Saturday, September 3, 2011

#239 - Bill Russell

Bill Russell gets to pose at Candlestick which must have been tough for Dodger players, but Bill doesn't seem to mind. Fresh off his first All-Star season, '73 was an interesting year for him. At the beginning of the year he was still considered as an outfielder who was only a stopgap at shortstop until a permanent solution could be found. Early in the season he had a horrible game in which he had three errors, one of which put the Reds ahead, and struck out in his final at bat with the game winner on base. He was booed at Dodger Stadium pretty mercilessly for the first time. But then he started hitting well enough to grab the All-Star nod, cut way down on his errors, and became an integral part of the new infield as the Dodgers nearly caught up to the Reds for the division. And 11 years later he was still the starting shortstop.

Bill Russell was a high school basketball star in Kansas. He only played summer baseball because his school was not big enough to field a team. He was drafted by the Dodgers in '66 and had a pretty impressive debut that summer in Rookie ball, hitting .356 as an outfielder. He then went to Kansas State and played A ball that summer, hitting only .221. Then he put in a full year of A ball in '69 and upped his average to .280. In '69, after a nice spring, he got promoted all the way up where he spent the season backing up Willie Davis and Andy Kosco in the outfield. In '70 Bill went down to Triple A Spokane where he hit .363 and played a bit of infield, all of 19 games at third base. In mid-season he was back up top, basically taking over right field from Willie Crawford. He spent all of '71 up top, again settling into a reserve role. When in spring training of '72 it became apparent that Maury Wills was running out of gas, Bill was quickly groomed to take his place. He learned the position during the '72 season, which goes a long way to explaining his 34 errors in 121 games. But he was a canny guy and smartly cozied up to veterans, particularly Claude Osteen and Chris Cannizzaro, to get the dirt on NL hitters and pitchers which helped his transition in the field and at the plate, where he bumped up his average 45 points.

Once Russell established himself during the '73 season he became recognized as one of the better fielding shortstops in the league. In '74 he got the most RBIs of his career, 65, led the league in intentional walks, and had a torrid start to his post-season days, hitting .389 against the Pirates in the NL playoffs. In '75 he got hurt and missed half the season, a big reason LA failed to repeat as division-winner. He returned in '76 to his second All-Star season and would then enjoy a nice run through 1980, his third All-Star year. That season he was hitting roughly .300 when he was hit on the hand by a pitch, missed some time, and saw his average fade a bit when he returned. He experienced one of his best offensive years in '82, grabbing his highest lifetime OBA at .357. He remained in a starting role midway through '84 when Dave Anderson took over and was by then the only remaining member of the Fab Four infield. He stuck around as a reserve guy through '86 and was done. Bill hit .263 with 293 doubles, 46 homers, and 627 RBIs. He also stole 167 bases. He picked things up in the post-season, hitting .294 with 19 RBIs in 49 games.

After playing, Russell stayed in LA, joining Tommy Lasorda's staff in '87 and retaining that position for ten seasons, with '92 to '93 off to manage in Albuquerque. In '96 Bill was named interim manager when Lasorda was sidelined by a heart ailment. He was later upgraded to full manager status and led the club to two straight second-place finishes. When he got off to a 36-38 start in '98 he was fired by new owners The News Corp. In '99 he hooked up with the Rays, winning a championship as manager in Triple A that season and coaching up top in 2000. In '01 he moved to the Giants where he managed in the minors for a season. All told he has a 173-149 record in the majors and a 260-297 tab in the minors. Since '02 he has been working with MLB's umpiring division as a supervisor.

Bill would get some better star bullets later in his career, particularly regarding the '78 post-season when he hit well over .400. The second one here is a bit generous since '72 was a tough one defensively. But he got there.

These '77 Series opponents get together like this:

1. Russell and Dick Dietz '72 Dodgers;
2. Dietz and Fran Healy '71 Giants.

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