May 22, 2019

Touring the Bases With…George Culver

January 27, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

George Culver pitched for the Cleveland Indians (1966-67), Cincinnati Reds (1968-69), St. Louis Cardinals (1970), Houston Astros (1970-72), Los Angeles Dodgers (1973), Philadelphia Phillies (1973-74), and Nippon Ham Fighters (1975), and tossed a no-hitter in 1968.  He only led the league in one category once in his career – hit batters (1968). In nine seasons, he pitched in 335 games including 57 starts, and finished with a career record of 48-49 with 23 saves and 3.26 ERA.

For a book I was trying to get published, I wrote to a number of players who had done something interesting in their careers (i.e. threw a no-hitter, led the league in homers, etc.), but weren’t Hall of Famers (see a previous interview on Seamheads with Fritz Peterson).

George Culver, who threw a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 29, 1968, was the only player to write to me again wondering on the status of the book. While I was unsuccessful on getting it published, I feel I owe it to Culver to at least publish our conversation here.

Culver talks about his no-hitter in detail, but also about pitching on the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral, hurting his arm with the Reds, the 1972 strike and pitching in Japan.

Culver: My memory is kind of fading, but I do recall the day of the game, it was a doubleheader. I was pitching the second game so I didn’t have to go to the ballpark for the first game so I had like a late lunch. I couldn’t eat anything, my stomach was all messed up. Didn’t know what to do when something’s not right with your stomach. But anyway, I ate very little.

I caught a cab and went to the ballpark. At the park, the first game was a real long game. I think the score might have been something like 10-9, it was a real long game. It didn’t get over until about 10 o’clock at night if I recall.

[The Reds won the opener, 7-6, in two hours, 58 minutes. The next-longest game in the National League that day, not including Culver’s no-hitter which lasted two hours and 48 minutes, was two hours and 17 minutes. Most games that day were played at a two-hour pace.]

Culver: So I was just sitting and watching the game. So when I went out to warm up my toe – I had bad toe, it had been bothering me but nothing like that – and all of a sudden this toe is going to act up, too. So everything is crumbling on this one day.

So I run up into the clubhouse, I could hardly even put my shoe on, so I go up into the clubhouse and had the trainer inject me with Novocaine. He put Novocaine – I’m not even sure they can do that now, I’m not sure they could put a needle in you now with all the stuff going on. He put a needle in me, put Novocaine in there and so when I went back down to warm up I hadn’t even thrown a pitch – and the umpires are already on the field getting the lineups.

So now I have to warm up as fast as I can warm up. In those days a pitcher could warm up in front of the dugouts. So in a lot of those parks, not all them, but a lot of those parks you’d warm up right in front of the dugout.

This was in Connie Mack Stadium, the old ballpark in Philadelphia.

[Also once known as Shibe Park, Connie Mack Stadium was home to the Philadelphia A’s from 1909-1954 and to the Phillies from 1938-1970 (as well as part of 1927)].

Culver: I don’t think I threw but 20 pitches warming up. (Normally he’d throw) at least twice as many.

So when the game started my only thought was to try not to overthrow it in the game because I knew I wasn’t loose and didn’t want to hurt my arm.

I started the first inning just making sure I didn’t overthrow and so I got three kind of simple outs.

[Tony Taylor grounded out to shortstop, Roberto Pena struck out and Johnny Callison fouled out to first].

Culver: Because the bullpen was so far away, I still couldn’t go down and throw. The bullpen was all the way down in the left-field corner. So I still was basically hardly loose.

I guess it was the second inning there was a ground ball hit to Tony Perez at third. In fact Richie Allen hit it [Allen was leading off the inning]. It bounced up and Tony Perez went right to Woody Woodward, who was the shortstop, and Woody Woodward threw it in the stands at first base. Because it was Richie Allen and because it was Philadelphia I just assumed it was a hit and probably an error on the throw. I never really looked up at the scoreboard again until about the fourth inning.

But anyway, eventually he scored on a fly ball. They hit a ground ball and he went to third and then a fly ball, he scored. So I was losing 1-0.

[Bill White grounded out to first, with Allen going to third. After Don Lock walked, Cookie Rojas flied out to right field, Allen scoring].

Culver: I happened to look up at the scoreboard in the fourth inning and I think we were losing 1-0 [actually, the Reds had scored three times in the third inning, so perhaps it was then Culver looked at the scoreboard, prior to the Reds scoring] and they didn’t have any hits up there for them and I thought, if they didn’t give him a hit on that then this would be a good one to pitch a no-hitter and lose. It was the first time it occurred to me that I could pitch (a no-hitter) … For some reason it just popped into my head.

I kept looking every inning to see if they were going to change it to a hit, and they never changed it to a hit. So now the fans are starting to get into it. Plus it’s about midnight or after midnight now in Philadelphia and the fans had been there the whole day and half of them had been drinking all night. They were standing behind my dugout over there rooting for me at the end of every inning.

They were on my side. I don’t know if they were rooting for me or against the Phillies but in either case they were making a lot of noise and cheering me on.

So all of a sudden now this thing became a possibility and I got really nervous. I ain’t never pitched a no-hitter anywhere – not in high school, not in college, nowhere. It’s not exactly something you train for. How do train for how you act when you pitch a no-hitter? It’s not something you go out and practice (laughs).

So there I was, a guy who probably should never have been in the big leagues, and there I am standing on the mound with three outs to go. (laughs) Actually, I started getting really nervous around the seventh inning. Every pitch was like “Don’t make a mistake.” I was way too terrified. I ended up walking five guys, I think three of them in the last couple of innings.

[Besides Lock, Culver walked two batters in the sixth and two more in the eighth.]

Culver: Just started getting real careful. Ended up lucky to go ahead and do it.

Oh yeah (his teammates stayed away from him in the dugout), one guy, his name was Chico Ruiz, a reserve infielder. I didn’t know this was going on at the time but because they didn’t have a hit in the first inning he went to go to the bathroom. And the manager [Dave Bristol] said where are you going and he said I’m going to the bathroom.

And (the manager) said you can’t go until they get a hit. Teasing him, you know. So he made him sit there. In the ninth inning he’s still sitting there. So when the game’s over with everyone else ran on the field, he ran to the bathroom. The manager wouldn’t let him leave his seat, wouldn’t let him move until they got a hit.

I think the game was over at 1:30 morning or so. By the time I got done with a couple of interviews here and there – because there wasn’t a lot of press covering in those days, not anything like they have now – I think about 1:30 or so I asked the clubhouse guy for a beer and he said we don’t have any. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’re out.” They were all gone. I think he sent someone to one of the corner pubs and brought me back a couple of beers.

Hell, I couldn’t go celebrate anywhere. All the bars were closed. By the time we got back to our hotel it was 2 o’clock in the morning and all the bars were closed. Probably lucky because I still would have been celebrating. But what a heck of a night, you know?

(When the no-hitter was over) I jumped up and down. I recall saying “I did it! I did it! I did it!” Like, how did I do that? One of them days the good Lord points his finger at you and says it’s going to be a good day for you.

Yeah (it was opposite of what he expected), because I felt lousy all day. Sometimes that’s when you actually perform your best.

I know I had different times in my career where you had a cold or whatever and you’re out there and for some reason you seem to concentrate more. If that was the case, maybe you ought to make yourself sick before every game. Quite often you’ll see that happen. A guy will have a great game and he’ll say, I was sitting all day puking or whatever. Michael Jordan, that one game in the playoffs when he scored 60 points, didn’t he have a fever? It’s a freak thing, a freak of nature. I was very, very fortunate.

I took the glove out – here in Bakersfield there’s a Hall of Fame, so I gave it to them. That and the ball. I gave them the ball that was the final out. I kept the lineup card, I kept the key to my room.

Philadelphia probably had the most newspapers of any town in the National League at that time. I think there were four or five dailies at that time. So I obviously took all those papers and kept the clippings.

People sent me clippings from all over America. I had quite a collection of newspaper articles. Basically the same one – it was Associated Press and UPI. In this day and age now, it’d be on ESPN. They’d have put the last three innings on ESPN. I would have gotten a lot more national press, not sure I deserved it anyway.

It’s just something that happened. I don’t think of the game inning-by-inning or pitch-by-pitch. I remember the last pitch like it was yesterday. It was kind of strange because the guy hitting was Cookie Rojas, who had been my manager in winter ball the year before. So he knew me like a book. I mean, he managed me. Of all people, he’s got to be the guy to hit. Because he was a tough out. He didn’t strike out, good contact hitter. I threw him a slider and he topped it to first base.

[Culver threw his no-hitter in 1968, when the mound was raised and pitchers, it turned out, had a decided advantage. In 1969, with the mound lowered, Culver’s ERA went from 3.22 to 4.26, albeit he pitched half as many innings.]

Culver: I didn’t notice it (a difference in the mound height). I think the only guy that would have noticed the difference would have been guys that were more over the top. I threw more of a lower-arm thing, I didn’t throw that much over the top. I don’t think it had that much effect on me. The next year I was hurt quite a bit. I had hepatitis the next year so I sat out over two months of the season.

[Culver pitched for the Reds for two seasons. In the offseason of 1969, he was dealt to St. Louis – meaning he was around for the formation of the Big Red Machine, but wasn’t there when things started to click. The Reds went to the World Series in 1970 and 1972.]

Culver: While I was there they had good teams but we didn’t have any pitching. It seemed like the entire pitching staff was hurt all the time. There was only two or three of us that was healthy all the time. It ended up hurting my career because I was doing a lot of pitching I shouldn’t have been doing.

I was volunteering to take … in fact, in ’68 I started 35 games and relieved in seven more [with five complete games. Culver went 11-16 with two saves, pitching 226 1/3 innings]. You’d never hear of such a thing today. Somebody would get fired.

It wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own. I was the one who kept saying I’ll do it. Several times we had seven-, eight-, nine-man pitching staffs.

There were some horror stories about our pitching staff. To this day I don’t understand the reason why they didn’t keep a complete staff there. I think it could have been a financial thing. Cincinnati wasn’t exactly big spenders when it came to that type of stuff. They just didn’t want to spend the money.

I think we started the season with seven healthy pitchers, if I’m not mistaken. They didn’t use the disabled list like they do now. A lot of it was financial. They kept close tabs on the money you were spending in those days. If you got a $500 raise it was like pulling teeth.

I didn’t notice it [a dead arm] until the next year. I started noticing I didn’t have it … and the worst part was I just got through pitching four years in winter ball. In those days we all made more money in winter ball than we did during the season. Combine that with abusing the arm, I probably cut four or five years off my career. In 1968 we played a doubleheader in San Diego [this must have been in 1969, which was San Diego’s first year in the majors] and I pitched seven innings in the first game. In the second game, we were short a pitcher and I volunteered to pitch in the second game and ended up pitching in relief. That was on a Saturday or a Sunday, I don’t recall.

But in any case, on Wednesday I started the game on two days’ rest. Then there was another case where I pitched in Cincinnati on a … we had a Saturday doubleheader against the Cardinals. It was the same day that Robert Kennedy was going to be buried. Major League Baseball agreed not to play any games until after he was buried. Well, the train he was on kept getting delayed. It went about two or three hours longer than it was supposed to. I warmed up at least three times to start this game then the player reps would come back and say we’re not playing.

So we go into the clubhouse and we sit around and have these meetings and the general manager [Bob Howsam] came in and said we have a full house here, we need to play this game.

So our guys would vote and said no, we’re not going to play. So the manager finally says I’ll tell you what, who wants to play? Just give me nine guys and we’ll go play. So who do you think volunteers? All the pitchers. They wanted to go play. So he put a lineup out with all pitchers.

It wasn’t all pitchers, but there was a lot of pitchers, because some guys just chose to play. I can’t say I don’t want to play, I’m pitching.

So I go out and warm up again. Now they decide we can go ahead and play, so now they make a regular lineup. I think I pitched five innings or somewhere in there. It was one of them long things. And so I don’t remember if we won or lost, but we ended up playing a single game that day then they decided to play a doubleheader the next day.

So the next day, I ended up pitching relief in the second game, it was a Sunday afternoon. We go to Chicago and I started on Tuesday. One days’ rest and pitched on Tuesday. Stupid stuff like that every year.

[On June 8, 1968 – the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral – George Culver started and went 3 2/3 innings in a 7-2 loss to St. Louis. On June 9, Culver pitched one inning in the second game of a doubleheader, and getting the win. On Tuesday, June 11. Culver started at Chicago and lasted, again, 3 2/3 innings.]

Culver: One day I threw batting practice and was sitting in the bullpen listening to the game on the radio because we were playing the Dodgers. I’m a big fan of Vin Scully’s. When the Dodgers came to Cincinnati they broadcast the games over the Armed Forces Radio Network.

So I was sitting in the bullpen with the radio. I wasn’t even supposed to be down there. I just got done throwing batting practice that day. Didn’t even have baseball shoes on, didn’t have a jock on, sitting there listening to the game. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the bullpen.

It was one of them 11-10 type games and we ran out of pitchers. So the phone rang and I happened to be sitting there and picked it up. It was Dave Bristol, the manager. He said, “Who’s this?” I said, “George.” He said, “What are you doing there?” I was just sitting in the bullpen relaxing, I didn’t want to tell anybody I was listening to the game.

And he says, “Can you throw?” And I said, “Well, I can try.” And he said, “Well, start warming up.” I had to go into the clubhouse and get my shoes on. By the time I got back out there and started throwing, they called down there and told me to hurry up and get ready because they’re going to put me in the game. Sure enough, I got to go into the game.

It’s the eighth inning (and) I’m our last pitcher. Eighth inning, it’s a tie game, bases loaded, nobody out. I get out of it. We don’t score in the bottom of the eighth. Next inning, they got bases loaded nobody out off me and I’m sitting there thinking, you’ve got to be kidding. Here I am volunteering to pitch and now I’m going to end up getting a loss in this stupid game. Just snuck it out of that inning. Then we scored in the bottom of the ninth and I win the game (laughs).

[On May 29, 1968, Culver was called into pitch with none out and the bases loaded in the seventh inning. He then struck out Wes Parker, got Willie Davis to hit into a force, the runner out at home, and finished it off by striking out Len Gabrielson. After an eighth inning in which he walked one, Culver loaded the bases in the ninth (after retiring the first batter) on two hits and an intentional walk. He then got pinch-hitter Rocky Colavito to pop out to shortstop and Ron Fairly to do the same to third. The Reds plated the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on a two-out error.]

Culver: And I mean after the end of the year I was totally spent. My arm was shot. It didn’t hurt or anything, but I was just so spent. The next year I could tell I didn’t have the same stuff.

After that year I had surgery on my elbow, at the end of the ’70 season. And I was never the same after that. I still pitched three or four more years, but never the same.

I had bone chips. It was a pretty simple surgery, even then. For some reason, the combination of all those things – the four years of winter ball, the abuse, not exactly being the hardest trainer in the world. I was kind of a guy that didn’t take real good care of myself. You add all those things up and your career gets shortened in a hurry.

[Culver was around for the first strike to wipe out major-league games. In 1972, over the issue of pensions, 13 days of baseball – equaling 86 games – were missed.]

Culver: Actually they had one in ’69 also. It didn’t make it to the start of spring training, but we were told not to sign our contracts until they agreed.

I was broke. I was flat broke. I wanted to sign my contract because I wanted to get a $500 advance.

I’m sitting there in Tampa waiting for them to say it’s OK so I can sign my contract. I was flat broke. Finally they agreed and I went in and signed. As soon as they said OK I was right there in the door getting my contract signed.

So then in ’72, I can’t remember when we went on strike, I guess it was right at the end of spring training [April 1-13], but we had team workouts. I was with the Astros and we had team workouts at this complex, if I’m not mistaken I think it was a softball complex over in Houston somewhere.

When we first started everybody was out there, religiously showed up every day. The player rep was Larry Dierker and he’d give us the latest news and what was going on. It just kept going.

And each day there’d be two or three more guys not show up. Guys started dropping out of the workouts, everybody started losing interest. I think it might have been two weeks, we finally settled in two weeks. But it was not fun. It was not fun.

Again, that’s two weeks salary. We didn’t make that much money. You lost two weeks salary, it’s going to hurt you. It was one of those things where you almost have to do it or else you lost a lot of friends on your team.

That was one thing, we were all going to stick together and hope for the best. Look what happened to those guys who jumped the line on that replacement deal. Even the umpires. They’re still going through it. That’s something they have to live with. The guys that jumped the line on that replacement deal, the umpires, those guys are still suffering with that. They’re still dealing with that decision in their own mind. A lot of ‘em if they had to do over again, would not do it. I understand, like those umpires, a lot of ‘em still won’t have anything to do with them. Still won’t talk to them.

[Culver went from Houston to the L.A. Dodgers to Philadelphia. His major-league career ended when the Phillies released him on June 28, 1974.]

Culver: I went to Japan in ’75. I was pretty well done by then. I was supposed to stay there for two years and they didn’t honor the second year of my contract, which is very unusual for the Japanese. They are usually very honorable.

In this case, I was lied to and cheated out of money. The Nippon Ham Fighters, they told me I was going to have a two-year contract. I only pitched 20-some innings the first year I was there. I didn’t do very well in a lot of the games. I did OK in two or three of the games, but it was a tough adjustment for me because of the high strike zone – and I was a low-ball pitcher – and I couldn’t get any low strikes. I had to pitch higher and I couldn’t do it.

So I got thumped around pretty good. I had a few good games, but I had some other games where I didn’t have good games. I was still sort of adjusting and was obviously looking forward to going back for the second year and never got a plane ticket. I finally got a letter that said they were releasing me.

I thought, well, they still have to pay me. Then they claimed I signed two one-year contracts. This is very un-Japanese. I mean, you can trust Japanese people with your lives. This was just a stab in the back for them to do this was totally out of character of Japanese. Japan is the only place where you can lay your wallet in the middle of your bed in the hotel room and with money laying all over the place and the Japanese people will walk right into your room and not touch a thing. You can’t be any more honest than that.

I had no recourse. I talked to Bowie Kuhn, the (MLB) commissioner at the time and I talked to Marvin Miller, who was the players union guy, and I explained to them the whole story and sent them all the contracts and all the documents and they said, well, you know what, you’ll probably collect on this but you’re going to have to go to Japan to do it. By the time you go over, get a lawyer, you’re going to end up with nothing left anyway.

So I have a feeling the team knew this. If they had just come to me and said we don’t want you back, you’re not any good, I would have understood that. But still they’re the ones who signed me to a contract. If they said, look, we’ll pay you half or do a severance thing, I probably would have done that. The way they did it, I lost all confidence in Japanese baseball.

It (the social adjustment) was not that hard. I thought it was going to be a lot like Latin America.

Latin America is tough on American guys who go down there for the first time. The language is a problem, people drive cars fast, they don’t obey the laws, it’s a little different adjustment. It’s like Helter Skelter.

In Japan, everything is the opposite. It’s real laid back, nobody is in a hurry, they give you interpreters. The people really like baseball over there, they make you feel at home. Everybody is real respectful, it’s a totally different atmosphere.

The other guy on my team was Garry Jestadt. He had a family there, I was single at the time. I still see Garry quite a bit.

[Jestadt played 176 games in the majors mostly for the Cubs and Padres in 1971-72. He also played in six games for the Expos in 1969].

Culver: It was the most enjoyable baseball ever, except I didn’t have good results pitching. If anybody ever gets a chance to go to Japan it’s a wonderful place. It’s a great experience, very expensive, though.

I tried to hook up with some teams here and I didn’t have any luck. So I finally thought I might try to do something locally. I did different odds and ends jobs. Then I met this gal, who is my wife now, and she had a son who was a freshman in high school. He’s a baseball player.

So I got him and some other guys and formed a little travel team. I started getting interested in coaching. The local team in the California League hired me as their manager in 1978.

It was actually an independent team, they had players from six or seven organizations. A new owner came in so they brought in a new manager. In other words I got fired.

A friend of mine named Ron Clark was managing in the Phillies organization. We had played together [both Clark and Culver were property of the Phillies in 1974]. He was managing a Double-A team and said he could use help. And that’s how I got started.

I was with him in ’81 and in ’82 when he got the jump to Triple-A. I didn’t go with him and he got fired (laughs). He was with them one year and got fired and I ended up being with them for 18 years. I got fired in ’98. I was out again for three years and went with the Dodgers in 2004.

Oh yeah, I see (Vin Scully) all the time. Sit there and talk baseball stories, he’s the greatest. In fact, he always tells the story about how if it hadn’t been for him, one of my wins was because of him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in the bullpen.


4 Responses to “Touring the Bases With…George Culver”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    In 1968, the mound was 15 inches high, same as it had been since 1950.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    I don’t think Dave meant the mound was physically raised in 1968, I think he meant that it was still higher than it is today.

  3. Thanks Dave for the article…I must have hidden it somewhere and just found it again….
    Well written..
    George Culver

  4. Doug Wilson says:

    Great interview, Dave. Thanks for posting it. Very informative. I love the part about Chico Ruiz.

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