SABR

Reb Russell

This article was written by Richard Smiley.


With superb control and a rising fastball, left-hander Reb Russell rose to stardom with one of the best rookie pitching performances of the Deadball Era, notching 22 victories and tossing eight shutouts for the Chicago White Sox in 1913. A typical Russell start featured few walks, few strikeouts, few runs, and many balls hit in the air as pop ups to the infielders or soft flies to the outfielders. "Russell gets out of a lot of tight places on his nerve," commented White Sox manager Jimmy Callahan. "Three men on the bases, with none out, is a situation that fails to shake him. In fact, it is in the pinches that he shows to advantage." After an arm injury cut short his pitching career, Reb returned to the big leagues in 1922 as a slugging outfielder with the Pirates in another impressive "debut" season. Although he was a bit naïve when he entered the big leagues, Reb's eagerness to learn and calm demeanor helped him to polish his rough edges both on and off the field. By 1915, the pitcher who had once been a major source of inspiration for Ring Lardner's self-centered pitcher Jack Keefe of You Know Me, Al fame, had become a mainstay of high society, discussing music, literature, and psychology.

Ewell Albert Russell was born on March 12, 1889 on a farm near Albany, Mississippi, the second of three children of Tobias and Naomi Russell. When he was one year old his family moved to Texas and eventually settled on a hundred acre farm located eight miles outside Bonham, an agricultural center of 5,000 people in North Texas and a key stop on the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Although Russell attended primary school and helped his father on the farm, he developed a passionate love of baseball and could often be found ignoring his chores while playing ball on a crude diamond in the nearby town of Telephone. When he was 15, he left the farm for good and got a job driving teams for the railroad.

In May of 1912, Russell signed to pitch for Bonham of the Texas-Oklahoma League at a salary of $75 a month. Despite using "nothing but curves", he impressed scouts by striking out many while walking few. Following his success in Bonham, Russell's contract was purchased by the Fort Worth Panthers of the Texas League. At Fort Worth, a line drive off his thumb removed the curve ball from his arsenal and he had to rely on his fastball and change-up. While posting a 4-4 record in 13 games for the seventh place Panthers, Russell was spotted by White Sox scout and former major league pitcher Harry Howell, who liked what he saw and recommended the young pitcher to owner Charles Comiskey. Following the 1912 season, the White Sox drafted Russell for $1,200.

The 5'11", 185 lb. Russell arrived at camp in the spring of 1913 with great speed, exceptional control, confidence, coolness under pressure, and a willingness to learn. He also arrived with barely any money in his pocket and little knowledge of major league hitters. Although he had success early in camp based strictly on his fastball, coach Kid Gleason helped him to add a curve ball to his arsenal by showing him a new grip, which generated a sharp break. The White Sox initially intended to farm him out to the Pacific Coast League for more seasoning, but Gleason successfully argued against it and to the surprise of many Russell made the club.

On April 18, Russell made his major league debut and justified Gleason's confidence in dazzling style. With the White Sox trailing Cleveland 4-0, Russell was inserted in the seventh inning and proceeded to retire nine of the ten batters he faced, including five strikeouts. Russell 's fine performance earned him a spot in the starting rotation, where he quickly blossomed into one of the league's best pitchers. "That boy has everything," Callahan marveled. "He has speed, he has curves, he has control, he has nerve, he has strength. What more could I ask for?" Russell, now called "Reb" or "Tex" by the papers, finished the season with 22 wins, a 1.90 ERA and a league leading 52 games pitched. He also set an American League rookie record with 316 2/3 innings pitched, and his eight shutouts tied the AL rookie record established by Russ Ford three years earlier. Demonstrating a knack for winning close ballgames, Russell also set a major league record by winning five games by the score of 1-0. Displaying the first glimpse of his hitting skills, Russell also connected for three triples during the season, and hit his first major league home run on June 16 against the Washington Senators. After the season, on October 14, Russell married Charlotte Benz, a cousin of his Sox roommate Joe Benz, and relocated to her hometown of Indianapolis.

On May 26, 1914, Reb was in the midst of a shutout when he collided with Yankee first baseman Les Nunamaker while attempting to get on base. The collision resulted in injuries to his left ankle and hip and kept him out of action for three days. Upon his return to the mound, he was no longer effective and was hit hard. The combination of the injury and an increase in his weight led to a loss of velocity on his fast ball and a loss of break on his curve. By the end of the season, in which his ERA rose a full run to 2.90, doubts arose as to whether he would ever be effective again.

Reb reported to spring training in 1915 grossly overweight and new White Sox manager Pants Rowland threatened to cut him from the team. Under Rowland's direction, Reb underwent an intensive program of hot mud baths and extensive workouts in an attempt to reduce weight. Reb also immediately went on a diet consisting solely of lettuce with French dressing, side orders of lemon ice, and pickles. By early March he had dropped nearly 40 pounds and was back near his playing weight. By mid-March he had regained his form and Sam Weller reported in the Chicago Tribune that "Russell let loose more speed than he has shown in a year and his curve ball, which disappeared so mysteriously last season, was seen to crack sharply across the plate several times." His job was safe. Splitting his duties between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Reb turned in a fine season, winning 11 games and pitching 3 shutouts.

In 1916, Reb reported to camp already in shape and so impressed Rowland that he was chosen as the club's opening day starter against Detroit. After getting shelled by the Tigers, he was relegated to relief duties, where he regained his manager's confidence by contributing a number of solid outings. He spent the rest of the season shuffling between the rotation and bullpen, and was the workhorse of the staff, leading the team in innings pitched (264 1/3) and victories (18) while posting a 2.42 ERA. Russell also led the league with the fewest walks per nine innings pitched, as he allowed just 42 free passes on the season. A turbulent four years into his big league career, many observers still considered him to be the best left-handed pitcher in baseball next to Babe Ruth.

Such comparisons did not stand up for long. Reb's first attempts to throw a curve ball in the spring of 1917 left him unable to straighten his left arm. X-rays revealed the presence of "two fibrous growths in Reb's left arm just above the elbow". To combat this malady, the doctor prescribed "exercise and heavy lifting". Once again spent the year going back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation. With the White Sox in the midst of a tight pennant race against defending champion Boston, Reb pitched some of the best games of his career. In August Russell won several important games for Chicago, including a shutout against the Red Sox. He finished the year with a 15-5 record and sparkling 1.95 ERA, and once again lead the league with the fewest walks per innings pitched. Nevertheless, the arm injury took its toll and the White Sox could never be sure about whether or not he'd be able to pitch on a given day. His one start in that year's World Series was a disaster, as Reb failed to get a single out before being removed from the game.

Reb didn't sign his 1918 contract until early April, and was used sparingly during the first two months of the season. Back in the starting rotation by mid-June, Russell was not as effective as he had been in previous years, displaying uncharacteristic wildness and often losing his effectiveness late in games. Starting 15 games, he finished the year 7-5 with a 2.60 ERA. The following year Reb was not impressive in spring training and barely made the team. After facing two Red Sox batters and not recording an out in his only outing, Reb was removed for good. Released to Minneapolis of the American Association, he finished the year playing center field, and hit nine home runs, more than twice as many as anyone else on the team.
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In 1920, Reb attempted one last comeback as a pitcher for the White Sox but could not make the team. He returned home to Indianapolis, where he found work in a garage as an auto assembler. Later that season, the Minneapolis Millers traveled to Indianapolis and were in emergency need of an outfielder. Reb agreed to fill in and he came through with a couple of hits in the game. The Millers decided to sign him and he went on to have a great season at the plate, hitting .339 with 6 home runs and 41 RBI in 85 games. He did even better in 1921, leading the Millers in batting (.368), home runs (33), and RBI (132), while also posting a 1.64 ERA in five games on the mound.

After clouting 17 homers for the Millers in his first 77 games of 1922, Russell was picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in July, 1922. As part of a right field platoon with Clyde Barnhart, Russell rapidly became one of the most feared hitters in the National League and finished the season with 12 home runs, 75 RBI, and a .368 average in 60 games. The following year, Reb failed to follow up on his sensational 1922 campaign, but still turned in a solid hitting performance, batting .289 with 9 home runs and 58 RBI in 94 games. Given his limited defensive abilities, this performance was not enough to hold his spot in the starting lineup, and by the end of July Russell was benched. He finished the season with the team, but received scant playing time in the last two months.

After being released by the Pirates, Reb returned to the American Association where he emerged as one of the league's best hitters. With Columbus from 1924 to 1925, Russell smashed 55 home runs and drove in 247 runs while splitting time between the outfield and first base. From 1926 to 1929 he played for Indianapolis, winning a batting title in 1927 at .385. Released by Indianapolis in 1929, Russell finished out his minor league career with Quincy (Illinois) of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, and Mobile and Chattanooga of the Southern League. His lifetime minor league batting average was .330.

When his minor league career ended, Reb got a job as a security guard at the Kingan and Company meat packing plant in Indianapolis and worked there until retiring in 1959. During that time, he played for a number of local semi-pro teams including the Sterling Beers, which were managed by Clyde Hoffa, a relative of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa.

Russell died at age 84 on September 30, 1973, two weeks short of his sixtieth wedding anniversary, in an Indianapolis nursing home, and was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis. He was survived by his wife and two children.


Note

This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).


Sources

Chicago Tribune
Indianapolis Star
New York Times
Baseball Magazine

The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring W. Lardner 1914-1919, edited by George W. Hilton, Stanford University Press, 1995.

The Indianapolis ABCs: History of a Premier Team in the Negro Leagues, by Paul Debano, McFarland Press, 1997.

Minor League Baseball Stars, Volume III, edited & published by SABR, 1992.

Census of the United States, 1900, United States Bureau of the Census.

Census of the United States, 1920, United States Bureau of the Census.

Responses to Questionnaire from Hall of Fame by Ewell Albert Russell.

Retrosheet.

January 15, 1965 letter to Lee Allen from Ewell Albert Russell.

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