Allen Russell: The Believable Barnum and Bailey of Buffs Baseball!

Marr WIcker Hawn That’s Houston Buffs President Allen Russell in the business suit and hat at the far left of today’s featured first photo. He’s showing some kind of report in early 1950 to St. Louis Cardinal coaches Runt Marr (next to Russell) and Freddy Hawn (far right). That’s Kemp Wicker, the first of two managers who commanded the Good Ship Buffalo at the start of the ’50 season wearing the “Houston” jersey. Little Benny Borgmann would soon replace Wicker and manage the Buffs for most of their ride into the Texas League cellar that most inglorious year, but that kind of field performance disaster never stopped Allen Russell. It simply provided a different kind of marketing challenge.

Bill Veeck wasn’t the only organized baseball promoter who would try almost anything that worked to draw fans to the ballpark. He was just the most creatively famous owner/president to do it – and he also did it at the major league level. Allen Russell could hold his own with just about anybody in baseball when it came down to bodacious ingenuity – and the 1950 season provided him with one of his brightest and coolest moments of gate-rattling chutzpah – and Allen wasn’t even Jewish!

Late in the 1950 season, when it became apparent that the Buffs had been shortchanged on the minor league talent distribution by the parent Cardinals that year, Russell decided he needed to do something unique in the interest of pumping the gate a little bit on the way to a crippled attendance finish. What he chose to do wasn’t totally unique. The rival Fort  Worth Cats had tried it briefly in 1949, but Russell forged onward, anyway, after talking his club into going along with the gimmick. The Buffs said “OK”, but they gave their consent to the plan with some considerable reservation.

Jerry Witte in ShortsAs modeled in the photo by the Buffs’ sluggung first baseman Jerry Witte, the Buffs agreed to wear shorts, as I also covered in a recent article. The ostensible reason given for this change was that the Buffs wanted to do all they could to make sure their players were made as comfortable as possible in the searing, humid Houston summer heat.

A lot of fans weren’t concerned with the comfort problems of a team that was already well on its comfortable way to a dead last finish, but that was not Russell’s concern. If he couldn’t give them winning baseball without the Cardinal home club’s help, he could at least provide the fans with something with the gawk-value of grown men playing baseball in short pants, that a fan had to buy a ticket to see.

“Players who aren’t comfortable losing should either find a way to win or be given a ticket down to Class A Omaha!” was a fairly typical conservative fan attitude, but that didn’t stop the short pants experiment.

The blousy short pants created a short term curiosity spike in attendance, but that thrill soon wore thin. Fans don’t like watching losers and short pants don’t make it more OK in the long run. Besides, the players hated the extra easy mosquito bites and sliding strawberry wounds they were getting from the goofy looking sawed-off uniform pants. Seeing all these things for himself, Allen Russell soon restored the Buffs to regular long pants before season’s end – and the Buffs marched on to a last place finish like real men.

During his eight seasons as Buffs President (1946-53), Allen Russell was largely responsible for a major growth in attendance at Buff Stadium for Houston Buff Texas Leaue games. Throw in the extra facts that this was arguably the halcyon era of baseball game attendance popularity. From 1946 through about 1953, the year that TV and a diversification of other leisure time interests pretty much changed everything  – baseball held the stage for a bull market run at new attendance records. All a city needed was a promoter like Allen Russell to make it happen – and easy access to the ballpark. Houston built their first freeway right past Buff Stadium in 1948 and the old ballpark was still very accessible to the bus lines and middle class neighborhoods that surrounded the place. Russell took advantage of every break that swung his way – and he also  pretty much declared war on rain-outs and the loss of income they produced. Russell would get out there on the field himself and pour gasoline into all standing waters on the infield and then set it on fire. He would literally burn the water off the field before he ever called a game because of rain. If he could’ve stopped the rain from ever falling on game days with a little voodoo ceremony, he probably woul d have done that too.

Allen Russell & Rain In 1946, the year that Russell took over as Buffs President, the Buffs drew 161,000 fans and the major league St. Louis Browns drew 526,000. The very next year, 1947, the Buffs outdrew the Browns by 326,000 to 282,000. By 1948, the Buffs again won the gate battle, 401,000 to 336,000. The Browns edged a bad Buffs team in 1949 by 271,000 to 254,000, but an 8th places Buffs club in 1950 still edged a 7th place Browns club by 256.000 to 247,000. The Buffs won again in 1951 by 333,000 ro 294,000 By 1952, St. Louis was reaping the benefits of Bill Veeck’s second year at the Browns helm. The Browns outdrew the Buffs by 519,000 to 195,000 in 1952 – and they edged them again in 1953, the last year of the Browns, by a 297,000 to 204,000 count.

In spite of the lapses in his twofinal  Buff seasons, Russell had made his point before leaving Houston to take over running the nearby Beaumont Exporters. The St. Louis Cardinals even considered moving to Houston prior to the 1953 season because of some serious ownership problems, but that possibility was quashed by the purchase of the club by August Busch and the Budweiser Beer Company.

After 1953, it would be the Browns who moved from St. Louis, but that relocation would not be to Houston. It would be to Baltimore. Still, Allen Russell supplied the original rachet for others who would now pursue major league baseball for Houston with great passion and political savvy. They would succeed seven years later when Houston was awarded an expansion club franchise in 1960 to start playing in 1962.

Now we just need to make sure we remember the man who made it all possible. His name was Allen Russell and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s also the real father of major league baseball in Houston.

 

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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