Chicago White Sox: The Ballad of Reb Russell

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The Ballad of Reb Russell

by Rob Neyer

“Armed with a new curve, Russell went 22-16; arm woes soon killed his career, but he returned to majors years later as hitter.”
— book entry ranking Reb Russell as the White Sox’s best rookie pitcher

After just one season in the minor leagues, Reb Russell arrived in the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1913, and was almost immediately a sensation. By July of that season, Jack Veiock would write, “He does not use the broad sweeping curve of the usual left-hander, although he has a good sharp break to his bender. It is more like the stuff Rube Waddell used to pitch than anything that has been delivered by a southpaw since Rube’s day.”

Which is to say, Russell was all power.

And slightly more than a year later, a writer in Baseball Magazine made the same comparison, to Waddell . . . “But in Russell we find all the powers of plain physique which made the invincible Waddell the iron man of his age. The Rebel . . . has a massive build that would serve for a wrestler. Five feet eleven inches tall, he is heavy in bone and sinew and . . . he invariably tips the beam at a around two-hundred pounds.”

Which is to say, Albert Russell was a big man, at least by the standards of his time.

He wasn’t powerful enough or big enough to avoid hurting his arm, though. As a rookie in 1913, Russell went 22-16 with a 1.90 ERA, fourth-best in the league. But he led the AL with 52 games pitched — including 36 starts — and his 317 innings trailed only Walter Johnson. It’s likely that Russell’s arm simply couldn’t take all that work, and in 1914 his ERA ballooned all the way to 2.90 (which looks good but was actually higher than the league average). He was healthier in 1915 and ’16, and pitched more innings, but still wasn’t anything like the pitcher he’d been as a rookie.

In 1917, Russell pitched brilliantly . . . when he could pitch. Unfortunately, he couldn’t pitch nearly as often as he’d have liked, and was allowed to pitch to only three batters — all three of whom reached base — in the World Series that October (won by the White Sox). That December, Russell “wrote” in Baseball Magazine about the 1917 season . . .

My difficulties started back in 1913. I hurt my arm in pitching and it bothered me considerably. But it seemed to get straightened out and I didn’t worry any more about it. This spring, however, my troubles began anew. It was in a game against Walter Johnson. You have to be at your best when you are matched against that fellow. I exerted myself more than usual. At any rate, in the ninth inning my arm suddenly went dead. There wasn’t any sharp pain, or soreness; it simply went dead. It was a curious sensation to lose the power over your arm all at once. I never experienced it before and never want to again.

This is a bit off the subject, but wouldn’t it be cool if James Andrews (or somebody like him) went through all the accounts of long-ago pitcher injuries and came up with diagnoses? What really happened to Reb Russell in the spring of 1917?

Anyway, Russell was out for a spell but did return later in the season, only to “wrench” his shoulder while favoring his elbow. This sent him to the sidelines once more, but once more he came back, and pitched a few times in September before that brief Series stint.

All in all, Russell pitched better in 1917 than he had since 1913, finishing with a 15-5 record — his .750 winning percentage topped the American League — and a 1.95 ERA over 189 innings.

In that same Baseball Magazine article, he wrote, “The arm? I don’t know. A pitcher’s arm is a great puzzle. There seem [sic] to be a growth of some kind at my elbow joint. [ed. – bone spur?] Perhaps it will go away with rest and care. Perhaps I will have to have an operation performed on the old soup bone…”

I don’t know if Russell’s soup bone was eventually operated on. I do know that he pitched decently in limited action in 1918: 7-5 with a 2.60 ERA in 125 innings. I also know that he pitched to only two batters in 1919, and never pitched again in the majors.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Russell spent most of 1919 in the American Association, with the Minneapolis Millers. Just as he pitched in only one game for the White Sox, he pitched in only one game for the Millers. Though he hadn’t been much of a hitter with the Sox — he ended his White Sox career with a .209 batting average and one home run in 465 at-bats — for some reason the Millers put Russell to work in the outfield, where he played in 92 games. He wasn’t great, but he was at least adequate, batting .267 (as did his teammates, as a group) and hitting nine homers in 367 at-bats.

Still with Minneapolis in 1920, Russell played in only eighty-five games (including three mound appearances), but batted .339 with pretty good power.

And in 1921, at the relatively ripe old age of thirty-two, Reb Russell found himself a second career. He pitched in five games and pitched well — 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings — but for the first time became a full-time outfielder, with 141 games in the garden. At the plate, Russell batted .368 with thirty-three home runs; both figures ranked second in the American Association.

And so in 1922, after roughly three-and-a-half seasons with Minneapolis, Reb Russell finally got back to the major leagues.

In early July, Pittsburgh Pirates manager George Gibson resigned. His replacement? Pirates coach Bill McKechnie, who the previous season had finished his playing career with . . . Reb Russell’s Minneapolis Millers. McKechnie recommended the purchase of Russell, and shortly thereafter Russell was the Pirates’ everyday right fielder.

At the time of his purchase, Russell had played seventy-seven games with Minneapolis and was batting .331 with seventeen doubles, eight triples, seventeen home runs, forty-one walks, and sixty-three runs responsible for (i.e. RBI, I think).

He did even better for the Pirates. In sixty games, Russell batted .368 (yes, again) and totaled thirty-four extra-base hits in only 220 at-bats.

Reb Russell’s major-league comeback would last barely more than a year. And nearly fifty years later, Russell recounted a truly strange story to explain why the Pirates released him in 1923.

I was playing right field one day and some guy in the crowd was cussing me and on my back all day. In those days some of the crowd at Pittsburgh would sit on the ground right out on the field and if a fly ball was hit deep out that way, they were supposed to get the hell out of the way and let the fielder try and make the catch.

Well, a fly ball gets hit out my way and I go back and back and I look at the crowd and everyone is moving out of the way except this guy who has been riding me. He just sits there on the ground so he can get in my way.

So, I go up for the ball and come down on this guy and I really let him have it. I sink my spikes right into his chest and rip the hide right off his belly.

After the game, this guy I spiked goes to the front office and cries on the shoulder of the owners and says he is never going to come back for another game because of what I did to him and the owners get all excited and fire me.

Imagine that, they fired me, I never could figure it out.

There are a couple of problems with this story. One problem is that it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Another is that if the Pirates did release Russell during the season, they apparently released him in September, because he didn’t play for a minor-league team that season (1923). And he played in only ninety-four games for the Pirates.

It is strange that Russell got dumped by the Pirates, whenever it happened. He didn’t hit nearly as well in ’23 as he had in ’22, but left fielder Carson Bigbee 1) played more than Russell, and 2) was a pretty awful hitter in 1923, and would only get worse.

Anyway, in 1924 Russell returned to the American Association, this time with the Columbus Senators, and took up where he’d left off two years earlier. That season, he batted .339 with 25 homers (no other Senator hit more than nine). The next season, he batted .318 with 30 homers (no other Senator hit more than twenty-two). In 1926, Russell stayed in the Association but played for the Indianapolis club, and in ’27 he won the A.A. batting title with a .385 average. Russell got off to a slow start in 1929 — by then, he was forty years old — went down to the Three-I League, and finished his pro career in 1930, still batting .300.

In his minor-league career, the vast majority of which took place in the fast American Association, Russell batted .329 and slugged .567. Notwithstanding his defensive abilities, which probably weren’t so hot, there’s little doubt that Russell was plenty good enough to have enjoyed a long career in the majors as a hitter.

And don’t think he didn’t know it. In 1965, Russell wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame’s Lee Allen, and included this: “I really believe that I have received the least recognition of any player in baseball, considering my batting average, games won, and home runs . . .”

Maybe. Russell also said, in 1971, “Next to [Joe] Jackson, Ruth was the greatest in my estimation. I pitched against him the first game he ever pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1914. He was a green kid out of a Baltimore orphanage and I beat him 1-0. He never did beat me when we pitched against each other.”

Ruth’s first game, on July 11, 1914, came against the Indians, not the White Sox. Ruth started twice more that season: July 16 against Detroit and October 2 against the Yankees. He also pitched three innings of relief, on the last day of the season . . . against the Washington club.

Did Russell ever pitch against Ruth? And did Ruth ever beat Russell? Why did the Pirates really dump Russell in 1923?

The answers await. I’ve already written more than 1,800 words, and now I have to stop.