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Blake Cullen Talks to Strangers

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NORFOLK, Va.---Several months ago I sauntered into Prince Books in downtown Norfolk. People don't saunter anymore.

The bookstore is on the ground floor of the century old orange brick Towne Bank Building, a block from the Elizabeth River. Prince is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. I always look for local literature, music and WPA guides when I travel.

Instead, I found an old friend from Chicago.

Tucked away in a corner of sports books I saw the 2008 autobiography "You Should Have Seen The Ones I Turned Down (Tales from a Life Spent in Hotels and Locker Rooms With Everyone from Jerry Vale to Leo Durocher)" [$20, admmgt.com] by Blake Cullen.

The book opened the door to my youth.

Blake Cullen was traveling secretary for the Chicago Cubs between 1965 and 1975.

He made travel arrangements, booked hotels for the team, kept statistics, assigned uniform numbers, wrote press releases and handled daily business management. I remembered Cullen's name from the 1969 Cubs team that broke my heart, the team that taught a 14-year-old about life's unexpected disappointments........


.....From 1975 to 1985 Cullen was Administrator of the National League behind Chub Feeney. He prepared the league schedule and managed the umpire corps.

I bought the autographed "You Should Have Seen The Ones I Turned Down" and loved every minute of it.

The title is so wack-ily innocent, but Cullen and co-writer Mike Holtzclaw cover everything from Cullen's early days in hotel management (which is how he became best buds with singer Jerry Vale) to his later years as owner of the minor league Norfolk Admirals hockey team.

What a life.
* The Cubs were the last team to hold out on playing the National Anthem on a daily basis as late as 1968. Cullen writes that then-owner P.K. Wrigley didn't think it was appropriate to play the anthem before every game. He did green light the anthem on opening day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, etc.
Wrigley changed his mind in 1968 because of the Vietnam war. In 1969 Vale recorded his iconic version of The National Anthem with the Percy Faith orchestra, according to Cullen. Vale is a huge baseball fan and sent a copy of the song to Cullen. It was played a few times at Wrigley, but was popularized at Yankee Stadium until the Robert Merrill recording came into play during the George Steinbrenner era.

* Blake Cullen was born in Chicago. His father George Thomas Cullen was hotel manager at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where my parents had their honeymoon 62 years ago.

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When his father moved to the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio, a 13-year-old Cullen broke into the entertainment business by working with Randolph, the Silent Knight of Magic, who did an entire magic act like a mime. Cullen's stories of chaperoning Randolph the Slient Knight of Magic after a long day at a race track are priceless. (Cullen also graduated from St. Vincent High School in Akron before LeBron James.)
Blake worked at the Edgewater in 1964 and 1965.

* Cullen recalls the splendid nature of Ernie Banks. He writes, "I remember Yosh Kawano, the clubhouse guy, one day pointed at Ernie Banks in the club house and said to me, 'You know what's the best thing he does?' And I said, 'Yeah, he hits home runs!' But Yosh said, 'I mean besides baseball. You know whats the best thing he does?
"Talk to strangers."

Beautiful.
I had to track down Cullen. He is not a stranger to me.
* * *
Blake Cullen is 76 years old.

He lives in a spritely former warehouse in downtown Norfolk next to the historic USS Wisconsin battleship and just a few blocks from Prince Books.

Never married, Cullen has lived in the condo since 1989 when he started the Admirals. "I was one of the few downtown when I moved here," he said. "Now there must be 2,000 condo and rental units within four blocks from here."

Cullen suffered a stroke on Oct. 31. He has lost use of his right side but he can walk with a cane. He goes to therapy three times a week.
His mind is as sharp as a bullet from a battleship.

"It's tough," Cullen said. "I can't write anything with my right hand. But I'm learning. You have to teach new cells to do these things and it is very frustrating."

Cullen was in the hospital for five weeks, but his speech therapist graduated him after three sessions. "She had lists of things," Cullen recalled. "I had to name ten things that are cold. Ten vegetables. It's not that easy when you have all your faculties, but she wanted to see what my thought process was like. One of the things on the list was to name ten singers. I said, 'That's easy. Jerry Vale, Mel Torme, Al Martino, Vic Damone....' and she goes, 'Whoa, I never heard any of those people. You rattled them off so fast I have to think they're real'."

Cullen keeps in touch with the family of Jerry Vale. "The unfortunate thing is that his wife calls me all the time now," Cullen said. "He lives in Palm Springs. He also had a stroke about 10 years ago. It got progressively worse. His limbs weren't affected but he hardly talks anymore. But I loved Jerry Vale."

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Blake Cullen (far right), his gal pal and Jerry Vale (center) at the Palmer House circa 1967


With taste like that it is not surprising Cullen got along with the mercurial Leo Ernest Durocher, who managed the Cubs from 1966-72.

"Leo was my biggest booster with the Wrigleys," Cullen said. "Leo said, 'You have a great young guy here and you have to give him more to do.' I became 'Assistant to the Vice-President'. We didn't use the term 'General Manager' which really hurt me when I left. Vice-President doesn't mean anything."
Just ask Joe Biden.

Cullen continued, "I got to do contracts, make some trades, go to arbitration because John Holland was the 'general manager' and he wasn't in the best of health and effort, it seemed like."

As an arbitration expert, Cullen was brilliant with figures.
"I was really a numbers guy," Cullen said. "We gave Paul Popovich number 22 because his nickname was 'PoPo.' (Don, shortstop) Kessinger had eleven letters in his name, which is why we used 11 for his uniform. (Although a slow count says that Don Kessinger is 12 letters.) I gave (pitcher) Bill Bonham 33 because he was from UCLA and that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's number.
"(Pitcher) Dave LaRoche wanted 17. Well, only infielders and outfielders got 17. We gave him 37 and he couldn't stand it. I remember after a game he got pretty ripped in relief. Yosh calls me and says, 'You gotta come down to the clubhouse, something is going on.' I get down there and LaRoche is taking a shower with his uniform on. He hated that number so much.
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"But Leo took a shine to me. People said he was always good to his traveling secretaries. He had a lot of style, the way he dressed, the way he carried himself. He hung out with Sinatra and the movie stars when we went to Hollywood and he kind of patterned himself after them."

I've heard a lot of Leo Durocher stories but Cullen delivers the best one I've never heard.
Cullen was part of the dust up in the 1970 All-Star Game where National Leaguer Pete Rose plowed into catcher Ray Fosse to win the game and end Fosse's career.
Cullen writes that main reason that play happened was because Durocher wanted to catch a 11:55 p.m. flight out of Cincinnati, the host city.
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Leo (in Cubs uniform in background) had a plane to catch.

"I'm afraid to promote that story," Cullen said. "Ray Fosse will come after me. Leo was coaching third base at the all star game. He kept looking at me. We were sitting behind the third base dugout, three or four rows in. He kept pointing towards his wrist, like a watch. It got to be the eleventh inning and it was getting close to midnight. Leo gave (Cubs All-Star) Jim Hickman the hit and run on the first pitch. Everybody takes off. When you see the film of it, Leo is running down the third base line with Fosse.
"We were in the limo five minutes later going to the airport."

The next day Cullen called me back and asked me to downplay the story (even though it is in the book).
He remains a gentleman from the stylish 1960s.
* * *
Many of today's major market media relations people have degrees in marketing/public relations/urban affairs/sports administration/and clinical psychology.
All that makes them difficult to work with.

Cullen cut his chops in the "service" industry.

He assembled press conferences for the Cubs at the Sheraton Chicago and the Edgewater. "When I was hired they looked at me as someone who at least knew the hotel business part of it, which was important," Cullen said. "The only other person who applied for the job was Brent Musburger. I beat him out. Then when I would see him in New York, he would bow and pick up my lunch tab and say, 'Thank God you came along, I wouldn't be making all this money with CBS.' He wanted to be a general manager and he thought that would be his entree."
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Blake can't get a word in edgewise with Tommy Lasorda
(Photos courtesy of Blake Cullen's private collection)

There are between 8,000 and 9,000 titles at Prince Books in Norfolk. Over time Cullen faded from my memory like ivy marked between two pages of an old book.
I was surprised to learn he had started a minor league hockey team in Norfolk.

"In 1988 I had gone up to New Haven to see a minor league hockey game," Cullen said. "I liked it very much. When I came back I called the owner of the New Jersey Devils, who also owned the Houston Astros (John McMullen). I always got along with him when I was in the league office. I said. 'John, I'm thinking of buying a minor league hockey club.' He said, 'Come down, let me buy you lunch and let me talk you out of it.' His office was at the World Trade Center. In fact, we went to Windows on the World."
The new East Coast Hockey League needed a sixth team. "Sports Illustrated had a picture of the fighter Sweet Pea Whitaker on the cover," Cullen recalled "It said, 'Norfolk's Sweet Pea Whitaker' on the cover. He is from Norfolk. But as I now know he was standing out at the ocean at Virginia Beach (east of Norfolk). I saw the ocean, the rolling waves and thought Norfolk would be a great place to put a team." Cullen put his team in the Scope arena in downtown Norfolk. The Admirals' first exhibition game drew 6,200 fans.

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Downtown Norfolk

"I was a little surprised that it took off in Norfolk," Cullen said. "But I told everybody that having been in baseball for 23 years the two most successful minor league baseball teams in the late 1980s were Louisville and Buffalo. I saw some of the same things in Norfolk that I saw in those places for baseball: a city big enough to support it, a nice ballpark or rink in my case, and they all had a sport a long time ago and lost it. So when it restarted there was interest from people who loved it before and new people coming in. That's what happened in Norfolk. We had the biggest rink in the league at the time (cap. 9,000). I also got lucky in hiring John Brophy, who had coached the Maple Leafs. And he had coached in Hampton (Va.). He was a recognizable name around town."

Cullen sold the team after the 1995-96 season. He still went to a half dozen games a year before he had his stroke, although he made sure to stay in the background.
But Cullen was a major player in the development of downtown Norfolk, just as he is a compelling link between today's Chicago Cubs and the late 1960s emergence of the franchise from the dark ages.

'It's bittersweet to come back to Wrigley," Cullen admitted. "Too many memories. When Yosh Kawano retired in 2008 was the last time I was back. He's 91 now. Yosh threw out the first ball and Koske Fukudome was the catcher in a strange way. We had reception afterwards for Yosh across the street at Harry Caray's and Kerry Wood was the only current player to come over. That was very nice I thought."
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Cullen clearly misses the tight camaraderie of his era. He said, "My first winter in the Cubs office was 1965. On Friday afternoon, the entire front office, the general manager, the head groundskeeper, the ticket manager, the scouting director... we'd go out around 5 and have a beer and sausage at that German place on Irving Park. That was the entire front office. There must be 100 people working there now. Nothing wrong with that, but we had eight or nine."

I told Cullen he should come to the Cubs Convention.
"I haven't been invited," he said. "I'd be happy to go if I could make it."

His participation would be valuable.
Blake Cullen is a man who knows the joy of talking to strangers.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on March 7, 2012 5:01 PM.

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