Interview Date: 5/17/15
Every baseball player has their moment. For most of us, this moment happens in Little League. The pinnacle of individual achievement for a pitcher is usually considered the no-hitter. Former Astros relief pitcher, George Culver, found himself chasing a no-hitter in 1968 while playing for the Reds.
“My stomach had been a little upset and I hadn’t eaten hardly anything all day, so I tried to get something down then took a cab to the ballpark. All the way to the park, I had a premonition that I was going to pitch a no-hitter. We won the first game 7-6 and it took three hours to play the game. It was something like 10:30 before we started the second game. I went out to warm up but had been fighting an ingrown right toe nail. Sure enough, I was in so much pain that I had to run back up to the locker room and get a Novocain injection. By the time I got back down to the field, the umpires were out and lineups exchanged. I hadn’t even thrown a ball! I threw as many as I could and the game started.”
The game did not start out well. Richie Allen hit a ground ball to Tony Perez who missed the play. Woody Woodward picked it up and threw wildly to first base, which allowed Allen to reach second. “I just assumed because it was Richie Allen and it was Philly that it was scored a hit. Allen later scored on a fly ball and for a couple of innings we were losing. Then I noticed on the scoreboard that they didn’t have a hit and my thought was, ‘I wonder if anyone has ever pitched a no-hitter and lost.’ The bottom of the 9th was nerve racking. I got the first two outs and then my manager from Winter Ball came up and I knew he was going to ruin everything. He popped up to first and my two and a half hours of fame became a reality.”
He did end up winning his no-hitter, but it is widely considered one of the ugliest no-hitters in MLB history. In an odd coincidence, the game before against the Pirates was the exact opposite. Culver gave up 9 hits, which turned into 13 hits when his reliever took the mound, but no runs. “The record for a shutout is something like 16 hits. So no hits, 1 run, 13 hits, 0 runs? Baseball is a crazy game.”
As a member of the Houston Astros, Culver is known for two things: mutton chops and the strike of 1972. On his 1972 Topps baseball card, Culver is shown with massive mutton chops. In an era where everyone is photographed non-stop, it is hard to understand how one picture can shape the view of someone for a long time. Culver is famous among Astros fans for those massive mutton chops, but reality is very different from our backwards view of him. “The picture was taken in spring training and it was just a case of where I had let my sideburns grow long for the fun of it. I had them shaved down before the season started. Vin Scully was announcing a game one day against the Dodgers and said my sideburns were so long it looked like I was in parenthesis.” Culver never played a regular season game with the crazy sideburns that Astros historians often remember him for.
More impactful was the strike of 1972. As a direct result of the first organized strike in professional baseball, the Houston Astros were not allowed to make up nine games that had been missed during the strike. It was Culver’s best season but it was not an easy experience. “It lasted a couple of weeks and it really hurt guys like me and those who didn’t have good contracts. We would all meet at some park and workout, hoping it would be settled any day.” When the season resumed, Culver dominated. On June 26, he pitched 7.1 innings in relief in which the first five hits for the Astros were all homeruns but it was not enough to take the lead. “I wasn’t really in shape for that kind of work load, but made it through.” He would eventually hold on for the win.
Finally, Culver has nothing but great things to say about Houston and baseball fans in general. “I never get tired of signing autographs and I always make it a point to sign the requests and mail them back quickly. It’s humbling that someone wants your autograph. I get probably an average of five fan letters a week, enclosing cards and photos or baseballs to sign. I haven’t played in 40 years and it always amazes me that people still find these cards somewhere. The letters usually promise not to sell on eBay but I could not care less if they want to sell or trade them. It doesn’t cost me anything to sign them.”
He is not completely uninvolved with baseball though. He currently runs an organization called Light Brigade, which provides money for high schools in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. “I get a lot more satisfaction out of helping the high schools here than I did playing baseball. It started out by having some fund raising golf tournaments and later started having Hot Stove Dinners. I formed the Light Brigade and we’ve raised over $1,000,000 which goes back into local youth baseball.” If you would like to donate, you can find more information at Light Brigade.
Our conversation lasted far longer than a reasonable article can contain and he is full of fantastic stories that he made me promise would stay off the record. If you ever have a chance to have a conversation with Mr. Culver about baseball, take the opportunity!