“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Ray Culp strung together a fine 11-year career, including a four-year period as the ace of the Boston Red Sox. After he put up a 112-79 record before his 30th birthday, a series of arm ailments limited Culp to a 10-22 record after hitting that milestone. Still, the two-time All-Star had a fine career.
Raymond Leonard Culp, Jr. was born on August 6, 1941, in Elgin, Texas, a small town 25 miles east of Austin. Ray ran track and played baseball and basketball at Stephen Austin High School in Austin, though it was on the diamond that he became a local hero. He won six postseason games, including a no-hitter, to lead his team to the state title in 1958, and ran off 18 consecutive victories over two seasons until he finally lost 1-0 in the state tournament in 1959, his senior year.
Culp was scouted by 15 of the 16 major-league clubs (only the Milwaukee Braves failed to offer a contract) before finally inking a $100,000 deal with Philadelphia Phillies scout Hap Morse.
Culp was not yet 18 when he reported to Johnson City, Tennessee, to play for the Phillies’ Class D Appalachian League affiliate. After the 1961 season Culp had struggled in three minor-league seasons, but he was still just 20 years old and the Phillies had not given up on him. For 1962 they again tested him at Williamsport, and Culp finally made the grade.
In 1963, an offseason injury to Dennis Bennett created an opening, and the Phillies decided to bring Culp north with the club, at least for a few weeks. In his debut, on April 10, he pitched two innings of relief and picked up a victory against the Cincinnati Reds. After three more relief appearances, including another victory, Culp spent the rest of the season in the starting rotation, finishing 14-11 with a 2.97 ERA in his rookie season.
Unfortunately, Culp’s elbow bothered him again in 1964, and he struggled to finish 8-7 with a 4.12 ERA. In the event, he did not start a game after August 15, and his absence was a contributing factor in the Phillies’ heartbreaking collapse that cost them the 1964 pennant.
In 1966, Culp was traded along with some money to the Chicago Cubs for Dick Ellsworth, another young pitcher who had struggled after early promise.
The Red Sox were coming off a surprising American League pennant, but were in need of starting pitching, even more so after ace Jim Lonborg broke his leg in a December skiing accident. The club acquired Culp and Dick Ellsworth, the pitcher who had been traded for Culp just a year earlier. A good spring earned Culp a spot in the rotation, but barely. He started the fifth game of the season. He failed to last the fourth inning in his first two starts, earning two losses and a 15.95 ERA. That got him out of the rotation for a few weeks, though a few strong relief outings got him back in.
The secret to Culp’s turnaround was his use of a new pitch, the palmball, taught to him by Roger Craig back when both were with the Phillies. Once he settled down, Culp pitched great baseball the rest of the year. He threw a four-hitter against the Yankees on May 18 for his first win, and finally got his ERA under 4.00 in early August. Beginning on August 27, he reeled off seven straight complete-game victories, including a string of four shutouts, culminating in a one-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Though he lost the team’s last game of the season, he still ended 16-6 with a 2.91 ERA and six shutouts for a fine recovery after his terrible start. Despite fine seasons from Culp and Ellsworth (16-7), the Red Sox fell to fourth place in 1968.
After barely making the rotation in 1968, Culp entered the 1969 season as the staff ace. Culp started 1969 the way he had ended 1968, logging a 9-2 record by June 1, after finishing the previous season 12-2 in his last 14 decisions. He was selected to the All-Star team for the second time, logging another scoreless inning, facing three batters and striking out Tony Perez in the AL’s 9-2 loss in Washington. He won his 16th game on August 9, highlighted by his third-inning home run off California’s Pedro Borbon, the only home run Culp would hit in his career. He won his career-high 17th game on August 23, and with at least seven starts to go seemed likely to win 20. But he hurt his arm in his next start, and then shut it down for the season. He finished 17-8, with a 3.81 ERA.
Culp pitched well again in 1970, though he had a bit worse luck getting run support from his teammates. On May 11 in Anaheim, he tied a major-league record by striking out the first six Angels to face him. The Red Sox ended up losing the game, 2-1 in 19 innings. Culp again won 17 games, finishing 17-14 but improving to a 3.04 ERA, a fine season in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.
In 1971 Ray got his first Opening Day assignment, and beat the Yankees 3-1 at Fenway Park. He was hit hard his next few outings and had a 6.37 ERA in five April starts. His 1-0, two-hit shutout over Bert Blyleven of Minnesota on May 2 started a summer of fine pitching, but his four September losses ended the season on a sour note. Culp’s final line was 14-16 with a 3.60 ERA, was solid, but the worst of his four Boston seasons.
Culp struggled mightily in 1972, moving in and out of the rotation with a sore elbow. He finished just 5-8, and had shoulder surgery in September. He was removed from the Red Sox’ 40-man roster in the fall but was invited to spring training. He began the season with Triple-A Pawtucket, and in his first outing gave up 15 hits and eight earned runs in seven innings. After posting a 6-5 record in 11 starts, Culp returned to Boston and spent a few weeks in the rotation. In ten games, he posted a 2-6 record and 4.47 ERA in his final big-league innings. On October 25, 1973, the Red Sox released the 32-year-old right-hander. He had a career record of 71-58 for the Red Sox, and was generally considered their best pitcher over his first four years with the club.
He worked in both commercial and rental real estate, and the company earned him a good living for many years.