While doing research for my list of the 20 greatest final seasons of all time (click here for link), I came across a player who’s impressive career was severely undervalued by the era in which he played. Roy Cullenbine would have easily qualified for one of the greatest final seasons of all time, but wasn’t able to meet the minimum qualifications of 10 seasons of at least 100 games played. At the end of the 1947 season, Cullenbine was released by the Detroit Tigers after posting a .401 On-base-percentage, 125 OPS+, and a 4.3 WAR. At the age of 33, Cullenbine never played in another big league game mainly due to a very deceiving .224 batting average. In the 1940’s batting average was king. There were no Sabermetrics, Bill James, or Baseball Prospectus. Owners and managers didn’t care as much about walks, and paychecks were cut based on the stats on the back of a player’s baseball card. Despite two all-star appearances and a career OBP of .408 (38th all-time), Cullenbine was only given the opportunity to play in 7 full major league seasons.
After five seasons in the minor leagues, Cullenbine made his MLB debut with the Tigers in 1938. After several seasons of low AVG/high OBP numbers, Cullenbine had a breakout year in 1941, hitting .317/.452./.465 with 121 walks (finishing second behind Ted Williams) with the St. Louis Browns. Cullenbine went on to win a world series with the Tigers in 1945 hitting 18 HR, 93 RBI, and leading the league in walks with 113. In his final two big league seasons in 1946 and 1947, Cullenbine averaged 20 HR, 112 BB, and a .902 OPS, but it was the .224 batting average that put the dagger in a brilliant, underappreciated career. Like the Velvet Underground, Robert Johnson, Franz Kafka, and Vincent Van Gough, Cullenbine wasn’t truly valued and admired until long after his career had ended. If Cullenbine had played in today’s game you can only imagine Billy Bean would be chomping at the bit to sign him.