Jim Russell: A Baseball Life

The 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers ~ Jim Russell's Last MLB Stop thru 1951 ~ courtesy of the Mid Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame

The 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers
~ Jim Russell’s Last MLB Stop thru 1951
~ courtesy of the Mid Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame

Funny how the stars align. At a time we celebrate the induction of our great Houston star Craig Biggio and three others’ 2015 inductee selections for the Baseball Hall of Fame, a story of a really good ballplayer, Jim Russell, comes our way by virtue of his son Stephen Russell’s contribution of that rare 1988 rookie photo of Craig Biggio with the younger Russell after or before a game in Montreal.

Later this same day, Stephen Russell sent me a story about his father’s career that was written in 2013 by George Von Benko of South Connellsville, PA that The Pecan Park Eagle will now share with you here.

Jim Russell was not one the greats who light the fire of our fan passions, but he, indeed, was one of that larger cast of good ballplayers who keep the infrastructure going from one era to the next as a living thing to be enjoyed by baseball fans all over the world. Jim Russell played for ten seasons in the big leagues with Pittsburgh (1942-47), Boston, NL (1948-49) and Brooklyn (1950-51). As a tall right-handed switch-hitting outfielder, Russell batted .267 over his career, with 67 HR. His best season for average was 1944 when his 181 hits translated into 34 doubles, 14 triples, 8 homers and a .314 batting average. His 12 homers in 1945 were his biggest long ball season. A native son of the famous Monongahela Valley in the baseball rich region of western Pennsylvania, Jim Russell passed away of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 69. His deserving memory is worthy of our preservation. It always has been the role of actors like Jim Russell to keep the baseball theater lights going on a non-stop run from history to forever. If they do not, the stars that come along will have no place to shine.

Thank you Stephen V. Russell too for making this article possible. We appreciate the 1988 photo you had made with Craig Biggio and today shared with us, along with your keen observations about the man as a rookie and future great. May your work as Director of the Mid Mon Valley Historical Society and Sports Museum also continue to flourish in the land of Stan Musial and the two Ken Griffeys far beyond our shared limited time on this wonderful place on earth we know as America.


Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 2:00 am

 Russell added to region’s rich baseball history

 By George Von Benko

 For the Herald-Standard, Uniontown, PA

Western Pennsylvania has a very rich baseball history, one of the standouts from the past was former Fayette City native Jim Russell.

Russell was born on Oct. 1, 1918, in Fayette City, Pa., the son of James and Lillian Russell. His father was of Irish-Welsh descent and his mother was Swedish. As a child, Russell had rheumatic fever, and an infection developed in his heart, but he recovered. He dropped out of school and went to work in the mines like his father.

Russell honed his baseball skills playing sandlot baseball and caught the attention of baseball scouts. He signed his first professional contract with the McKeesport (Pa.) Little Pirates in 1937 and for the next five seasons played minor league ball in several towns, including Butler, Beaver Falls, Youngstown, Springfield (Ill.), and St. Joseph of the Michigan State League.

In 1941 Russell moved up to Class B, playing 125 games for Meridian of the Southeastern League where he led the league in stolen bases with 51 and established a new single-season record. He finished the ’41 campaign with the Memphis Chicks of the Class A Southern Association, and batted .383 with 10 doubles in 24 games, but was displeased with his salary.

Jim Russell Pittsburgh Pirates 1942-47

Jim Russell
Pittsburgh Pirates

He was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the minor league draft and assigned to Toronto of the International League (AA) for the 1942 campaign. He batted .295 and was a September call-up by the Pirates and appeared in five games. He had one hit in 14 at-bats.

Russell played six years for the Pirates and batted .277 with 40 home runs, 288 RBI and 51 stolen bases. Russell’s manager in Pittsburgh was future Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch. The “Fordham Flash” liked what he saw in the 24-year old outfielder, commenting that Russell had a chance to be as good “as he wants to be.”

Frisch was a hard-nosed player in his day and liked Russell’s speed and ability, and taught him to drag bunt to take advantage of his speed.

“Why, that fellow Russell ought to bunt .300 in any league! He actually overtakes and beats the ball when he pulls a bunt down the line!” Frisch said in a newspaper article at the time.

Jim Russell Boston Braves 1948-49

Jim Russell
Boston Braves

During the offseason in 1947, Russell was traded to the Boston Braves along with catcher Bill Salkeld and pitcher Al Lyons for outfielder Johnny Hopp and second baseman Danny Murtaugh.

Russell at first embraced the move to Boston. Here is what he had to say about the move in a 1947 newspaper story.

“The best thing about coming to Boston,” Russell claimed. “Is that I won’t have to bat against Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn.”

The switch-hitting Russell reflected on his career with the Pirates.

“Being a hometown boy,” he said. “I probably pressed a little too much trying to do well before the fans. I know my dad used to come out to see me, and I tried too hard to get some hits for him.”

Braves Field was also a favorite park for Russell.

“The best day I had all last year was in Boston,” he stated. “I got five hits in six times at-bat, including two doubles and a triple.

“Another thing about Braves Field, I’ll get hits on drives they used to catch off me in deep right-center in Pittsburgh. I know that every time I hit a ball on the nose in Braves Field it went against the fences. My best power is to right center and I lost a lot of hits in Pittsburgh, because of the long distance to the fences in that part of the park.”

Russell played two season for the Braves and hit .246 with 17 home runs and 108 RBI. On June 7, 1948, in a game against the Cubs in Wrigley Field, Russell had a career moment when he tied a National League record with four extra-base hits in a single game. He homered and doubled from both sides of the plate, and also drove in six runs as the Braves defeated the Cubs, 9-5. He was a big part of the Braves’ drive for the pennant.

His season came to an end on July 22, 1948, when he was admitted to Christ Hospital in Cincinnati with an infected tooth and decaying jaw bone which were believed to have caused a fever he had for two weeks prior to entering the hospital. On August 30, it was announced that Russell would miss the remainder of the season. The Braves received permission to add outfielder Ray Sanders to the World Series roster to replace Russell.

In 1949, Russell and teammate Earl Torgeson got into a fight at a Chicago hotel and both combatants came away injured. Torgeson suffered a sprained thumb, while Russell came away with two black eyes. This was the tip of the iceberg and manager Billy Southworth soon left the club.

Jim Russell Brooklyn Dodgers 1950-51

Jim Russell
Brooklyn Dodgers

Russell was traded to Brooklyn on Christmas Eve 1949, along with Ed Sauer and cash for Luis Olmo. Russell’s contract was assigned to the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals of the International League. He balked and threatened to retire, he was given a shot at the big league club and made it.

He was Dodgers fan favorite with nicknames like “Bing-Bango, Sock and Slub.” In 1950, four home runs won games outright and five home runs came against their archrival St. Louis Cardinals. He played for Brooklyn in 1950 and part of 1951, batting .216 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI.

Russell finished his playing career in 1952 and 1953 with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League and then retired back to Pennsylvania. He was a scout for the Dodgers and Senators, and owned Russell Brothers Beer Distributing. He became a salesman for Smith-Corona and moved to the Tampa, Fla., area. He experienced health problems and died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 69.

Russell was inducted into the Mid Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 1952.

George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” columns appear in the Tuesday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.






2 Responses to “Jim Russell: A Baseball Life”

  1. Astros 2005: A View from Afar | The Pecan Park Eagle Says:

    […] https://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/jim-russell-a-baseball-life/ […]

  2. Carole brzostowski Says:

    Throughly enjoyed the article . I am related to Margaret Russell Griffith of allenport pa. I never knew details on this side of the family.carole Griffith brzostowski……ceb1403@aol.com

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