Born: December 1, 1894
Died: May 2, 1982
He was the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves’ man of the year in one instance, saluted for 50 years of service to the sports community by the Minute Men of Minneapolis and St. Paul in another. Upon his death at age 87, columnists from both sides of the river in the Twin Cities hailed him so extensively it must have made him blush, even in his new surroundings.
He left this earth with a bouquet of compliments flowery enough for a coronation, described by various sources as a gentleman, a wordsmith equaled only by the elite of his profession, a graceful, gentle man who did go quietly into that good night.
He presented himself with dignity and discipline while choosing the perfect word to describe a situation or event. He was a leading voice of Minnesota sports for nearly 60 years while writing for newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul on boxing, the Minnesota Gophers, the Vikings or even a golf match, a game at which he himself excelled. He is best known, however, for the commentary he offered in the Minneapolis Tribune.
It was perhaps fitting that he died shortly after the death of his long-time friend Red Smith, whom he once had the opportunity to join along with others of that ilk in New York or Chicago, if the stories are correct, but chose instead to remain in his native state.
He was Dick Cullum, the voice of reason, moderation, analysis and subtle wit in a column loyal sports fans and readers turned to for insight over six decades. Boxing and football were undoubtedly his true loves, although he wrote about the gamut of sports during his long career.
He began during the roaring 20s, writing for the Minneapolis Journal from 1921 to 1924. He spent five years with the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, another 10 at the Minneapolis Journal and also spent time at the Times-Tribune and the Minneapolis Times; when that latter tabloid folded in 1948, Cullum joined the Tribune and stayed put the remainder of his career.
Remember! Cullum wrote for most of his career when newspapers and radio, not the internet, not even television, conveyed the “truth” of a football game or especially a boxing match to fans unable to attend.
“He was an old-time columnist,” said former Pioneer Press columnist Pat Reusse, Cullum’s colleague for a decade at the Tribune.” He would take a topic and make his point. He was an essayist. He would rarely hit anyone with a sledge hammer. If he was going to beat you up, he did it with paper cuts.”
Cullum stood out in other ways during his time. “By the standards of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, he was a very literate writer,” Reusse added. “He certainly wasn’t as flowery as Red Smith, but he had a great command of the English language.”
A young, vibrant Pat O’Connor fought an opponent in the early 1970s who was on the decline but in marvelous condition for the bout nonetheless. Cullum made that clear in his dispatch the next morning, pointing out that this well-toned, still trim opponent had skin that appeared old and weathered at the same time. The description spoke volumes to readers unable to see the bout in person.
Dick and Ethel Cullum had four girls: Mary, Joan, Nancy and Alex, and 16 grandchildren. He was born in Winona in 1894 and grew up in Duluth, where his father was a dentist. Cullum got his undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota and was in law school when the first World War began. So, he enlisted in the Marines. He served the next three years throughout the West Indies. In Cuba, Haiti and San Domingo, helping quell uprisings. . A newspaper job beckoned when he returned home. Law didn’t get another chance.
He was good enough at his profession to win two awards as Minnesota’s top sportswriter. Former Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar had this to say about his colleague at one time:
“He has stood for years among the highest echelon of the nation’s sports commentators, a standard of excellence in his trade because he represents that and a little more.”
Even the rigors of a demanding profession couldn’t separate Cullum from his family.
“Grandma and grandpa would take us to the little Brown Jug games with them when Sandy Stephens was the quarterback,” Cullum’s granddaughter, Chris, recalled. “Those were always a good time and lots of fun.”
There were occasions when the grandkids had to wait for grandpa to finish his work after a game. “He’d still be working the press box after a game, but we didn’t mind,” Chris added. “He was always very kind and very gentle with us, but he and grandma were strict.”
Despite his gentle nature, Cullum didn’t allow monkey business, at home or on the sports front. He called the shots as he saw them, nearly always without rancor but with enough emphasis to make his point.
“He could say more in a sentence than most writers could say in two paragraphs,” a colleague said upon Cullum’s death. The same Minneapolis Tribune article described Cullum’s writing style as “a model of clarity, precision and brevity.” And not without humor.
Cullum started the great tomato contest in the Twins clubhouse and wrote about it each year. There were specific judging standards for the best tomato grown, except for the last, listed as judge’s discretion. “When someone accused Dick of taking bribes,” Reusse said. “He responded, ‘how would the bums know. No one has tried a good one yet.’ ”
Cullum and a colleague bought a case of whiskey in New Orleans during prohibition and shipped it back to the Twin Cities. When Cullum saw the colleague some time later, he had disappointing news. “Three bottles were broken during shipment,” Cullum reported. “And all three were yours.”
Charlie Johnson, a Minneapolis sportswriter for more than five decades, considered Cullum among the best in the nation. “He was a very quiet, modest fellow, always in the background,” Johnson was quoted as saying in a Tribune story detailing Cullum’s death. “But he had a good sense of humor and, in my opinion, from a writing standpoint, was as good as anyone in the country.”
Cullum could be found frequently during his heyday at a boxing gym, watching young fighters work the bags, spar with one another or jump rope. He observed and then observed some more, gathering the “truth” of an upcoming fight or insight on a particular fighter, in the manner of a scientist or better yet, a trial lawyer.
There were priceless kernels of knowledge or wisdom available in those gymnasiums. Cullum knew that and used those occasions to establish the background of a particular story or essay. Fighters knew and respected his ability, and his fairness, when he wrote about their craft.
Years after a young boxer appeared in a 1960s Upper Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, his mother presented him with a newspaper clipping detailing those bouts. “In the best fight of the early evening, these two fighters went toe to toe, neither one slowing down for three rounds,” it read in part.
The clipping was special then. It has become cherished with time.
Dick Cullum wrote it.