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The Culbersons: Grandfather and Grandson

Vin Scully and one of the many times he waved hello and goodbye

Being a storyteller and the daughter of a storyteller (my mom), one of the things I enjoyed the most about listening to Vin Scully as his career progressed was his consummate ability to weave a story that fit the fabric of the game he was announcing.  And the fact that he continued to work Dodger games without the assistance of a color commentator meant that he could unfold his stories between pitches without them being stepped on by other announcers.  The pace of baseball also lends itself to storytelling.  One of the lessons Vin learned from Red Barber was to do his homework, gathering facts in the clubhouse, on the field or in the front office, facts that could be used (but never forced) at the appropriate time in the game.  In addition, with each passing year, Vin collected more and more anecdotes.  Plus the stories from his earliest days with the Dodgers could become fresh again.  And his curious mind began to research stories of general interest.  So whether it was the history of beards in response to the recent trend of players toward chin spinach, or the time he announced the first major league home run of one of his Fordham baseball teammates, or how he was at Ebbets Field the day Sandy Koufax tried out for the Dodgers and Vin thought Koufax would never make it because his tan looked like he spent more time at the beach than on a baseball field, the stories were marvelously spellbinding.

When Vin broadcast his last game in San Francisco, he was pretty much the whole story from a Dodger perspective.  While the Giants were still fighting for a wild card berth (which they clinched on the day of his last broadcast, to his joy since there is still a bit of Giants fan in him dating back to that day during the 1936 World Series when 8 year old Vin Scully became attached to the team that played a short distance from where he grew up in Washington Heights), the Dodgers were already in the playoffs.  They had clinched the West Division of the National League their previous Sunday, the last game that Vin would announce in front of his home team adoring fans.  And considering the emotion of the day and the way the Dodgers won with a walk off home run, it’s understandable that he either missed a story or felt it was too long and complicated to fit in at that juncture.  But there was something about the way the game ended that tied a bow on Vin’s career.  There was a connection to the history of the game and the Brooklyn Dodgers right around the time that Vin was a young college broadcaster and sportswriter at Fordham and the start of his professional career with the Dodgers.

Here’s how Vin called the hit that clinched the 2016 NL West pennant for the Dodgers:


And with your indulgence, I’ll embellish it.

Charlie Culberson in 2016

I knew a little bit about Charlie Culberson when he hit the walk-off pennant clinching home run.  With all the injuries the Dodgers dealt with in 2016, he had been on a shuttle back and forth between L.A. and the Dodgers AAA farm team in Oklahoma City.  He unexpectedly made the team at the start of the season, and looked good in early limited action, going 4 for 9 in his first two starts.  But when players returned from injuries, he lost out on the numbers game and was sent down on May 18.  He was called up for three days in July but sent down again before another call up on August 23.  With the rosters expanded on September 1, he stayed with the Dodgers for the rest of the regular season.  He got the start at second base (one of four positions he would play for the Dodgers that year) in the Dodgers final home game of the season and he was already 2 for 4 on the day when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning with two outs and no one on base.  Not only did he strike the pennant winning blow, he did it just moments ahead of the Giants losing to San Diego, meaning the Dodgers could boast that they clinched on their own merit, not because of a loss by the Giants.

But who was Charlie Culberson?  The Dodgers had signed him as a free agent in November 2015 after Charlie had elected that status after he spent the entire 2015 season on the disabled list or at the Rockies (the same team he beat on 9/25/16 to clinch the pennant) AAA farm team in Albuquerque.  Ironically, he began his career in the Giants organization, a first round draft pick in the June 2007 draft.  He finally made his way to the majors on May 13, 2012.  He went 1 for 4 in his major league debut, and played six games before being sent back to the minors.  He struggled at the plate, batting only .136.

On July 27, the Giants traded him to the Rockies for veteran infielder, Marco Scutaro.  While Scutaro played a key role in the Giants reaching and winning the World Series that year, mostly starting at second base, Charlie spent the rest of the season in the minors.  He spent the second half of the 2013 season with the Rockies and looked much improved, batting .293 in 99 at bats.  But seeing regular playing time the following season, his average dipped to .195 in 210 at bats.  With 2015 basically a lost season, Charlie wasn’t very prominent on anyone’s radar in September 2016.

Leon Culberson

But there was something else about Charlie.  His last name isn’t common.  But it is a name that’s important in baseball lore.  And when he hit that huge home run, I decided to check it out.  And it turns out that Charlie Culberson is a grandson of Leon Culberson who played in the major leagues from 1943 to 1948, mostly for the Red Sox and briefly for the Senators.

Leon saw plenty of playing time during the war years because he was found medically unfit for duty on numerous occasions because of a trick knee.  That knee would also occasionally put him on the bench.  But he still saw plenty of action in his first three seasons, batting .263 with 11 home runs, 100 RBI’s and 24 stolen bases in 253 games and 925 at bats.

With the veterans returning in 1946, Leon still made the major league roster.  But his playing time was limited to 59 games and 179 at bats.  Even so, he contributed handsomely to the Red Sox pennant winning season, their first pennant since 1918 and their subsequent selling of Babe Ruth to the Yankees on the day after Christmas in 1919 for $100,000.  He batted .313 as he started 36 games in the outfield and three at third base.  And that put him in the 1946 World Series where he got into five games, starting two in right field.  His home run and single in game 5 helped the Sox take a 3-2 lead in the Series.  He started again in game 6, and took an 0 for 4 collar as the Cardinals won at home to force a seventh game.

Leon was on the bench for the deciding game, Wally Moses given the start in right field.  Of course Ted Williams would be starting in left field and Dom DiMaggio in center.  And Leon was still there when the fateful 8th inning began.  The Red Sox were trailing 3-1 and time was running out as the home town fans were anticipating their 3rd World Championship in five years.

Manager Joe Cronin rolled the dice in that 8th inning.  He sent up Rip Russell to bat for the catcher, Hal Wagner.  Russell hit a single to center to get things going.  As expected, Cronin then pinch hit for pitcher Joe Dobson, sending up George “Catfish” Metkovich.  Catfish smoked a double to left and Russell stopped at third base.  Rookie manager Eddie Dyer had seen enough of his starting pitcher, Murray Dickson.  He waved in Harry “The Cat” Brecheen from the bullpen.  Brecheen had already started and won two games, one a shutout.  But the little lefty was familiar with coming out of the bullpen and he was doing a good job of taming Boston bats in the Series.

Cronin let Moses bat and Brecheen promptly caught him looking at a third strike.  Johnny Pesky, a .335 hitter in the regular season and a .307 hitter for his career, hit a line drive, but Enos Slaughter caught it in left and the runners held.  That brought up Dom DiMaggio.  Dom didn’t hit home runs the way his brothers Joe and Vince did, but he could still stroke doubles and triples as well as singles and he had hit .316 in 1946.  Dom hit one all the way to the wall at Sportsman’s Park in right-center field.  The two runners on base scored easily and Dom thought he had an excellent chance for a triple.  But between first and second base, his hamstring muscle popped and he had to settle for a double.  Still the game was tied, the Red Sox were alive with a runner in scoring position and Ted Williams coming to the plate.  Culberson, the logical choice to replace DiMaggio in the field, was sent in to run for him.

Williams sent a foul tip back and it split the finger of rookie catcher, Joe Garagiola, a hometown hero who was one of the stars of the Series, batting .316.  In mere moments, one starting player for each team had to leave the game with an injury.  Del Rice, who had started two games behind the plate for the Cardinals in the Series, came into the game.

Williams had a disappointing Series, his only one, batting only .200 with 5 singles (plus 5 walks) as the shift employed against the dead pull hitter and the Cardinals pitchers stymied him time after time.  In the seventh game, Williams did hit the ball to all fields, but all three were caught in the outfield.  Still, the big guy might come through at any time.  However “The Cat” got the best of “The Splendid Splinter”, inducing him to hit a pop up to second baseman Red Schoendienst.

Culberson trotted out to center field for the bottom of the eighth, but the Red Sox had new life.  They also needed to bring in a new pitcher as they had batted for Joe Dobson in the top of the inning.  Cronin chose right-hander Bob Klinger over left-hander Earl Johnson to face the left-handed hitting Slaughter.  Klinger had been a starting pitcher with the Pirates from 1938-43 before going into the Navy.  But the Pirates released him early in 1946 and the Red Sox grabbed him.  They used him sparingly, but almost exclusively in relief and he responded well.  In 29 games, he was 3-2 with a 2.37 ERA.  He also let the American League with 9 saves, an unofficial category at the time when starting pitchers were expected to go the distance if they were pitching well.  However, it was the first time Cronin used him in the Series.  But many of the Cardinals would have been familiar with him from his time in the National League.

Slaughter immediately greeted Klinger with a single to center.  Dyer had third baseman Whitey Kurowski bunt to move Slaughter into scoring position.  But Whitey, usually a good bunter, popped it up back to Klinger for the first out.  That put Del Rice up to bat for the first time in the game and he flied out to Williams.  That brought up Harry “The Hat” Walker.  A lifetime .296 hitter who would bat .363 and win the NL batting title in 1947, he struggled during the 1946 regular season, hitting only .237.  But he found his hitting stroke during the World Series, batting .412 with 6 RBI’s.  His last hit and RBI proved to be the most important one of the Series.

Walker lined a pitch into left-center field.  Normally with two outs, the runner on first would go on contact, but Slaughter was running the moment the ball left Klinger’s hand.  Some say Dyer called a hit and run play; others that Slaughter took off on his own; Slaughter said that Dyer flashed him the sign to steal the base with the count 2 balls and one strike.

It’s been claimed by some that DiMaggio would have caught the ball.  I doubt he would have if he had been positioned where Culberson had been, playing Walker to pull in right-center field.  It’s been claimed by some that Culberson fielded the ball too casually and threw it in to shortstop Johnny Pesky the same way, expecting Slaughter to stop at third.  Indeed, third base coach Mike Gonzalez signaled him to stop at third.   But from video footage, it seems to me that Culberson went after the ball with speed, otherwise it would have gone past him in the left-center field alley.  He had a long run for the ball.  A right-handed thrower, he also had to backhand the ball and had no time to get into position to make a strong throw to the plate.  He did what he needed to do, get the ball back into the infield as quickly as he could.

And many claimed that Pesky held the ball before finally throwing to the plate.  But it seems to me that he held it for only the split second he needed to see where Slaughter was.  Slaughter, an outfielder, knew he could score based on how and where the ball was hit combined with the fact that he was running on the pitch.  Earlier in the Series, Gonzalez had stopped him at third when he thought he could score and Dyer gave him the green light to be more aggressive on the bases for the remainder of the Series.

If there was any fault of the fielders, it was that Pesky’s throw was up the third base line and substitute catcher Roy Partee had to come off the plate to field it.  Even if the throw was on the money, it would have been close but I think it would have been too late to catch Slaughter.  Anyway, you can judge for yourself.  People have argued the merits of this play for 70 years.  It delayed the Red Sox from winning a championship, something they had to wait for during 58 of those 70 years.


Baseball lore is that Slaughter scored from first on a single.  Actually Walker was credited with a double on the play but many believed it would have been a single had there not been a play at the plate.  It’s just one more facet to one of the big moments in baseball history.

Remember that the Cardinals were still batting, leading the game 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth.  And the Red Sox would have their chance in the ninth.  Cronin ordered shortstop Marty Marion walked intentionally.  Then he finally brought in Earl Johnson.  He had pitched well in his previous two outings in the Series and was able to retire Brecheen on a ground ball to Bobby Doerr.

The Red Sox were not finished.  Rudy York led off with a single to left and Paul Campbell was sent in to run for him.  Bobby Doerr beat out an infield hit.  But Brecheen responded to the challenge.  He induced Pinky Higgins to ground one to third baseman Kurowski.  They got Doerr at second base, but that put the tying run on third base and winning run on first with still only one out.  But the Red Sox were at the bottom of their batting order.  Partee fouled out to Stan Musial at first.  Tom McBride, who ironically had been sent to the minors when Leon was called up to the Red Sox in 1943, was sent up to bat for Johnson.

McBride whistled one of Brecheen’s pitches up the middle.  It was a line drive when it passed Brecheen, hard enough that The Cat’s quick reflexes couldn’t flag it down.  It bounced by the time Schoendienst made a great play to get to the ball, but he didn’t field it cleanly.  However, he recovered quickly and was able to throw to the shortstop, Marion, just in time to nip Higgins for the World Series ending force play at second base.

Left to right, Pinky Higgins and Wally Moses; here opponents but teammates on the 1946 Red Sox

Here again, there was controversy.  Higgins was 37 years old, in his last season, and no longer a fast runner.  Why wasn’t a pinch runner inserted for him, many asked? The answer was that the Red Sox had already depleted their bench by this point in the game in order to tie the game and then threaten in the ninth.  DiMaggio’s injury added to that situation.  Otherwise they would have had a faster pinch runner available.  But when McBride was sent up to bat, the only position player left on the bench was infielder Don Gutteridge, another slow veteran nearing the end of his career.  And the remaining pitchers in the bullpen were mostly veterans not particularly experienced at running the bases.  The youngest was Mickey Harris at 29 and while he was a fair hitter that year, he still was not known as a baserunner.  For his entire career, he was exclusively a pitcher: never a pinch hitter or pinch runner.

There wasn’t much left to Leon’s major league career after the 1946 World Series.  He saw limited action with the Red Sox in 1947, mostly as a pinch hitter, as Williams and DiMaggio continued to hold down two of the outfield spots, and Moses shared right field duties with rookie Sam Mele.  Leon started three games at third base where the Red Sox started 8 different players during the season, but he was considered a defensive liability there.

At the end of the season, they traded Leon to the lowly Washington Senators.  He couldn’t even get much playing time with a terrible team, batting just .172 in 12 games and 29 at bats while getting 8 starts in center field.  In May, they traded him to the Yankees for Bud Stewart.  Stewart became a starting outfielder for Washington.  Leon was sent to the minors.  After the 1952 season he called it quits as an active player.

But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. – Psalm 103:17-18

God bless,