Old School Minnesota Baseball, Part II: Buzz Arlett and Nick Cullop

Buzz Arlett and Nick Cullop were two of the great pre-WWII minor league sluggers and both played at least a little while for the Minneapolis Millers.  Until Hector Espino of the Mexican Leagues (the Mexican Leagues are generally considered “minor league” since the level of play is generally considered to be about the caliber of U.S. AA ball) passed him in 1977, Buzz Arlett was the all-time minor league homerun champ with 432 homeruns.  He didn’t do it in the low minors either:  all but 7 of his HRs came in what would now be considered AAA leagues: the Pacific Coast League, the International League and the American Association.  Those other seven HRs came in the Southern League, which would be considered AA today.  Nick Cullop is third all-time (among players who played in the U.S., Canada or Mexico) with 420 minor league homeruns.

Bill James calls Arlett the “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues” and considers him the best minor league player ever.  Like Ruth, Arlett started his career as an outstanding pitcher and converted in his mid-20’s to a position player.  Arlett’s professional career started at age 19 with the 1918 Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.

By that time already, the Pacific Coast League was the best of the minor leagues, but still only a tick better than the International League and the American Association.  After 1925, the Pacific Coast League became far and away the strongest of the the top tier of the minor leagues.

It was not uncommon for PCL teams to farm out young players for a year or two to smaller leagues in the West, like the California League and the Arizona-Texas League, to get “seasoning” before being called up to the PCL club.  However, Arlett, who was originally from Oakland and also lived for a time in Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County, California where the Oaks conducted their Spring Training, went straight to the Oaks and never played in any of the lower minor leagues.

Arlett started as a pitcher and won 103 games in the six seasons in which he pitched regularly.  His best years were 1920, when he went 29-17 with a 2.89 ERA, leading the PCL in wins and innings pitched with 427; and 1922 when he went 25-19 with a 2.77 ERA and again led the PCL with 374 innings pitched.  Arlett’s best pitch was generally considered to be his spitball.  When Organized Baseball banned the spitter after the 1920 season, it grandfathered two players per team in each league throughout baseball.  This allowed HOFer Burleigh Grimes to continue throwing his spitball legally until 1934 in the National League.

The problem for Arlett was that the rule meant he could throw his best pitch only in the Pacific Coast League, the league where he was grandfathered.  Even though the Oaks were one of the weak sisters of the PCL and needed the cash a sale of a player like Arlett could bring them, no major league team was willing to shell out the money the Oaks wanted for a player who couldn’t legally throw his best pitch.

Until the late 1920’s, minor league teams did not have to sell their best players to the major league teams unless they wanted to.  In around 1926-1928, a majority of the minor league teams signed on to a plan that ranked all the minor leagues, and provided that after two years of service, a team had to sell any player to a team in higher-ranked league at a fixed price.  It seemed like a good idea at the time because certain well-run minor league teams like the Baltimore Orioles in the International League and the St. Paul Staints in the American Association so dominated their leagues that it was hard for the other teams to make any money, but it ultimately killed the independent minor leagues, at least until the rise of independent A leagues in the 1990’s.

Arlett hurt his arm in 1923 and was converted into an outfielder.  Like Ruth, he had always been a powerful hitter, and he immediately became one of the best hitters in the PCL.  He was more of a Stan Musial than a Babe Ruth as a PCL hitter, hitting 52 to 70 doubles five times and hitting 30 to 39 homeruns five times in the seven seasons between 1924 and 1930, seasons which ran 190 to 200 games.  His batting average was never lower than .328 and as high as .382 during this period.

The major leagues wanted Arlett, but the Oaks wanted $100,000, the same amount the Chicago White Sox paid the San Francisco Seals for 3Bman Willie Kamm in 1922. [By way of comparison, the Yankees paid $125,000 for Ruth in 1919.]  None of the major league teams would go that price for a player now in the latter half of his 20’s.

By 1930, Arlett’s salary demands had gotten too high for the small-market Oaks, and he got into a fight that year with an umpire in 1930 in which there was a confrontation in runway tunnel in which the umpire hit Arlette over the head with his iron mask, so the team finally sold Arlett to the Philadelphia Phillies in January 1931.  The Phillies played in the Baker Bowl then, probably the best hitters’ park in the National League at the time, and Arlett had a great year in 1931 for the Phillies at age 32.  Arlett hit 18 HRs, which tied him with Babe Herman for 4th in the league, and his .538 SLG was good for 5th in the Senior Circuit.  He also hit .313.  Like Ruth, Arlett was a big man who got bigger with age, and at age 32 he was already past his prime.  Injuries limited him to only a little over 100 games in the field in a 154 game season.

The Phillies finished 6th in 1931 with a 66-88 record, and an over-the-hill slugger, even one as good as Arlett, was not going to do a lot for their future.  The Phils sold or traded him to the Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League, after the 1931 season.  Arlett led the IL in runs, RBIs and HRs in 1932 (141, 144, 54) and in runs and HRs in 1933 (135, 39).  For some reason unknown to me (excessive salary demands by Arlett after his two huge seasons?), he was transferred from the O’s to the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League before the start of the 1933 season.  He was really too good a player for the (Class AA) Southern League, and after hitting 7 HRs and 9 doubles in 35 games at the start of the 1934 season, the Minneapolis Millers acquired him.  Despite missing at least the first month of the American Association season, he still led the AA with 41 HRs that year.  In 1935, the last year in which he played more than 100 games, his homerun total dropped to 25, but he still hit .360 and drove in 101 runs in 425 ABs.

From 1934 through 1936, the Millers had both Arlett and Joe “Unser Choe” Hauser, who I and many other observers consider the best two hitters over the course of their minor league careers.  However, both were born in 1899 and were well past their prime by the time they finally played together.  Both were very big men by their mid-30’s, and although both could still hit with anybody, they had a lot of trouble staying healthy, particularly Hauser in 1934 and Arlett in 1936.  They had both been brought in by the Millers to take advantage of Nicollet Field, a notoriously good park for left-handed power hitters.

The Millers finished first  the American Association in 1934 and 1935, but did not play in the Junior World Series against the International League champion in either of those years.  By 1933, Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Cardinals had purchased the Columbus Senators, a perennially weak sister team in the American Association, renamed them the Red Birds, and stocked the roster with the fruits of the Cardinals’ enormous farm system.  The Yankees soon followed suit and did the same with the Kansas City Blues.  A then still independent team like the Millers was hard pressed to compete, especially since they had to sell off their best young players within two years to avoid losing the player for a fixed (low) price to a major league team.

I also suspect that in the days before the DH, having two aging bulls like Arlett and Hauser on the field at the same time didn’t do much for the Millers’ defense, which was already faced with pitching half their games in Nicollet Field.

I would rate Arlett as a slightly better hitter than Hauser, with Hauser having slightly more raw power, but Arlett being a better all-around hitter.  The big difference between the two was Arlett starting his career as a great pitcher.  Bill James in his The Baseball Book 1991, which contains a lengthy article about Arlett from which I have culled some of the information provided above, writes that Arlett was “probably” as good as some marginal major league HOFers of that era like Heinie Manush, Hack Wilson and Chuck Klein, but probably not as good as Goose Goslin.  I don’t know if I’d rate Arlett quite that high.  However, if he had started his career as a hitter and come up for the Phillies in 1921 instead of 1931, there’s a real good chance he’d be in the Hall of Fame today.

Arlett was likely a better hitter than another left-handed hitting Philley of that era, Fred “Cy” Williams, who led the NL in homeruns four times (1916, 1920, 1923 and 1927) and hit 251 HRs in his major league career.  By the same token, though, if Cy Williams had been born ten years later (he was born in 1887) and had thus played his entire career in the “lively ball” era starting in 1920, he might also be in the Hall of Fame.  Like Gavvy Cravath, mentioned in Part I of this series, Cy Williams was a power hitter ahead of his time.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.  Arlett was a great star in Oakland, Baltimore and Minneapolis, as popular as any major league star in his home city, even if Arlett was not recognized for his ability nationally.  Like Lefty O’Doul in San Francisco, Arlett became a restauranteur and tavern-keeper in Minneapolis after his baseball career was over.  It would not surprise me if Hauser did the same in Milwaukee , where he was born, or Sheboygan, where he finished his playing career, after his playing career was over.  I can’t overstate the degree to which these men were enormous stars in the big cities in which they played.

Nick Cullop was a great minor league power hitter, although not as good as either Arlett or Hauser.  If Cullop is remembered at all today, it is for his colorful baseball nick-name.  Cullop was blessed with a very round, very red face; and the sportswriters of the day, who handed out quite a few mean-spirited nicknames in the Depression years, lovingly dubbed him “Tomato Face”.

Cullop only played one year with the Minneapolis Millers, but it was a helluva year.  1930 was a tremendous hitters’ year at all levels of professional baseball, but even so, Cullup had a particularly good year.  He hit .359 for the Millers and led the American Association in runs scored (150),  HRs (54) and RBIs (152).   He was 29 that year and had played poorly in very limited trials in the majors in 1927 and 1929, but his 1930 was so impressive that the Millers were able to trade or sell him to the Cincinnati Reds before the 1931 season.

Cincinnati was absolutely desperate for power, and Cullop did, in fact, lead the Reds with all of 8 HRs in 1931 (the next closest Red hit 4 HRs that year) in only 334 at-bats.  Cullop hit a respectable .263, but he didn’t walk much, led the NL in strikeouts and found himself back in the minor leagues in 1932.

The major league teams in those days had no patience for older hitters who didn’t tear the cover off the ball right away, much more so than today.  The best comparison today would be high-paid (compared to Japanese players) American 4-A players who go to Japan: they have to prove they can hit in Japan within 1 to 3 months at most (and sometimes even less) or they’re shipped right back to the States.

Also, Cullop simply hadn’t made a bad team significantly better.  This is the norm for minor league stars, they were older when they got their shot and it was almost always for a bad team they couldn’t help improve enough to keep them around.

Cullop was a starter and had a series of great seasons for the Columbus Red Birds in the American Association from 1932 through 1936.  As I mentioned above, the Red Birds were the top minor league team east of the Rockies in 1933 and 1934, winning the Junior World Series by beating the International League’s best team both years.  After that he spent two years playing in the Pacific Coast League and two years in the Texas League (generally considered AA) before his career as a starter ended.

Next up: The glory days of the St. Paul Saints.  [Part I of the series is here.  Here are SABR’s articles on Buzz Arlett and Nick Cullop.]

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History, Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's, Philadelphia Phillies

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