Interview Date: 5/17/15
It is said that life is made up of moments that we can collect and collate like baseball cards. Graduations. Weddings. Children. We can flip through those moments in our heads, examining them, wondering what could have been, holding on to what was.
In each of our lives, there is always a moment that does not quite fit the mold. For George Culver, that moment was a no-hitter. One of those rare baseball card memories that you place into an extra thick protector and treat like a Mickey Mantle rookie card. A card that he sat down and talked to me about at length.
“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 toenail. 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.”
He was turning that moment in his hands like a tangible thing. He knew it was going to be a little unsightly, but it was his moment. Sometimes our moments are not shiny. His moment was downright ugly. Widely acknowledged as the worst no-hitter ever thrown.
The game did not start 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.”
Culver had other moments to share. Another rare moment pulled out of his shoebox of cards. One game before he threw his no-hitter, he accomplished another rare feat. The scariest sound for a pitcher is the crack that occurs .06 seconds after a baseball bat makes contact with a baseball. Imagine hearing that sound 13 times. The game before he threw a no-hitter, he and his relief pitcher threw a combined 13 hitter. 13 hits. 0 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.”
Other moments in our lives are meaningless to us but are moments that have stuck in the memories of others. His next moment was literally a baseball card. 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 the reality is very different from our backward 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.
Culver had a bigger moment for the Astros. 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 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 home runs but it was not enough to take the lead. “I wasn’t really in shape for that kind of workload, but made it through.” He would eventually hold on for the win.
Culver is a man that uniquely understands how important those moments are in life. He also understands that sometimes our moments are memories of the things we experience together. Baseball fans often reach out to him to retrieve a piece of one of their moments. “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 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 by having some fundraising 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.
George Culver puts his moments back in their protective cases. It is the moments he is helping others create that matter most to him now. I can see other moments in their sleeves as he continues telling stories, a man proud of his collection.