Pillars of the FWAA: Dick Cullum (1894-1982), Minneapolis Tribune

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the history of the organization, we will, over the next few months, publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders—all Bert McGrane Award winners.   

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.

For a list of all the winners go to: http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the fifth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series.

Dick Cullum was the 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

 By Gene Duffey

Dick Cullum perfectly walked one of the finest lines in journalism. As a columnist, he knew how to criticize a coach, a player or a team without turning it into a hatchet job.

Being able to delicately maintain that balance, he gained great respect from his subjects in “Cullum’s Column.”

“He wrote with knowledge, with thought and with study,” said Murray Warmath, the successful University of Minnesota football coach. “He always wrote constructively. He was a man of ethics and character.”

Dick Cullum, 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Dick Cullum, 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

“He was the best sports writer who ever hit a typewriter,” said Calvin Griffith, long-time owner of the Minnesota Twins. “He had wisdom, he was honest and he was a fair writer. But he was also very cunning. He could criticize you and yet not kill you.”

“When he ripped guys, he did it in a roundabout way,” added Sid Hartman, the legendary writer in the Twin Cities who Cullum first hired in 1944 at the old Minneapolis Times. “Dick Cullum was a beautiful man.”

Cullum and Hartman formed a unique team.

“He couldn’t report and I couldn’t write,” said Hartman. “(I told him) my spelling is bad and my grammar is worse.”

That didn’t bother Cullum. “Don’t worry about writing, give us the news,” he said to Hartman. “Writers are a dime a dozen. Reporters are impossible to find.”

Hartman turned into such an outstanding reporter that Cullum couldn’t get all his newsy items in the paper. He began running them as a column called “Hartman’s Roundup.”

Harold Keith, the sports information director at Oklahoma, wrote a book on Sooner football titled, “Forty-Seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma.” Keith called Cullum “perhaps the most knowledgeable football writer in the Big Ten area.”

Cullum was born in southeast in Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. His family moved and he went to Duluth Central High School before enrolling at the University of Minnesota, where he captained the school’s first golf team in 1915. He started law school, but World War I interrupted that pursuit. He signed up for the Marines and eventually obtained the rank of captain.

He joined the Minneapolis Journal in 1921. Cullum spent five years working for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press. He returned to the Journal and also worked for the Minneapolis Times-Tribune and became sports editor of the Minneapolis Times in 1944. When the Times folded in 1948, he and Hartman moved over to the Minneapolis Tribune.

Charley Johnson, sports editor of the Minneapolis Star, and Cullum were natural rivals.   

Dick Cullum (right) presents a scroll to Minnesota Coach Bernie Bierman at a meeting of the Touchdown Club.

Dick Cullum (right) presents a scroll to Minnesota Coach Bernie Bierman at a meeting of the Touchdown Club.

Bernie Bierman coached the University of Minnesota football teams to a 63-12-6 record from 1932-41, including undefeated seasons in 1934, ’35, ’40 and ’41. Bierman missed three seasons because of World War II and when he took over the Gophers again in 1945 he never regained his previous success, going 30-23. He retired after a 1-7-1 record in 1950.

“The different views on Bierman were part of the Cullum-Johnson rivalry that went back to the 1930s, when Cullum ran the more powerful Minneapolis Journal and Johnson ran the smaller Minneapolis Star,” said Hartman. “Cullum was a cheerleader. If you read the Times sports section, there was no question we wanted the Gophers to win.”

Even Johnson, the winner of the inaugural Bert McGrane Award in 1974, appreciated Cullum’s work.

“He was a very quiet, modest fellow, always in the background,” said Johnson. “He had a good sense of humor and in my opinion, from a writing standpoint, he was as good as anyone in the country.”

Cullum retired as a columnist in 1976, but he continued to cover boxing and write a weekly column until shortly before his death in 1982.

Joel Rippel of the Star Tribune  recalled working a boxing match with Cullum. Cullum wrote his story on an old typewriter and then Rippel typed it into a computer for him.

The last boxing match Dick Cullum covered on a deadline was a Larry Holmes heavyweight fight. He was 85.