Pythias Russ: The Negro Leagues’ Forgotten Thoroughbred

 

It’s often said that the Negro League players were the “forgotten stars” of baseball history. Brilliant players like Josh Gibson, Pete Hill and Cool Papa Bell played their entire careers in the shadows due to Major League Baseball’s ban barring Black players. Luckily, fans who saw them play, sportswriters who chronicled their exploits, and modern historians who compiled their statistics have kept the Negro Leagues alive. However, while many baseball fans know of Gibson, Hill and Bell, there are still some fantastically talented players who, for some reason or another, have remained almost completely left out of the history of the Negro Leagues. You are about to read the story of one of the most gifted ballplayers I had never heard of. His name is Pythias Russ.

The story of Pythias Russ begins in Cynthiana, Kentucky, a tobacco growing and bourbon distilling town along the South Licking River, about 30 miles northeast of Lexington. His father Clem was a horse and wagon teamster who later modernized to motor driven trucks, and his mother Mary ran a laundry out of the family home. Pythias, born in 1904, was the tenth of the Russ’s eleven children (a brother’s obituary sets the number of children at nine). Despite the family’s poverty, most of the Russ children attended school through the eighth grade, with several graduating high school.

Cynthiana was relatively unique at the time in that it had a relatively modern school for the area’s Black children. Founded by the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands a year after the Civil War ended, Cynthiana Colored School offered a full education through high school. Not much is known about Pythias Russ’s younger years, but he must have grown up playing multiple sports while attending the Cynthiana Colored School. A photograph exists of a high school age Pythias playing on a Black Cynthiana baseball team called the “All-Stars.”

Pythias graduated high school in 1921 and matriculated to Walden College in Nashville. Walden was a junior college that specialized in pre-med and was affiliated with Nashville’s Meharry Medical College. Pythias’s pursuit of a career in medicine was likely sparked by his older sister Katie’s husband, Dr. William Beaton. Beaton was a Black man born in British Guiana who immigrated to the United States in 1911 and enrolled in the Meharry Medical School. He married Katie Russ in 1920 and the couple lived in St. Louis, Missouri, where Dr. Beaton had a general medical practice.

Pythias continued his passion for sports by playing for Walden’s football, basketball, and baseball teams. His basketball playing earned him mentions in papers as far away as Buffalo, New York. He excelled on the gridiron and was captain of the college’s 1925 squad. But it was his work as a catcher that got him attention from the professional baseball ranks.

At some point during 1925, Candy Jim Taylor, manager of the St. Louis Stars, saw Pythias’s work behind the plate. Taylor recommended Russ to the Memphis Red Sox where he was paired up with the team’s ace, fellow Kentuckian Carl “Lefty” Glass. According to Seamheads.com, Russ hit .315 with 2 home runs in 39 games. At the tail end of the season, Russ was inexplicably loaned out to the Birmingham Black Barons for their 5-game season-ending series against the Kansas City Monarchs. Kansas City had won the first half of the season and was neck and neck with St. Louis for the second. The Monarchs swept the series but lost the half by one game. Pythias’s place in the Birmingham lineup didn’t make much of a difference as he only managed 3 hits in 18 at bats. Russ returned to the Red Sox and concluded the summer with an exhibition series against Birmingham before returning to college.

In more modern times, Russ’s playing professional sports for pay would have ended his eligibility to play college sports. However, during this time, most colleges outside of the Ivy League and the more prestigious schools chose to look the other way when some of their players earned money playing professional sports in the off season. Thus Pythias Russ was able to keep his college eligibility. The problem was his college ceased to exist.

Financial difficulties resulted in Walden College closing their doors after the 1925 school year, and Pythias needed to find another college to attend. But before he did so, he took the time to marry fellow Walden student Mary Richards. The pair married just before the new year and headed to Austin, Texas, where the newlyweds enrolled in Samuel Huston College.

At Sam Huston, Pythias really came into his own. He was a four-letter man in baseball, basketball, track, and football. In the latter, Russ again made his name known. The November 17, 1926, Austin American featured a large photo of Pythias in his football gear:

SAM HUSTON ACE
“Silver Toe” Russ, Sam Huston College triple threat player and the greatest colored football player in the country. Coach Yost of the University of Michigan says that Russ represents all the good qualities to be obtained in a football player. He has played in Yost’s home city, Nashville. As a broken field runner he rivals Red Grange, as a heaver of forward passes he equals Oberlander of Dartmouth, and his defensive playing is without a peer. His kicking has aided Sam Huston to keep its goal uncrossed.

To be compared to Red Grange, at the time recognized as the greatest college football player in recent memory, and heralded as “the greatest colored football player in the country” are no small compliments. Pythias’s football talent was further rewarded when he was named a first team All-American halfback in 1926. Legendary University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg called Russ “the best football player in Texas, black or white.”

During this period, Negro League baseball was going through a civil war. The Negro National League was founded in 1920 and led by Chicago American Giants owner and manager Andrew “Rube” Foster. At the same time, the league also established the Negro Southern League to act as a minor league for the Negro National League. The Southern League disbanded in 1924 when their two most profitable teams, the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox, joined the Negro National League. When the Southern League reformed for the 1926 season, Birmingham and Memphis rejoined. The Negro National League clubs countered by poaching many players from Southern League teams. Rube Foster, who no doubt noticed Pythias when Chicago played Memphis the previous season, stole the young catcher for his American Giants.

Rube Foster was a legend in his own time. In the first decade of the 1900s he was regarded as the best pitcher outside the major leagues. A brilliant tactician and leader of men, Foster easily transitioned to manager and later owner of the Chicago American Giants. Foster’s club became known as the class of Black baseball and won the first three Negro National League pennants. Then, after losing the 1923 and 1924 pennants to the Kansas City Monarchs, Foster stripped his team and rebuilt. The American Giants manager preferred ballplayers who were all-around athletes and able to play several positions. And, like his contemporary John McGraw of the New York Giants, Foster favored college educated ballplayers. Pythias Russ checked all the boxes on Foster’s want list.

On June 8, 1926, Pythias joined the American Giants in Kansas City for a series against the Monarchs. Despite Foster’s rebuilding of the team, the American Giants were stuck in a slump. Even Rube Foster didn’t seem to be as healthy and robust as he once was. The Chicago Defender remarked on how badly attendance had slumped at American Giants games. Though they fielded proven stars Dave Malarcher, George Sweatt, Willie Foster and Rube Curry, the team still lacked spark and a heavy hitter who could drive in runs.

In three games against Kansas City, Pythias Russ rapped out 5 hits in 8 at bats with a home run. Then two days later he was ejected from the game, and when he refused to leave the field, police were summoned to escort him off. Although the team didn’t know it yet, the American Giants had found both their spark and heavy hitter.

Pythias was platooned behind the plate with John Hines and Jim Brown. Hines was primarily a utility outfielder while Brown was the team’s regular first baseman. Once he earned the respect of the pitchers and proved himself at the plate, Russ emerged as the team’s starting catcher, allowing Hines and Brown to resume their usual roles again.

Slowly but surely, the American Giants began creeping up in the standings. The first half of the season ended with KC barely edging out Chicago. On July 17, both teams ended the first week of the second half with identical 5-0 records, but by the end of July, Chicago was in first place to stay.

Pythias rented a room in the house owned by Rube Foster. Mary soon joined him, and the couple settled in to the life of a ballplayer. As a boarder in Foster’s home, Pythias would have had a front row seat to the quick demise of the American Giants manager. According to Tim Odzer’s biography of Foster in the Society for American Baseball Research book on the 1920 American Giants, “His wife, Sarah, said Foster heard voices telling him he was going to be called on to pitch in the World Series. American Giants pitcher Wee Willie Powell said Foster ran up and down the street in front of his house, while shortstop Bobby Williams spoke of how Foster bolted himself into his office and refused to leave until someone entered through the window and drew him out.” On September 8 it was reported that Rube Foster had been committed to an insane asylum. Third baseman Dave Malarcher took over as acting manager.

Although Russ had done more than his share to help Chicago win the second half, he did not appear in the playoffs against Kansas City nor any of the Colored World Series games against Atlantic City. He and his wife Mary returned to Austin to resume their studies at Huston College. In his absence, Chicago beat Kansas City for the Negro National League pennant and then beat Atlantic City 5 games to 4 for the Colored World Championship.

For the season, Russ batted a decent .275, fifth highest among players who played in half or more of the team’s games that season. And while .275 ain’t bad for a 21 year old in just his second year of pro ball, there’s a couple things behind the numbers that make it a little more impressive.

First is the American Giants home ballpark, Schorling Park. Originally called South Side Park, the field was home to the Chicago White Sox before Comiskey Park was built in 1910. The vast dimensions of the field gave it the reputation of a “pitcher’s ballpark,” or as baseball historian Gary Ashwill wrote, “where offenses go to die.” Looking at Russ’s other 1926 numbers we see he led the team with seven triples and was third in slugging and fourth in runs batted in. Plus, it must be remembered that Russ joined the team in June and left before the end of the season to resume his studies at Huston College.

The second reason Russ proved to be an indelible asset to the American Giants is his leadership qualities and competitive spark. Willie Powell, one of Chicago’s ace pitchers, told author John Holway, “I’d take Pythias Russ over all of them. He wasn’t so much a better receiver, but he could remember the batters so good. That helps a pitcher out a whole lot, because a pitcher out there by himself on the mound is like a man on a desert without water.” Powell went on to talk about the spark and adversarial drive he brought to the game. “I’ve seen Russ catch the ball before the batter could hit it. He sat there snatching balls. I used to love that.” Years later the Baltimore Afro-American described Russ as, “He was a colorful figure behind the bat and would often get batters off their stance by tipping the bat. He was talkative and led some to believe he was a tough guy, a real bully. But at heart he was a thoroughbred.”

So, as the 1927 season dawned, the Chicago American Giants knew they’d found their spark, and the coming season would show they’d also found their power.

For 1927, the American Giants added a few young faces such as infielder Alex Radcliff and outfielder Lou Dials, both of whom would go on to have outstanding Blackball careers. The looming problem was shortstop. Sandy Jackson couldn’t crack .200 in 1926 and needed to be replaced. When nothing became available on the trading block, it was decided Pythias Russ should step in. Up until now Russ had primarily caught, with the odd game at first base. Shortstop was completely alien to Russ, but his tremendous all-around athletic ability kicked in and he took to the new assignment like a veteran.

Behind the scenes, the team was a mess. After Rube Foster was institutionalized, his White business partner, John Schorling, assumed control of the club. Secretly, the other team owners began conspiring to keep the best visiting teams out of Chicago in order to diminish profits so they could take control of the American Giants.

On the field, the American Giants gelled as a team. James Bray, a seldom used reserve catcher-first baseman since 1925, stepped up as the team’s catcher and hit a solid .312. Outfielder Steel Arm Davis just missed the .400 mark, and pitcher Willie Foster won 21 games and led the league in almost every category. Pythias hit .325 and led the league with thirty doubles. His four homers were the most on the team and he came in second to speedster Dave Malarcher in steals. He was a steady RBI man and the ideal cleanup hitter the team was waiting for.

One game from early in the season demonstrates his aggressiveness and head’s up style of play. In a home game against Detroit, Russ was on second base and went to third on a sacrifice fly to center. The Detroit players thought Russ had left second too early and proceeded to argue with the ump on the field. While seemingly everyone was preoccupied with the arguing of the call, Russ, the very subject of the disagreement, took the opportunity to steal home before anyone was wise. The run tied the game which was eventually won by Chicago.

The American Giants won the season’s first half while Birmingham, once again part of the Negro National League, won the second. In the playoffs, Russ was a machine, batting .400 to give Chicago the pennant over rookie Satchel Paige and his Birmingham Black Barons. The 1927 Colored World Series was a rematch of the previous year, with Chicago again facing Atlantic City. Though the American Giants won their second World Championship, Russ hit a disappointing .229.

In the off season, Pythias returned to Huston College as a physical instructor. All the athletic work over the winter paid off, for 1928 would arguably be Pythias Russ’s best season. Again, the American Giants fielded a strong ball club, despite the loss of veteran center fielder George Sweatt, who quit over a money dispute and took a full time job with the post office.

Russ went on a tear in the second half, reportedly hitting over .400 to finish out the season with a .346 average. He led the American Giants in average, hits, doubles, home runs and RBI. At shortstop he was compared to both St. Louis’s Willie Wells and Kansas City’s Newt Allen. Wells would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997 while Allen would be remembered as one of the best shortstops the Negro Leagues produced.

That fall the American Giants faced the St. Louis Stars for the Negro National League Championship. Although Pythias hit a magnificent .407 with two homers, St. Louis beat Chicago in nine games. Pythias’s .407 tied with future Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell for best in the series while Willie Wells, his counterpart at shortstop, hit .320.

Off the field, the American Giants continued to fall apart from the inside. During the 1927 season, John Schorling was forced out of team ownership by William E. Trimble, a White racetrack owner from Peoria. Allegedly, Trimble was a heavy gambler, and he would have his ace Willie Foster pitch whenever he had his money riding on a game. After the American Giants loss to St. Louis in the Championship Series, Trimble seemed to lose interest in running a ball club. He abandoned the Windy City for his home in Florida and refused to pay the players what they thought they were worth. Third baseman and manager Dave Malarcher quit the team when Trimble refused to compensate him for managing as well as playing. And just the season before, former American Giants star George Sweatt quit baseball to take a full time job with the post office. Following in Sweatt’s footsteps, Pythias joined teammates George Harney and John Hines in taking and passing the civil service exam to secure post office jobs for themselves. Instead of negotiating with his players, Trimble merely quipped to the Chicago Defender that the players would start a post office team.

Despite their threatened change of career, Pythias and Hines signed to play for Chicago for 1929 – but only on weekends so they could keep their valuable post office jobs. Harney quit the team altogether to focus on his postal job. While Harney and Hines were reserves, Pythias was the team’s starting shortstop and the best hitter on the club. The loss of his services for roughly 1/3 of Chicago’s league games was devastating.

Though Russ was in the prime of his career, the unruliness caused by the contract disputes and uncertain ownership eventually seeped onto the playing field. On June 29, Pythias was thrown out of a game against Kansas City. A few innings after his ejection, he inexplicably grabbed a bat and attempted to take his turn at bat. A heated argument broke out, and Chicago manager Jim Brown was ejected along with Pythias Russ for the second time. Both players were said to be facing a suspension, though none was subsequently announced.

Chicago finished the season in third place, 17½ games behind pennant winning Kansas City. Though he only appeared in 64 of Chicago’s 91 league games, Pythias again had a career year. He surpassed his 1928 average with .369 and led his team in hits, triples, and RBI. On a league-wide scale, Russ finished second in batting average and triples. He was ranked among the top three shortstops outside the major leagues, and he was only 25.

Already a proven All-American football halfback and star shortstop, professional basketball now beckoned Pythias. The Baltimore Afro-American reported that both the New York Renaissance and the Savoy Big Five basketball teams were seeking Russ’s services because “he was a great basketball player during his high school and college years.” Both of those teams were basketball pioneers that help popularize the sport through their wildly popular barnstorming tours. The Savoy Five eventually became the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Renaissance made history by winning 88 consecutive games, a mark that has never been matched by a professional basketball team. He turned both offers down, presumably because of his full time job as a mail clerk in the Chicago post office.

To top off an outstanding year, he and Mary welcomed their first child, a boy they named Don Richard Russ. The future seemed as bright as could be.

But it all came crashing down in a terrible fashion.

As winter came to Chicago, Pythias took sick. According to his teammate Willie Powell, Russ’s post office job and baseball playing was too much even for a great athlete as Pythias Russ. As Powell told the South Bend Tribune in 1973, “I think he just worked himself to death.”

Unable to work, Pythias took his family back to Cynthiana, Kentucky. The November 3, 1929, Lexington Herald reported that “Pythias Russ who has taken ill in Chicago is now home with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Clem Russ and reported convalescing. He was accompanied here by his wife and infant son.” The illness was determined to be tuberculosis. One newspaper reported that he returned to Cynthiana to be treated by a brother who was a doctor, but the report was mistaken. It is likely Pythias was attended to, at least in part, by his brother in law Dr. William Beaton. It was reported that he had traveled west for treatment, and this was probably to St. Louis where Dr. Beaton had his practice.

On March 2, 1930, the Lexington Herald reported, “Pythias Russ is convalescing.” On April 27, the same paper reported that Pythias had his lawyers file suit against the Continental Casualty Company for unpaid sick benefits. It would seem that any baseball and post office money he had saved was running low. The Russ’s lives were further devastated when one-year old Don Richard passed away on July 2, 1930.

Pythias’s turn came on August 9, 1930. The ballplayer passed away from pulmonary tuberculosis. He was just 26 years, 4 months, and 2 days old.

So, just how good was Pythias Russ? We’ll never know for sure. Segregation has thrown a major roadblock in the way of gauging him against White athletes. In college football, Pythias was ranked among the best in the game by the people who knew the game inside and out. Yet, he was unable to show what he could do against the White college athletes he was considered equal to. His career in the Negro Leagues also meant his skin color prevented any one-to-one comparison with the best White players. Though it lasted only five years, his brief career does show that he was the best hitter on the Chicago American Giants and among the best shortstops in the league. That he was considered the equal of Hall of Famer Willie Wells surely speaks volumes to the level of his talent.

Teammate Willie Powell told the South Bend Tribune, “Pythias Russ could have become the greatest Negro catcher had he lived long enough.

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The story of Pythias Russ could never have been told had it not been for historian Gary Sipe. Gary came upon Pythias while researching baseball players from his hometown of Cynthiana. When he found virtually nothing on him, Gary set about compiling a binder of newspaper clippings and miscellany that sketched out the ballplayer’s life and career. When the only known image of Pythias Russ was from a blurry team photo of the Chicago American Giants, Gary was able to track down his high school graduation photo (from which my accompanying illustration is based), a team photo showing him on a Cynthiana baseball team, and a group photograph of the 1926 Huston College football team he located in the school’s archive. Gary then successfully had Cynthiana’s forgotten Negro Leaguer enshrined in the local sports Hall of Fame. The story you just read was built upon Gary’s original research. It is mostly because of Gary Sipe’s groundwork that Pythias Russ has reemerged from the shadows of baseball history.

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This week’s story is Number 48 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

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