This article was written by David Nemec
This article was published in the Spring 2014 Baseball Research Journal
What player in major league history, while participating in no more than half his team’s scheduled games, posted the most outstanding overall hitting performance?
What player in major league history, while participating in no more than half his team’s scheduled games, posted the most outstanding overall hitting performance?In 2010, the Twins’ Justin Morneau sustained a concussion in a play at second base that abruptly truncated his season before the All-Star break. At that stage, he was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS. He had just played in his 81st game—exactly half a season. Interestingly, in Morneau’s American League MVP season, four years earlier, the reverse phenomenon had occurred. Luke Scott, after starting the year in the minors with Round Rock of the Pacific Coast League, was summoned to the Astros after the 2006 All-Star break and logged a gigantic 1.047 OPS in 65 games in the second semester.
These two exceptional shortened season feats prompt an intriguing question. What player in major league history, while participating in no more than half his team’s scheduled games, posted the most outstanding overall hitting performance?
No player whose playing time was not severely truncated by surgery or an injury, a military obligation interruption or a lengthy stint in the minors was considered in researching the question posed. So as to make allowances for pre-expansion performers who may have played a game or two more than 77 when the schedule called for only 154 games but was frequently extended to enable teams to play off tie games, the maximum number of games participated in was set at 81. To eliminate freakish outliers like Bob Hazle in 1957 and Todd Hollandsworth in 2001, to name but two part-timers who got on uncharacteristic rolls for just a few weeks or a month, players with fewer than 200 plate appearances were eliminated. Also eliminated was Matt Williams who played 76 games for the Giants before being injured in the strike-shortened 1995 season that curtailed his team’s schedule to just 144 games.
Lastly, the determining factor for establishing who had the best shortened season ever was the owner of what is generally viewed as the most significant measure of a hitter, the highest OPS (on-base average + slugging average). The current version of Lee Sinins’s The Complete Baseball Encyclopedia was used to calculate the all-time leader. After focusing Sinins’s amazing device on single season achievements and setting my two parameters—minimum number of plate appearances (200) and maximum number of games (81)—I selected OPS, RBIs, and batting average from among the stats offered. The latter two were chosen largely to satisfy my curiosity. OPS remained the key measuring point.[fn]The Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, 2012 edition, (disk), by Lee Sinins.[/fn]
In addition to Morneau’s and Scott’s achievements, among the other shortened-season achievements that seemed certain to appear on the Sinins’s “Top 10” list were Mickey Mantle’s 1963 campaign, when he had been enjoying a monster year before he broke his foot on June 5 running into a fence at Baltimore and suffered other lesser ailments that sidelined him for all but 65 games during the regular season; Joe DiMaggio’s 1949 blockbuster when he missed the first 65 games of the season while recovering from heel surgery and needed occasional recuperation days off even after he returned to the lineup; and Willie McCovey’s dynamite partial year in 1959 after the Giants brought him up from their Phoenix farm club on July 30 and could only blink in wonder when he clubbed .354 and became the lone Rookie of the Year to date not to arrive in the majors until after the All-Star break.
While each of these Hall of Famers did indeed place high on the list, the winner was a long-forgotten player who emerged as the leader not only in OPS, but also in RBI and batting average.
Now, if you’re asking “who was Reb Russell?” we’ll get to that in a moment. First a look at the complete “Top Ten” list (Table 1).
Table 1: Top Ten Shortened Seasons
The six players marked with a * all lost half a season or more either to surgery or injuries and recuperation or else, in Caminiti’s case, to a combination of a wrist injury and alcoholic abuse rehab. Wakefield, the lone player marked with a #, missed the first half of the 1944 season while completing a World War II naval cadet training program, The three marked with a @ all spent the first half of the season in the minors. But where Russell differed from McCovey and Scott—the other minor league call ups—is that he was no longer a prospect in 1922; he was 33 years old at the time and had been away from the majors since early in the 1919 season when he had washed out as a pitcher after battling wing trouble, a weight problem, and sundry injuries for several seasons.
Nine years earlier Russell had first strutted onto the major league scene with the Chicago White Sox as an unpolished and unheralded 23-year-old Texas farm boy who had gone just 4–4 in 1912 with the Fort Worth Panthers of the Class B Texas League. Used mostly in relief early in the 1913 season by Sox manager Jimmy Callahan, he had suddenly blossomed into the top rookie southpaw in the Deadball Era, finishing the year with 22 wins, an AL southpaw rookie-record 316 2/3 innings, and a share of the AL rookie record for shutouts with eight.[fn]SABR Baseball Biography Project: Reb Russell by Richard Smiley.[/fn] But the following year he slipped to 7–12 and never again quite regained his unparalleled frosh brilliance. What’s more, no serious thought was ever given to making Russell into a position player since he was little more than an average hitting pitcher and carried just a .209 career BA with one home run in 465 at bats when the Sox cut all ties with him in 1919. Released to Minneapolis of the American Association, he got into just one game as a pitcher and finished the 1919 season in center field when the Millers ran short of outfielders, where he displayed some power by leading the team in homers with nine but hit just .266.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
Russell was working the following summer as an auto assembler in his adopted hometown of Indianapolis when the Millers again found themselves thin in the outfield and took him back on board for the duration of the 1920 season. After batting .339 in 85 games, Russell hit his full stride at the plate in 1921, leading the Millers in batting average and homers with marks that were outstanding but by no means phenomenal in what had now become the Lively Ball Era, a .368 BA with 33 homers.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
That winter Bill McKechnie, after playing with Russell in Minneapolis in 1921, retired as a player to join Pittsburgh as a coach under manager George Gibson and tried to generate interest among the Pirates’ brass in his former Millers teammate. Pittsburgh ultimately decided to pass on the 33-year-old, wary not only of his age but also of Minneapolis’s Nicollet Field, whose short right field porch made it something of a paradise for left-handed hitters. However in early July of 1922, Gibson resigned his post when the Pirates were languishing below .500, far out of contention, and McKechnie renewed his efforts to acquire Russell when he was named Pittsburgh’s new skipper. On July 17, McKechnie landed his man, procuring Russell for a chunk of cash and pitcher John Hollingsworth. Four days later Russell was in Pirates garb for the first time. Batting cleanup and playing right field on a Friday afternoon in Forbes Field, he went an uninspiring 0-for-2 in a 6–0 win over the Phillies’ Jimmy Ring, George Smith and Jesse Winters.[fn]Retrosheet.org.[/fn]
On the morning of Russell’s arrival the Pirates were 41–44 and ensconced in sixth place, 12 games behind the front-running New York Giants. They had been using a platoon of Ray Rohwer and Johnny Mokan in right field and would employ seven different right fielders all told in 1922, including Russell. The first issue of The Sporting News that appeared after Russell’s acquisition, on July 27, lamented how all season long the Pirates had been handicapped in right field and expressed the forlorn hope in the Pittsburgh camp that since the club’s youth rebuilding program had been an abysmal failure, Russell would provide a decent stopgap and perhaps even help the Corsairs climb as high as the first division.
The Sporting News also emphasized that while the lefty-swinging Russell “took a healthy cut at every good ball pitched to him,” the Pirates harbored no great dreams that he would be a home run hitter because no one had ever “made much of a home run record” in Pittsburgh owing to its “big plant.”[fn]The Sporting News, July 27, 1922, 3–4.[/fn] Forbes Field’s dimensions in 1922 were 376 feet down the line in right field (Russell’s most inviting target), 356 feet in left and 462 feet at the deepest part of center field.[fn]Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009)[/fn]
In the 69 games the Pirates had left to play once Russell joined them they went 44–25, playing the best ball of any team in the National League in the final two and a half months of the season, and finished in third place, just a game behind second-place Cincinnati. Russell’s .368 BA and 75 RBI in just 60 games were eye-popping. At a glance, his 12 home runs, though impressive in so few games, only tied him for 11th place on the NL four-bagger chart in 1922. Yet they also tied him with Chief Wilson (1911) for the most home runs in a season by a Pirate since 1909 when Forbes Field opened and fell only one short of Jake Stenzel’s all-time club mark at that time of 13 in 1894.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
McKechnie had every reason to claim bragging rights to the most stunning find of the year. Perhaps no one in his right mind could have reasonably expected Russell to sustain his excellence over a full schedule the following season, especially since he would turn 34 before it began, but few would have predicted that he would crash and burn almost from its outset. Russell got off to such a poor start in the spring that he was soon in danger of losing his job to Clyde Barnhart, a journeyman third baseman who had lost his position to Pie Traynor the previous year.
The August 2, 1923, issue of The Sporting News recounted that Russell was not only a flop as a power hitter after being expected to rival Babe Ruth but also a poor baserunner and a below average outfielder with an arm that was barely adequate, probably due to its having been weakened by his earlier bouts with shoulder and elbow trouble.[fn]The Sporting News, August 2, 1923, 3.[/fn] By that time Russell was spending most of his time either on the bench or being platooned, but he did manage to stick with the club for the entire 1923 season before dropping back down to the high minors where he again excelled until he was in his late 30s.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] Too, he ended the big top portion of his career on a nice uptick. In his major league finale on September 30, 1923, at Cubs Park (later Wrigley Field) he played left field and went 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI in a 5–4 loss to Cubs rookie Rip Wheeler.[fn]Retrosheet.org.[/fn]
In his official finale, that is.
Russell’s version of his finale is quite different according to Rob Neyer. He claimed later in life that he was playing right field in Forbes Field one afternoon in 1923, with part of an overflow crowd sprawled on the grass directly behind him. When he went back for a deep fly ball, while the other spectators parted to make way for him one man who had been riding him hard all day stubbornly remained seated and got in his path. Russell claimed he went up for the fly ball and came down on the spectator, deliberately spiking him in the chest as payback and ripping “the hide right off his belly.” After the game the obstreperous spectator went to the Pirates’ front office and vowed he would never come to another game after what Russell did to him and the team fired Russell on the spot as a result.[fn]Diamond Mind On Line, “The Ballad of Reb Russell” by Rob Neyer. http://robneyer.com/baseball-books/big-book-of-baseball-lineups/chicago-white-sox-reb-russell/ November 1, 2013.[/fn]
There is not a word of truth to this weird and hardly self-aggrandizing story, just as there is little truth in most of the letters Russell wrote to the Hall of Fame and in particular to Lee Allen on his own behalf long after his retirement. In a 1965 letter to Allen, Russell maintained: “I really believe that I have received the least recognition of any player in baseball, considering my batting average, games won, and home runs…”[fn]January 15, 1965, letter to Lee Allen from Ewell Albert Russell.[/fn]
Russell also boasted in another letter six years later that he hurled against Babe Ruth in the first game Ruth ever pitched for the Red Sox in 1914 and not only beat him 1–0 but never lost to him in all the times they faced each other.[fn]Neyer, “The Ballad of Reb Russell.”[/fn] The problems here are that Ruth faced the Indians and not Russell’s White Sox in the first game he chucked for the Red Sox on July 11, 1914, and that Russell lost 3–0 to the Babe at Fenway Park on September 24, 1917, in the third and final time he faced him as a starter.[fn]Retrosheet.org.[/fn]
Yes, Russell was something of a braggart when it came to his baseball exploits and was far from a reliable source on them, much like the semi-literate Jack Keefe whom Ring Lardner in all likelihood modeled after the Texas farm boy at least in part in his classic epistolary baseball novel You Know Me, Al, published in 1916. Yet about his greatest accomplishment in the game he seems never to have uttered a word.
In 1922 Ewell Albert “Reb” Russell had the best shortened season of any hitter in the history of major league baseball.
DAVID NEMEC is a baseball historian, novelist and playwright. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Nemec spent most of his adolescence in Bay Village, Ohio, the scene of the number one unsolved crime of the twentieth century, the Sheppard Murder Case, which inspired the TV show and film “The Fugitive.” Nemec has worked as a teamster, high school basketball coach, vocational training counselor, tennis teaching pro, and parole officer but has devoted most of his recent years to numerous books on baseball history, focusing most heavily on the nineteenth century. His next book will be on the history of forfeited and successfully protested major league games.