SABR

Allen Russell

This article was written by Charles F. Faber.

One of the tenets of the Puritan work ethic was that a man finished what he started. He did not quit when the going got tough. Not all baseball players in the 19th and early 20th centuries were Puritans, by any means, but most of them held the conviction that if a man started a game he should finish it. Terms such as long relief, middle relief, set-up man, and closer were not in their vocabularies. But times changed. During the first two decades of the 20th century the number of complete games declined drastically, from nearly 90 percent of all starts to less than 60 percent, but the era of the relief specialist had not yet arrived. When the starting pitcher ran into trouble and had to be replaced, the usual response was to bring in a fellow starter to put out the fire.

Clark Griffith, manager of the Washington Nationals, was one of the first to try a new strategy—developing a full-time fireman. Although Griffith had completed more than 90 percent of his starts when he was a moundsman, the Old Fox recognized that the times called for a new approach. He converted his spitballer, Allan Russell,[1] into a relief specialist. The experiment he started with Russell soon came to fruition with Fred Marberry. Baseball was changed forever.

Allan E. Russell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 31, 1893, the eighth of the nine children of Mary Carpenter and Charles Carpenter, a carpenter. Of Scottish and English ancestry, Allan was a younger brother of Clarence “Lefty” Russell, who had a brief major league career with the Philadelphia Athletics. Allan attended Waverly Elementary School 51 in Baltimore and completed one year at Baltimore Polytechnic High School.

Allan got his start in professional baseball at the age of 18. In the spring of 1912 he was given a trial with Baltimore of the International League and then sent down to Reading of the Class B Tri-State League to gain experience. He spent four years in the Tri-State and International Leagues. In 1915 he won 21 games for Richmond, leading the International League in strikeouts and earning a late-season promotion to the New York Yankees. The young right-handed hurler was not an imposing figure at 5-feet-11 and 165 pounds, but he clearly possessed potential as a pitcher.

Russell made his major-league debut on September 17, 1915, by defeating the Chicago White Sox, 3-2. The New York Times scribe was impressed:

“A likely young busher named Allan Russell, from Richmond, snuffed all the brilliance out of the Chicago stars. He held the Sox to six hits and struck out eight. In the ninth inning when the Sox had two on, nobody out, and visions of launching a rally, he struck out Happy Felsch, Shano Collins, and Eddie Collins in succession. Young Russell isn’t very big, but he was cool as a fresh gallon of ice cream…. The lad is going to make a big rep for himself next season.”[2]

Fred Lieb of the New York Press wrote:

“The blanket was taken from another of Donovan’s cold pitchers yesterday, a youth named Allan Russell. … He pitched a masterful game for a kid. He held the Rowland maulers to six hits. His control was a little shaky, as he walked eight, but he breezed as many. Twice he struck out Eddie Collins, who is one of the hardest men to fan in baseball. In the ninth Allan struck out the side. With men on second and third he fanned the two Collinses. Eddie did a wooden Injun and stood stock still as Russ curved over three.”[3]

There was no mention of the spitball in accounts of Russell’s first major-league contest. However, it became one of his most effective pitches. Babe Ruth, Allan’s one-time Yankees teammate, was an admirer of Russell’s moist delivery. The Bambino (or his ghost writer) wrote: “Allan Russell, the old-time Yankee pitcher who was later with the Washington Senators, was the most successful side-arm spitball pitcher I ever knew. Allan could break the spitter where he wanted it and since he threw it with the same sweeping side-arm motion with which he delivered his fast ball, it was doubly hard to gauge.”[4]

Despite the promising start, the story of Allan’s stay with the New York team was one of misfortune after misfortune. There is an unconfirmed report that his collapse on the mound in July 1916 was caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. He recovered to resume his major-league career. In 1917 he missed half the season with a sore arm. On July 16, 1918, to the annoyance of Yankees manager Miller Huggins and owner Jake Ruppert, he suddenly left the team in order to join the Sparrows Point shipyard team in Baltimore.[5]

In parts of five seasons in the Polo Grounds, the side-arming spitballer failed to post a winning record. On July 29, 1919, the Yankees sent Russell, pitcher Bob McGraw, and $40,000 to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Carl Mays. The change of scenery was good for Russell. During the remainder of the season he won 10 games while losing only four for the Red Sox. His total record for the year included 15 wins and five saves.

In 1920 Russell suffered a blood clot in the brain (probably the result of an earlier beaning), leaving his right side paralyzed for five weeks.[6] His health problems limited him to only five victories that year. Furthermore, the spitball ban threatened his career. Billy Evans wrote of Russell and Stan Coveleski, another spitball pitcher, “To use the words of many American League players, those two start with the spitball and finish with one.”[7]

However, Russell, Coveleski, and 15 other spitball pitchers were granted lifetime exemptions from the spitball ban, and Russell recovered his health. He resumed pitching for the Red Sox, both as a starter and as a reliever.

On February 10, 1923, the Sox traded Russell and catcher Muddy Ruel to the Washington Nationals for catcher Val Picinich, outfielder Howard Shanks, and outfield prospect Ed Goebel. Many observers thought Boston got the better of the deal because of Goebel’s potential. The New York Times was particularly enthusiastic: “Harry Frazee swung another nice deal yesterday for his new manager, Frank Chance, and now it begins to look as if the task of rebuilding the Red Sox is on the rise. … This latest deal serves notice on the baseball world that Frazee and Chance mean business. … .It is hard to see where Frazee got the worst of this latest dicker.” The article went on to say that Russell had been of little use to the Red Sox and was nearly at the end of his string. The Times wrote: “Needing pitching badly, Clark Griffith, the Washington president, decided he could develop the right hander into a regular slabster, but Russell has shown little interest in his major league career.”[8]

As it turned out, the highly touted Goebel never played a game for the Red Sox, while Ruel and Russell helped Washington win two American League pennants.

Although Russell had been used in relief occasionally throughout his career, the Nats made him an almost full-time relief specialist, one of the first in the history of baseball. His ability to go to the mound day after day earned him the nickname Rubberarm. During the 1923 season Russell appeared in 52 games, all but five of them in relief. He led the league in saves and relief wins, and had the circuit’s third best earned-run average.

In 1924 Russell ranked second in saves in the league with eight. In addition he won five games in relief. However, by now his teammate Fred Marberry was emerging as the leading relief pitcher of the decade, and Russell’s appearances became less frequent. Together the two relievers won or saved 39 of Washington’s 92 wins that season as the club won its first American League pennant. Russell made one appearance in the 1924 World Series, relieving in the fourth inning with his team trailing 3-2. He got Hank Gowdy to fly out; then New York Giants pitcher Rosy Ryan came to the plate. With the count two balls and one strike, Ryan hit a home run into the upper tier of the right-field stands, the first homer ever hit in a World Series by a National League hurler. Russell pitched three innings, giving up four hits and two runs, one of which was unearned.

The Senators captured the flag again in 1925, but Russell did not appear in the World Series that year. His final major-league game came on September 19. He did not go out in a blaze of glory. Relieving Tom Zachary in the fourth inning with his team trailing 7-0, Russell pitched one scoreless inning and was blasted in the next, giving up a total of eight hits in 1 2/3 innings. Win Ballou, who relieved Russell, fared little better, being roughed up for nine hits in the remainder of the game. All told, the three Washington pitchers gave up 26 hits and 17 runs, while their mates collected only one hit off Ted Lyons in a 17-0 loss. The sole hit came by Bobby Veach with two out in the ninth inning. After the game, Veach went to the visitors clubhouse and apologized to Lyons for depriving him of what would have been the American League’s first no-hit game in more than two years.

After leaving the majors Russell returned to the International League and pitched without distinction for two more seasons. In the 1930 Census he is listed as a professional ballplayer, and he told the National Baseball Hall of Fame that his last year of professional baseball was 1930. However, there is no record of his having played in Organized Baseball after 1928. It is likely that he played in an independent league in 1929 and 1930. Later he worked for the States Marine-Isthmian Lines in Baltimore as a clerk in charge of deliveries.

Allan Russell died suddenly in Baltimore on October 20, 1972, at the age of 79. He was survived by his wife, the former Myrtle Rebecca Cunningham, whom he had married on July 8, 1915, and by their daughter, also named Myrtle. The man once called “Rubberarm” was buried in Loudon Park Memorial Cemetery in the Maryland metropolis.

January 22, 2011

Sources

This account is adapted from the chapter on Allan Russell in Faber, Charles F. and Richard B. Faber. Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2006.)

Allan Russell’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown.

Personal correspondence with Norman Macht.

Selected issues of the Washington Post.

www.ancestry.com

www.baseball-reference.com

www.newspaperarchives.com

Palmer, Pete, and Gary Gillette, eds. The Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004)

Shatzkin, Mike, ed. The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference (New York: Arbor House and William Morrow, 1990)

The Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969)

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993)

Thorn, John,, et al. Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia (Wilmington, Delaware: Sports Media, 2004)

Turkin, Hy, and S.C. Thompson, The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1951)






[1] In contemporary news accounts Russell’s first name was spelled indiscriminately as Allan or Allen. Most present-day references use the Allan spelling.


[2] New York Times, September 15, 1918.


[3] New York Press, September 18, 1915.


[4] Ruth, George Herman. Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball, Bison Book Edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), p. 76.


[5] During World War I many players joined steel mill or shipyard teams in order to work in the defense industry, play ball, and avoid the draft. As a married man Russell was not likely to be drafted, although some married men were called up.


[6] Thorn, John, and John B. Holway. The Pitcher (New York: Prentice Hall, 1987), p. 447.


[7] Sporting News, February 3, 1921.


[8] New York Times, February 11, 1923.
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