Jack Russell may not have had the most successful career among Lamar County’s surprisingly long list of major leaguer ballplayers, but in 1933 he achieved something none of his predecessors accomplished and his hometown of Paris celebrated wildly.
Jack Erwin Russell was born in Paris in the fall of 1905, the son of longtime Paris postmaster Thomas “Will” Russell and his wife, the former Maude Proctor. Less than four years later, as the Russells looked forward to welcoming a second child into the family, tragedy struck as Jack’s newborn brother died just a day after being born, and his mother succumbed to the complications of childbirth less than 24 hours later. Suddenly, Will Russell was left a widower with a three year-old son. As was common for the time, though, motherless households didn’t remain that way for long, and only a year later, Will married local native Donna Biard, who essentially became the only mother young Jack ever truly knew. The new family settled into a house in what is now the 200 block of Northeast 20th Street, just west of Paris’ ballpark, home to several professional ball clubs, including the Paris Boosters of the Texas-Oklahoma League and the short-lived Bearcats of the mid-1920s East Texas League.
Upon entering Paris public schools, Jack Russell quickly established himself as a top athlete, playing on both the Paris High baseball and football teams before continuing on to Paris Junior College where he captained the school’s first football team in his first year. All the while, though, Jack’s heart remained in baseball. Growing up so close to the ballpark, Jack hung around the professional ballplayers, learning whatever he could about his favorite game. Dickie Kerr, the single hero of the 1919 World Series’ Chicago White Sox, known as the “Black Sox” after being accused of throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds in baseball’s most notorious gambling scandal, took a particularly liking to Jack. Having begun his minor league career in Paris in 1913, Kerr eventually made the city his off-season home after marrying a local girl, and while suspended from professional baseball for three years for playing against his banned White Sox teammates in an exhibition in 1921, Kerr took to observing Paris baseball on all levels. By 1925, Kerr was suitably impressed with Jack and recommended the Bearcats offer him a tryout. Making the squad at just 19 years old, Jack Russell began his professional career literally in his own backyard.
Though posting a 7-11 won loss record in 29 starts and holding an earned run average of 5.52, Russell led the Bearcats in surrendering the fewest walks and hits per nine innings. With only one professional season under his belt, the pitching-starved Boston Red Sox, having posted six consecutive losing seasons offered Jack an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues in 1926. The 20 year-old wouldn’t see the minors again until 1942.
Jack Russell didn’t impress during his debut season in Boston, as he posted an 0-5 record in 36 appearances; yet, he maintained a low ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched, so the Red Sox invested in him, and he became a mainstay on the pitching staff for over six years. His earned run average, as well as his walks and hits per innings pitched ratio gradually increased every season. By mid-1932, the Red Sox had seen enough of Jack and his $5,500 annual salary, trading him to Cleveland. Though he finished his first stint in Boston with a 41-91 record and lasted only a half-season in Cleveland, in 1933, the course of his career changed when he signed with the Washington Senators.
Through 1932, Lamar County native Jack Russell’s baseball career was anything but notable. His low winning percentage and high earned run average as a pitcher with Boston and Cleveland contributed to his teams’ lack of success. But, Russell’s fortunes changed when he signed with the Washington Senators for the 1933 season.
In Washington, Jack Russell posted the first winning season of his professional career with 12 wins against 6 losses. Used mainly as a relief pitcher, he posted led the American League with 13 saves and ended the season with a career-low 2.69 earned run average. Most importantly, though, his outstanding season on the mound helped the Senators win the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series.
After an unremarkable eight seasons in the major leagues, the opportunity to play in the World Series against the New York Giants offered Jack a sense of redemption. In three appearances as a relief pitcher, Jack pitched a total of 10.1 innings over the course of the Series, allowing only eight hitters to reach base while striking out seven. Impressively, he finished the Series with a 0.87 earned run average, allowing just one run. Unfortunately, that run came off the bat of Hall of Famer Mel Ott in the tenth inning of Game 5, a home run deep into Washington’s Griffith Stadium’s bleachers that sealed the World Series Championship for the Giants.
Despite having given up the World Series clinching hit, in his hometown of Paris, city officials hailed Jack Russell as a hero. Upon his arrival, the city hosted a massive reception, and Jack became the most sought-after speaker at a variety of off-season events in Lamar County. Both the Senators and the American League recognized his achievements the following season. Washington rewarded Russell with a an $8,000 salary before the 1934 season began, and the League voted him to play in Major League’s second All-Star Game, primarily because of his league-leading 54 appearances on the pitcher’s mound and 8 saves over the first half of year. But, Jack was never able to duplicate his 1933 success. Following two and a half seasons in which he won 12 and lost 21, the Senators sent him back to Boston where he finished out the 1936 season with a 0-3 record for the Red Sox, who apparently hoped he could rekindle the magic of 1933. Instead, he appeared to be the same Jack Russell who had pitched unsuccessfully in Fenway Park for nearly six seasons. Still, Russell’s major league career was far from over.
Following a year with the Detroit Tigers, in 1938 Jack played his first season in the National League with the Chicago Cubs. Pitching strictly in a relief roll, he posted the best winning-percentage of his career with a 6-1 record in 42 appearances. Though the Cubs earned a World Series berth against the Yankees, Jack pitched sparingly, appearing in only two games for a total of 1.2 innings. Once again, Jack wound up on the losing end of the Series, as New York swept Chicago in four games. After another season with the Cubs, Russell finished his major league career in 1940, pitching 26 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. Two years later, he reappeared in the minor leagues for one last season, appearing in 26 games for Portsmouth of the Piedmont League.
After his baseball career, Jack Russell didn’t return to Paris, instead relocating to Florida where he had spent many springs training throughout his career. He remained involved in baseball, managing the Tampa Smokers of the Florida International League in 1948, and leading the effort to establish what would be named Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies from 1955-2003. The stadium remains in use today as headquarters of the Winning Inning Baseball Academy.
A Clearwater City Commissioner and Chamber of Commerce president, Russell went on to establish Jack Russell Oil Company, now operated by his son. Also a prominent golfer and president of the Florida State Golf Association, Jack Russell remained active until his death in 1990 at the age of 85.
Statistically, Jack Russell was far from the best major league ballplayer to hail from Paris. Over the course of his 15 year career, he posted a mere 85-141 record, a 4.46 earned run average, and only 4 winning seasons as a pitcher. But, unlike the several Lamar County ballplayers who preceded him, Jack was the first to be recognized as an All-Star and the first to appear in not only one, but two World Series. Unfortunately, in his 15 years Russell played on just five teams posting winning records and finished in last place on six occasions. His longevity a testament to his pitching skills, had Jack Russell played on more competitive teams, the baby-faced 140-pound ballplayer may have left an even greater legacy. The boy who went to the majors after just one season of low-level minor league ball literally in his own backyard may well have been known as the finest ballplayer to ever come out of Lamar County.