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Russell remains a major interest to baseball buffs

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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

His career in professional baseball ended some 50 years ago, but interest in the late James William “Jim” Russell, the Fayette City native who wrote his name in major league history as a player with three teams, has not waned.

“I constantly get inquiries about my father,” said Stephen V. Russell of Monongahela, a longtime educator (now retired) and historian in the area and general chairman of the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame.

“People are looking for personal stories for a variety of biographies they've composed and others request pictures, preferably autographed, of him. People in the Mon Valley have a natural interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates, but some of those who contact me are from other parts of the country. It's nice for our family to know that Dad hasn't been forgotten.”

Proof of the pudding are two current Internet tributes to the elder Russell, who played for the Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves during his career at the top level of baseball.

Kevin Kraczkowski authored a story about Russell on Bucs Dugout Community, a blog directed at the Pirates. He rates the top 100 Pirates of all time with a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) system.

“WAR is a statistic developed by sabermetric baseball buffs,” Steve Russell said. “Sabermetrics is a mathematical and statistical analysis designed to determine how many more wins a player brings to a team over the average player. Some people don't give it much credence, but it is a lot of fun nonetheless.”

Based in Tampa, Fla., Kraczkowski is a staff sergeant, instructor and air traffic controller on active duty in the U.S. Army. He follows the Pirates, among other professional teams, and has numerous stories at www.tampabay.sbnation.com.

Writing about Jim Russell, he recounts Russell's journey from the McKeesport Little Pirates, with whom he signed his first professional contract in 1937, to the parent team in 1942.

Prior to his major league debut in September 1942 he had minor league stints with the Butler Yankees and Beaver Falls Browns of the Pennsylvania State Association, Youngstown Browns of the Middle Atlantic League, St. Joseph Autos of the Michigan State League, Meridian Eagles of the Southeastern League, Memphis Chickasaws of the Southern Association and Toronto Maple Leafs of the Class AAA International League.

After batting .295 with 19 doubles and 40 RBI with Toronto in 1942, Russell, a switch-hitting outfielder, was called up to Pittsburgh near the end of the season. He collected only one hit in his first 14 major league at-bats, Kraczkowski recalled, adding, “but, more important, he was in the Big Show to stay.”

In 1943, his first full season with the Pirates, Russell appeared in 149 games, hitting .259 with four home runs and 44 RBI, Kraczkowski said.

He called 1944 Russell's “breakout year,” noting that he played in 152 games and posted a .312 batting average, ninth best in the National League. He was third in the league with 109 runs, belted eight home runs and knocked in 66.

Russell played with the Pirates through the 1947 season and was then traded along with Al Lyons and Bill Salkeld to the Boston Braves for Johnny Hopp and Danny Murtaugh. He batted .246 over two seasons with the Braves before finishing his major league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 and 1951.

He played two more seasons in the minors but remained affiliated with professional baseball as a scout for the Washington Senators and the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring in 1963.

Kraczkowski gave Russell a 12.5 Wins Above Replacement rating. He played in 1,035 games and had 959 hits in 3,595 at-bats for a career batting average of .267. He hit 67 home runs, 175 doubles and 51 triples, scored 554 runs and posted 428 RBI. His fielding average was a more than respectable .981.

Other former Pirates drawing attention on Kraczkowski's site are Rennie Stennett, Smoky Burgess and Jason Bay. His work makes for good reading.

The other cyberspace biography about Jim Russell is by Dave Williams of the Society for American Baseball Research, www.sabr.org.

Like the article by Kraczkowski, the story by Williams recounts Russell's passion for baseball and his time in the minor leagues and the majors. Williams calls Russell, a 6-1, 180-pounder, “... a consistent major league player that was noted for his speed and defensive abilities.”

Another excellent insight into Russell's life appears in the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame Biographical Journal compiled by his son Steve. Jim Russell and the late Pat Mullin and P.G. Hayes were in the second group of area sports figures inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1952. The first inductees were Stan Musial and Bert Rechichar in 1951.

The personalized HOF Journal offering recalls that Jim Russell was a member of one of the area's best known baseball families. He was born Oct. 1, 1918, a son of the late James Walch “Doc” Russell and Lillian Johnson Russell.

Doc was an outstanding player in his own right as a hard-hitting infielder with manager Hen Wilson's powerful Fayette City independent teams of the old Mon River League in the late teens and early 1920s.

Russell began his formal education in the Fayette City public school system but dropped out in ninth grade and went to work in the steel mills and coal mines to help his family financially. But he didn't lose his love of baseball.

“An aunt on his father's side, Margaret Scott, kept a watchful eye on the budding future major leaguer,” the Journal said. “Whenever he needed a tongue lashing to keep his mind focused, Aunt Margaret was up to the task. Years later Jim gave much of the credit for his success as an athlete to his aunt. She saw in him many of the talents that would later popularize him as an outstanding player – aggressive base running, great fielding abilities, speed and power at the plate.”

The article also points to Russell's “greatest games” with the Braves in 1948 and the Dodgers in 1950, when he became the first major leaguer in history to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game more than once. Later, Mickey Mantle would do it 10 times.

The game in 1948 was on June 7 in Chicago, where Russell hit a home run batting right-handed off Cubs' lefthander Bob McCall. Hitting left-handed against reliever Ralph Hammer, Russell belted another home run later in the game. He also doubled from both sides of the plate to drive in six runs in a 9-5 Braves victory and tied a National League record with four extra base hits in one game.

At Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in 1950, Russell again connected for a pair of home runs from both sides of the plate against the St. Louis Cardinals. His victims were southpaw Harry “The Cat” Breechen and righthander George Munger.

During his tenure as a scout for the Dodgers and Senators, Russell also owned a beer distributing company in Fayette City, Russell Brothers Beer Distributing, with his brother Carl. They later sold it to another local distributor, John Yetsconish.

Russell also served on the Rostraver and Belle Vernon Area school boards from 1964 through 1977.

His affiliation with baseball continued in the 1970s as he revived American Legion baseball in Fayette City and served as manager of the teams for several years.

He worked as a sales representative for 20 years with Smith-Corona, manufacturers of typewriters and office machines, in the Pittsburgh area and later at the firm's headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Stricken by a recurrence of heart problems that had existed since his days as a youth in Fayette City, Russell experienced severe heart failure in early 1987. He underwent surgery but recovery was difficult and he died at age 69 on Nov. 24, 1987, in Tampa. He is interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Fayette City.

“Dad enjoyed a good life and his baseball career was only part of it,” Steve Russell said. “He earned the respect of his fellow major leaguers and he made lifelong friendships in professional baseball. It's comforting to know that people retain an interest in him. I think it's important that we learn about and remember those who preceded us – athletes, politicians, entertainers, community leaders, military veterans, people from all walks of life.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

 

 
 


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