Russell Dixon Peters enjoyed a baseball career that reflects the national pastime the way it was played during the Great Depression and the decade of World War II. An earnest fellow who grew up dreaming and hoping he might be able to play baseball in the big leagues, Peters faced and overcame many obstacles in his personal life and on the baseball diamond.
In 1936 Russ began his major league career during spring training at Fort Myers, Florida; he received a trial with the Philadelphia Athletics. He impressed owner-manager Connie Mack and made the A’s roster. A few weeks into the season, sportswriters in Philadelphia were calling him “Hot Stuff” Peters.
A hustling 5’11” 165-pounder who wore glasses-which was unusual for ballplayers during the decade of the Great Depression-Russ had risen from the sandlots of western Virginia to the big leagues, thanks in large part to his brilliant fielding.
On April 30, after the Athletics beat the St. Louis Browns the previous day, 7-4, James C. Isaminger of the Philadelphia Inquirer described the Roanoke native this way:
“Russ (Hot Stuff) Peters started the Athletics scoring in the second inning with an interior home run, his second in two straight games.
“With one out and the bases empty, this heroic youth, constantly growing in the esteem of the populace, burched a [Roy] Mahaffey pitch to the wall in center. It was hit with such terrific force that it took a long bounce into left field.
“Opening the speed throttle, the fast-playing Virginian circled the bases for a homer. Rightfielder [Beau] Bell finally retrieved the ball and made a swift heave home, the ball skidding past [Rollie] Hemsley, but the youth was over anyway standing up. That was Peters’ only hit of the day, but it started the A’s off to an afternoon of savage batting.”
As the 1936 season unfolded, however, Peters, a right-handed batter, saw his hitting tail off. While he connected for two home runs in April, he hit only three round-trippers for the season. His average later fell below .230, as Russ had problems adjusting to pitchers who threw good curve balls.
In mid-July Connie Mack optioned the 21-year-old rookie to Columbus of the American Association. Proving that he could hit when he played regularly, Russ batted .314 for the sixth-place Red Birds. That performance brought Peters back to Philadelphia in September and for the entire 1937 season.
Russ always adapted to his ball club’s needs. Although he preferred to play shortstop, he became a utility infielder. He compiled a lifetime average of .236, but that mark was not a true measure of his value to his team.
Born in Roanoke on December 14, 1914, Russ was just four when his father died. As a result, he went to live with relatives in Dayton, Ohio. There he grew up, attended the public schools, and played baseball. His varsity team played for the state championship in his junior year. After he graduated in 1931, he came back to Roanoke and played in a league run by the Norfolk and Western Railroad.
In 1933 he played in Wytheville’s semipro Blue Ridge League. That summer he went to Washington with his uncle from Covington to try out with the Senators, managed by Joe Cronin. After the tryout, Russ saw his first big league game. In January 1934 he began attending Washington and Lee University, playing baseball for the Generals in the spring. He spent the summer playing shortstop for Wytheville.
In a 1996 interview, Peters, a modest, graceful, and friendly former big leaguer, recollected that when his uncle found out that his nephew wanted to take a shot at pro baseball in 1935, he withdrew his financial support.
At first Russ was devastated. But he soon spoke with Joe Cambria, a scout for the Washington Senators. Cambria also owned the Albany Senators of the double-A International League. When Peters called, Joe told him to come to Baltimore and play some exhibitions with Cambria’s all-star barnstorming team. Russ ended up playing against an all-star team organized by Dizzy Dean. His performance won Peters a contract with Albany for 1935.
Russ had averaged .400 as a freshman at Washington and Lee. In 1935 he hit .212 as last-place Albany’s third baseman. He had a tough time playing the night games in the International League, and his stickwork suffered. Combined with his “specs,” his 1935 average left him with the tag, “Good field – no hit.”
Still, during the following winter Cambria talked Connie Mack into buying Peters’ contract. Russ remained grateful to both men for the opportunity.
On February 27, 1936, before Philadelphia’s training camp opened, Russ married Melba Jeanne Carter in Gulfport, Mississippi. He had met and courted “Mel,” a pretty local girl, the previous spring when he trained in Gulfport with the Albany club.
Mel joined her husband in Philadelphia. Within a few days Russ got a chance to play, and he batted over .300 for a couple of weeks. “I never will forget the first time I went to bat in the big leagues,” Peters remembered. “It was on opening day in Boston, and they had a full house. And I never seen anything like it before, all those people, you know, and everything, and all the hoopla.
“I remember Connie Mack sent me up to pinch-hit in the ninth inning against pitcher by the name of Wes Ferrell, and he struck me out. My knees were shaking so bad when I went up to that plate, I was just trying to stand in the batter’s box!”
Russ could not recall his first big league hit, but he never forgot his first homer:
“Mel had joined me in Philadelphia in early April. About a day or so after she got there, Pinky Higgins pulled a Charley horse. And they put me in. I got to play third. And I think about the second or third day after that was when I hit the home run.
“I hit a home run and a triple, beat the Browns that day. Next day I bounced one off the center field wall, had an inside-the-park home run. And then they started curving me or something. Anyhow, I kind of fell off after that.”
In 1936 Peters batted .218 for the Athletics. In 45 games he batted 119 times, collecting three doubles, two triples, three homers, and 16 RBI.
Russ proved to be versatile playing 25 games at short, ten at third base, one at first base, and two in the outfield. When he was sent to Columbus in mid-July, he averaged .314 with four home runs and 27 RBI.
“I was a better hitter than some of those averages indicate in the big leagues,” Russ explained. “When I played in ’37, I hit about .260 or something. I hit for some power, and I wasn’t a real bad hitter. But I hit in streaks.”
In 1937 Peters played in a career-high 116 games, 70 of which came at second base. He batted .260 in 339 at-bats. He also contributed 17 doubles, six triples, three four-baggers, and 43 RBI for the seventh-place A’s.
The Athletics started strong during April of 1937:
“We went on a road trip in first place, and came back in last place. I think we lost 15 out of 16 games, and we ended up losing 30 out of 31 ball games.
“We went from the sublime to the ridiculous.
“I’ll never forget one day we played the Yankees in Philadelphia. But the Yankees beat us 12-6 and 15-1 in a double-header.
“When that game was over, you couldn’t even see the grass in the outfield. It was on a Saturday, and it was a full house. They came out to see the Yankees. People had taken their scorecards and torn them into little bits and threw them out, and they just covered that outfield, all along left field and center field.
“The rest of the year, we just struggled. We did beat the Yankees in a double-header in Yankee Stadium, though, one Sunday in 1937, which was a rarity.”
In 1937, although the Yankees won the season series, 14-8, Philadelphia twice beat New York in three straight games-on August 13-15 and again on September 29-30. Also, as Russ recounted, the A’s swept a double-header from the Bronx Bombers in Yankee Stadium on September 30.
Philadelphia won by scores of 8-3 and 6-3. Peters helped the Mackmen considerably, rapping three hits in six trips, including a triple, and he drove home three runs.
To illustrate his highlights from the 1937 season, Russ enjoyed these days at the plate:
* He rapped a pinch-double on May 6 to tie the game and spark a three-run rally, as the Athletics beat the Chicago White Sox, 3-1
* He slugged all three of his home runs in July, when he averaged .273 for the month. Russ peaked with a 4-for-7 day, including a homer and a triple, against St. Louis in a twin bill on July 18. His homer gave the A’s a 7-6 win in the nightcap.
* He paced a 12-6 victory over the Yankees on August 14, going 4-for-5. Russ lost a perfect day when Joe DiMaggio, according to the Roanoke Times, “made a captivating catch off him when he batted last in the eighth”.
But in 1938 the Athletics shipped the Roanoke native to the minors after two games in which Russ went 0-for-7 at the plate.
“I went through all spring training that year,” Peters reflected, “and hardly ever played. The old man hardly ever put me in a ball game. And, lo and behold, opening day in Washington that year, I’m playing. It was a soggy day, and someone hit a ball to me, and it went between my legs. The thing didn’t bounce up; it just went between my legs.
“I didn’t turn around and run this thing down right away, and so at the end of the inning, the old man took me out of the ball game. Two days later, he called me in and asked me if I wanted to go to Columbus or Atlanta.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll go to Atlanta.’ That was close to my wife’s home, and it was down South. So he sold me to Atlanta.
“I went down to the Atlanta Crackers and played for Paul Richards. I started playing shortstop down there, after a couple of weeks. From then on, I had a ball. I didn’t hit very good that year. But I started picking up. I started strong in 1939, and I had a big year. I led the league in triples. I had 88 runs batted in and ten home runs. I had a big year.”
Peters also said, “Connie Mack gave me every chance, but I was just too young and inexperienced. I needed the two years in Atlanta under Paul Richards to become ready for the majors.”
In 1938 Russ batted .248 for the Crackers, although he often failed to come through with runners on base. But in 1939 he had his glasses changed. He shifted his stance, began hitting to all fields, and enjoyed a .316 season-producing 38 doubles, 15 triples, 10 home runs, and 88 RBI. Both years he made the Southern Association’s all-star team.
As a result, Cleveland bought his contract for the 1940 season, partly as insurance for Lou Boudreau, later a Hall of Famer, who played 53 games in 1939 and hit .258.
Instead, Russ became a utility man: “I was a good ballplayer. And I was ready. I mean, I learned how to play shortstop, and I was fast, and I had a great arm.
“Then they sold me to Cleveland, and that was the last time I played shortstop. I never played hardly any shortstop after that. I mean with Lou Boudreau in the lineup, I just sat on the bench.”
In fact, the Roanoke native’s baseball career offers another example of how a player must be on the right team, with the right combination of players, and at the right time in order to enjoy lasting success.
Peters’ hitting suffered as a reserve for the Indians. From 1940 through 1944 he hit .239, .206, .224, .219, and .223. But in his first three seasons in Cleveland, his at-bats were limited to 71, 63, and 58. During the war years of 1943 and 1944, he collected 215 and 282 at-bats.
Peters played good baseball for Cleveland in 1943. For example, on August 12 Ken Keltner was spiked in the twelfth inning of a game in which the Indians beat the Athletics, 4-3, thanks in part to a rally keyed by Peters’ double.
According to Cleveland writer Gordon Cobbledick, Peters proceeded to hit .273 (30-for-110), whereas Keltner had batted .264. Also, Russ proved more than adequate as a third baseman, ranging farther to his left and fielding bunts better than most.
Cobbledick considered Keltner the league’s best third sacker. “But he [Peters] has proved himself as able a substitute as any team could ask, and that happens to be the job he was hired for.”
In 1944 Peters hit well at times such as when he played second base for a series against Detroit in Briggs Stadium. He slugged six doubles in the four-game set, including a two-bagger off Hal Newhouser in the twelfth inning of a 7-6 Indian victory on April 29. When Mickey Rocco hit a pop fly double to short left, Peters scored what became the winning run, thus sending Newhouser to the second defeat of his brilliant 29-9 season.
Russ reminisced, “Out of that four-game series at Detroit, I had six doubles in the first three games. I went out to play the fourth game, and lo and behold, there’s Paul Richards, catching.
“I said, ‘Paul, what the hell are you doing back here? You’re too old.’
“He said, ‘Well, somebody’s got to know how to get you out!’
“Sure enough, they did!”
After serving with the Army in Europe during 1945 and for most of the following year, Russ returned to the Indians in September 1946. Upon his return he batted .286 in nine games. He played shortstop for seven of those contests and fielded 1.000.
Overall, however, Peters’ years with Cleveland consisted mainly of playing in late-inning defensive situations and getting scattered pinch-hitting roles.
In 1947 after being sold to the St. Louis Browns, Peters played second base and got off to a fine start, eventually hitting .340 in 39 games. He also led the AL in pinch-hitting, going 6-for-11, a .545 mark.
Russ was hitting .371 when the manager replaced him with former Kansas City Monarch star Hank Thompson, whom the Browns acquired in mid-season. Thompson, a better performer at third than the keystone sack, hit .256 in 27 games. The former Negro Leaguer was released after the season.
Peters, however, was sold to Toledo of the American Association for the 1948 season. Midway through the summer, he was traded to first-place Indianapolis. Teaming with future Pirate players such as Tom Saffell, Pete Castiglione, and Ted Beard, Russ hit .279 with 7 homers and 48 RBI.
The Virginian spent three more seasons with Indianapolis trying to win another shot at the majors, hitting .266 in 1949 and .251 in 1950. But his skills were slipping, and he retired following a weak 1951 season.
Afterward, he worked 25 years for the U.S. Post Office in Orlando, Florida, retiring in 1975. An unpretentious couple, Russ and Mel moved to Bedford, Virginia, a couple of years later. An avid golfer, Russ won a club championship in Orlando in 1964 and twice won the Bedford Country Club title, in 1978 and 1980. In 1997 the couple moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Russ was proud of his family. As of 2003 their eldest daughter, Dr. Sylvia Rogers, taught at Notre Dame College in Belmont, California, and the youngest, Sherry Hood, served as the registrar at James Madison University. Russ and Mel had four grandchildren.
Reflecting on his career in 2001, Russ said, “Baseball was good to me. I loved playing ball.
“I would have had a hell of a time breaking in as shortstop on any of those American League ball clubs. I mean, even if I’d had the chance, I’d of had a hell of a time making it, because they had [Phil] Rizzuto at the Yankees, they had [Lou] Boudreau with the Indians, they had [Luke] Appling at the White Sox, they had [Johnny] Pesky at the Red Sox.
“St. Louis was probably the only ball club I’d of had a chance to make it, you know, really breaking in at short.”
But Hall of Famer Boudreau recollected about Peters: “On any other team in the league, Russ would have been a starting shortstop. But when I became the player-manager for Cleveland in 1942, there were two strikes against him.
“Russ was a great team player and a great individual. He never complained. He was a good fielder and a consistent hitter, although he didn’t hit with power.”
Peters has a favorite story about Boudreau. On July 17, 1941, the day Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak stopped in Cleveland; Ken Keltner made two fine plays on two hard-hit grounders by the Yankee Clipper. Recalled Peters, who watched those events from the Indians’ dugout:
“DiMaggio hit a couple of one-hoppers right down the line. You know he hit the ball good, but all Keltner had to do was reach over and backhand the thing. So actually the writers made a big deal out of what great plays they were. But they were just run-of-the-mill plays. If they had been made on anyone but DiMaggio, the writers wouldn’t have had anything to say about it.
“But the best play of the night was a play that Lou Boudreau made. I think in the eighth inning, with a man on first, DiMaggio hit a ball to Boudreau, and it took a bad hop.
“Lou had the quickest hands of any infielder I ever saw. He made a great play, leaping up and barehanding the ball. He made it look halfway ordinary, and he turned it into a double play!
“Lou was probably the only shortstop in baseball who could have made that play.”
In the end, Russ Peters was able to live his big-league dream-even though he never got a real opportunity as a regular to prove himself a better player than his batting statistics suggest. Still, the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame recognized his solid career with his 1993 induction.
Thinking over his halcyon years, Peters, the first Roanoke native to make the major leagues, expressed it this way:
“I was thankful to have spent ten years up there with the elite 400 club. I loved every minute in the big leagues, and now, when I get a little recognition, I’m being rewarded for it.”
After a long illness, Russ Peters passed away on February 21, 2003.
Sources for this biography include copies of clippings from the Russ Peters file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library; articles from the Roanoke Times at the Roanoke, Virginia, City Library; interviews with Russ in July and August 1996 and July 2001; an interview with Lou Boudreau in August 1996; clippings from Russ Peter’s scrapbooks; several telephone conversations with Russ from mid-1996 to mid-2002; and data from The Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1994).