nine complete games for the fourth consecutive year – all with Boston, in what turned out to be his last good season in baseball.

Shoulder problems that had nagged him since high school and likely contributed to his inconsistent play before the palmball, led to offseason surgery and an attempt at a comeback n 1972. The comeback was not successful. The Sox released Culp in July and signed him to a minor-league contract in the hopes that he could rediscover his form in Pawtucket. It didn’t work. In 1973, he pitched in 10 games, throwing well in just one of them – although that was against the Yankees. At age 31 and after 11 seasons in the big leagues, Ray Culp retired.

Ultimately, Culp’s 71 wins in a Red Sox uniform are good for 25th all-time – between Carl Mays and Derek Lowe. His 3.50 ERA with the Sox stands 17th on the all-time list, tied with Mel Parnell. Most impressively, he is 10th all-time in strikeouts, his 794 Ks in a Boston uniform ahead of such better-known names as Lonborg, Grove, Parnell, Lee and Schilling.

Since leaving baseball, Culp has become successful in real estate – an excellent choice along Austin’s booming Interstate 35 corridor. He named his business 123 Inc., a testament to his career batting average. As of the 2004 publication of Buckley’s book, Culp still lives there, largely unknown as one of the best pitchers ever to wear a Red Sox uniform.

Paul is a comoderator for Yanksfan vs. Soxfan, a blog dedicated to all things Sox-, Yanks- and rivalry-related.


Anonymous said...

He married my dad's cousin... cool guy. Got the whole team to sign a baseball for my mom.

Malvina said...

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Tammi Stark said...

Not only an outstanding ball player, but the best Dad a kid could ever ask for. Love you Pops! :-)

Anonymous said...

First Game I ever saw at Fenway
Loved That guy' Saw a lot more of Roger but I always told anyone who would listen about the Original 21 BIG RAY CULP