The Time of his Life 

How Fred Russell Got the Story

How Fred Russell Got the Story

By Randy Horick

Time has turned Fred Russell’s reddish hair to white. But it has not diminished his love for a good story. The glasses he has worn for years do not conceal the ever-present twinkle in his eye. Since the legendary sportswriter’s move to a retirement community, most of the framed photographs and plaques that document his 70 years with the Nashville Banner have been packed up or given away. Still, all the memories remain neatly organized in Fred Russell’s mind.

But memories alone cannot explain the respect that Russell, one of the most honored sportswriters in the history of journalism, still commands among his colleagues. He is not revered simply because he is old enough to remember interviewing Ty Cobb, baseball’s greatest hitter, or seeing Huey Long lead the LSU band up Broadway from Union Station, or because he can tell you how Red Grange, the famous “Galloping Ghost,” came to wear No. 77. (“I was in line right behind the guy who got 76 and in front of the guy who got 78,” Grange once modestly told Russell, who still smiles at the story.)

Russell is admired today because of what his memories represent. Nostalgic for an era they never knew, sportswriters envy the time of his life. They long to enjoy the same richness he experienced, in the halcyon days when it was possible to travel everywhere, to be part of everything, and to have friends in every locker room and press box in the country. They’d like to have lived his dream.

And succeeding generations of writers continue to revere Russell because he is still so good at what he does. His weekly columns, which now make the move to The Tennessean, still crackle with whimsical anecdotes. At age 91, he takes an extended nap each afternoon, yet he still has time to scoop less experienced reporters. Right up to the Banner’s closing, staffers say, Russell often obtained information accessible to no one else, drawing from his seemingly fathomless reservoir of friends.

He has covered Rose Bowls, Kentucky Derbies (52 straight), World Series, Masters golf tournaments, and championship prize fights. He has shared podiums with presidents and Hollywood stars. He has held court at New York saloons with the elite of his profession—writers like Red Smith, Bill Corum, Tom Meany, Shirley Povich, and the most renowned sportswriter of all, Grantland Rice.

Russell has known sports personalities whose careers date back to the beginning of the century, from Connie Mack and Ty Cobb to Fielding H. “Hurry Up” Yost and Babe Ruth. His legion of good friends has included boxer Jack Dempsey, football star Red Grange, and golfer Bobby Jones—each a legend in his own sport.

In his profession, Fred Russell is a transcendent figure. He has been a sportswriter longer than most people have been alive. He has written more than 12,250 columns. During eight different decades, he has befriended four generations of sportswriters.

He’s witnessed the reshaping of the entire sports landscape, from college football teams that didn’t offer scholarships to athletic departments that are run like corporations; from an era of unpretentious baseball players to a time of millionaire media stars; from the days of cold type and Western Union to real-time, all-the-time information. He is a living link to a world that no longer exists.

Though he modestly protests otherwise, Russell occupies a storied place in sports journalism, akin to the one his idol Grantland Rice—like Russell, a native Nashvillian and a Vanderbilt graduate—held for an earlier generation. “I think if sportswriters ever had a saint, it would be Fred Russell,” says John Steadman, the noted columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

When Russell’s colleagues talk about his career, they talk of his talent, his personality, his reporter’s drive. Russell talks about luck. A break here. A fortunate intervention there. Helpful mentors all around.

His daughters say he is still a firm believer in luck, a man who carries buckeyes in his pocket and knocks on wood when he visits his doctor. Looking back on one of the most celebrated careers in sports journalism, he sounds a little like Lou Gehrig, another Russell acquaintance, who declared himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

“I was extremely fortunate to break in under Dan McGugin,” Russell reflects, looking back over the decades. “Another fortunate thing was to have [a beat that included the Nashville Vols’] Larry Gilbert, the most successful manager in minor-league history. And to have an owner and publisher like [the Banner’s J.G. Stahlman] and a managing editor like Charlie Moss, who had a feel for sports—it all adds up to luck.”

In 1967 Russell sent Edgar Allen, a veteran Banner sportswriter, to cover the first Super Bowl. It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl then; it was the NFL-AFL Championship Game.

After Green Bay mauled Kansas City, Allen ambled down to the champions’ locker room. He found the Packers’ famed coach, Vince Lombardi, all alone, putting up some equipment.

“I identified myself,” Allen recalls, “and said I worked for Fred Russell. And Lombardi said, ‘Ah-h, Rus-sell...’ It opened up the whole thing, and he stood and talked with me for 15 minutes.”

Thirty years later, on the opposite end of the country, the Russell name can still open doors. “My first conversation with [Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner was in January,” recalls Buster Olney, who began covering the Yankees for The New York Times this spring. “When I told him my first job was with the Banner, he brightened up and said, ‘How’s Fred Russell?’

“Knowing Mr. Russell made George Steinbrenner like me for at least one day.”

Russell was born in 1906. Six years before Titanic foundered. Eight years before the War to End All Wars. Football was still being played without helmets. Civil War veterans were as plentiful as Morgan silver dollars.

He was born in Nashville but was raised in Wartrace, a sleepy little stop on the main line to Murfreesboro. His father, a traveling salesman, always brought home funny stories to share at the dinner table, and his mother, a published songwriter, played organ for Methodist prayer meetings. Young Fred grew up watching the trains go by, memorizing Grantland Rice’s poems and dreaming of the athletic heroes whose exploits filled the sports page.

He trained at Vanderbilt to become a lawyer. But in playing baseball for the Commodores and observing Dan McGugin’s powerhouse football teams, Russell came to a conclusion: His real love was sportswriting. “Being around sports got it into my blood,” Russell recalls, his high-timbred voice slowly measuring the words. “I thought that the life of a sportswriter would be the most enjoyable life in the world.”

After law school, Russell spent an uneventful year poring over deeds and abstracts in a real estate title office. Then, in the summer of 1929, Banner publisher James Stahlman offered him a job selling classified ads for the afternoon paper. Russell turned it down. Instead, for $6 a week—one-fourth the salesman’s salary—he leaped at the Banner’s other job opening: police beat reporter.

That summer, the Banner’s sports editor departed and Russell was assigned to write about two of his passions—the Nashville Vols and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Next year, at age 24, he was named sports editor. Russell says he was just lucky, and he smiles.

In the late ’20s, the Banner sports department—the “toy department,” as news staffers sniffily called it—was a tumultuous precinct. It was a place where deskmen fired .22 rifles at rats skittering along the pipes overhead. Practical jokes and midnight card games were standard operating procedure, and AWOL reporters could often be fished out of the speakeasy around the corner. Russell loved it.

For all the hubbub and the pressure of deadlines, he found that sportswriting could be a leisurely profession. In the ’30s every team traveled by train, and sportswriters, instead of separating themselves from the athletes they were covering, accompanied the coaches and players. They whiled away hours together talking, playing cards, and hatching practical jokes.

“The trains and hotel lobbies were the places [where friendships started],” Russell recalls. “Players aren’t as available today. Plane travel has changed things so much.”

It was on a long train ride to the 1938 Rose Bowl that Russell got to know a young Alabama assistant coach named Paul Bryant. The two remained close until Bear Bryant’s death in 1983.

When Russell’s old classmate Red Sanders was hired as Vanderbilt’s head football coach in 1940, Russell suggested that he add Bear to his staff. Sanders took the advice. At the time, such recommendations were common. Sometimes Russell suggested that coaches take a look at certain high school players. Vanderbilt’s board of trust often asked him to recommend candidates for coaching vacancies. There was a friendly network among writers and coaches and players, and Russell was in the middle of it.

Friendships were often formed and renewed at baseball’s spring training camps. Each February Russell traveled to Florida, where he spent a sun-soaked, unhurried month writing about the clubs. It was his favorite time of year.

At spring training, he had the leisure to appreciate the genius concealed behind Casey Stengel’s fractured syntax or to interview Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig over cards. At night there was time for swapping stories with ballplayers over a drink and amassing material for new columns.

Often, Russell and New York-based columnist Red Smith traveled up and down Florida together, visiting the various camps. While Russell’s wife, Kay, drove, the two writers would bang out the next day’s columns, scrunching their portable typewriters into their laps.

“Ballplayers and managers had more time in the spring,” Russell explains. “You looked forward to being with them because they were generous with their time. Athletes have less time now. Everybody has less time now.”

The walls of the Russell home were a veritable photographic pantheon, covered with pictures of Russell with Bob Hope, Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, Richard Nixon, Muhammad Ali. As a young reporter, Buster Olney occasionally housesat for the Russells. “I’d take care of their house and their cat, Leo, when they’d go on trips,” Olney recalls. “The house was unbelievable. There were pictures of Bear Bryant and presidents, signed, ‘To Mr. Russell.’ I was never so scared in my life as on those weekends. I was terrified there would be a spark or something, and the house and all those pictures would burn up.”

Russell’s first big break came in 1939, when The Saturday Evening Post commissioned him to write an article on Tennessee’s coach Bob Neyland. Other national stories followed—on the Masters tournament, Red Sanders, Georgia’s Wally Butts and Charlie Trippi, and Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech.

In 1949 the Post asked him to write its annual “Pigskin Preview,” picking the nation’s top 20 college football teams before the season began. For 14 years, fans anxiously awaited Russell’s previews. “It was a big lick that got him an entry anywhere,” recalls Edgar Allen, who was an East Nashville first-grader, barely able to read, when he became hooked on Russell’s columns. “One of the first [champions] he picked was Ohio State, and they won it all that year. That greatly enhanced his credibility.”

Even among his well-known peers, Russell stood out. He had a newshound’s zeal for getting the story right—and first. He seldom was beaten, and, if he could help it, nobody who worked for him was beaten either. “You absorbed that competitive spirit from him,” says former sportswriter Tom Robinson. “You really wanted to work hard to get the scoop because you didn’t want to let him down. He set the pace.”

If a Banner sportswriter printed an error or was scooped, he could expect to be called into Russell’s undersized office. But Russell would never glower directly at the reporter. Instead, he would peer out his window, which faced Union Station. Around the sports department, the experience became known as “the depot treatment.”

In 70 years as a writer and editor, Russell has maintained his stringent standards. “Even though he didn’t have to prove himself anymore,” recalls Olney, who worked at the Banner during the mid-’80s, “he was more competitive than anybody. If you beat somebody on a story, he’d be pumping his hands in the air: ‘That’s great! That’s terrific!’ ”

As a stylist, Russell has never ranked alongside the acclaimed Grantland Rice, though he and Smith followed the more literate approach to sportswriting that “Granny” pioneered. Russell possessed a gift for elegant turns of phrase—like the one that begins his autobiography: “A sportswriter’s life, if not the purest of pleasures, is surely not to be likened to toil.” But he also had an almost unsurpassed knack for storytelling. And he loved spinning yarns—whether it was the one about the young Andrew Jackson wagering his clothes on the outcome of a horse race or the one about the young, unknown Jack Dempsey convincing a skeptical boxing promoter by vowing not to take a penny unless he knocked out his much heavier opponent.

While many writers treated sports as high drama, Russell served up lighter fare. For his columns—as well as three books of humor and his 1957 autobiography, Bury Me in an Old Press Box—he often ferreted out funny anecdotes, like the story of a frustrated catcher who pulled a realistic-looking toy gun on a horrified umpire. Or the story of the manager who mailed form letters to wives of players who caroused past curfew. Or the one about a pitcher named Pea Ridge Day who sometimes unleashed an Arkansas hog call after fanning batters. Russell wasn’t just entertaining his readers. He was also giving them a sense of intimacy with the players.

Russell’s courtly manners and gentle good humor—by-products of his Southern upbringing—also made it easier for him to pick up a phone and get information for stories. Everywhere he turned, he dealt with friends, many of them his fellow writers from other parts of the country. “He has an innate ability to make you always feel more important than he is,” observes Joe Biddle, Russell’s successor as Banner sports editor and now a fellow transplant to The Tennessean.

Russell also lived by another law of Southern etiquette: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” His positivism and sense of fair play, also characteristics of Rice’s writing, stood out even in the early days of his career, an era when newspapers were not necessarily prone to print every unsavory morsel about the celebrities they covered.

Because his writing was free of “homerism,” he gained the trust of athletes and coaches. “He’d always give the loser a positive word,” recalls Edgar Allen. “When other teams came to town, he would write as much about them as the home team. He’d give them a fair shake. So when he’d go to other towns, he already had a rapport there.”

“I came down to work at the Banner in 1947,” says retired copy editor Bill Roberts, whose accent still betrays him as an habitué of Brooklyn’s Ebbetts Field. “That September, the Dodgers were leading the league by 12 games. I went out to check the AP [teletype] machine one day, and the only thing on it was a bulletin: ‘National League president Ford Frick took 12 games away from the Dodgers for using an ineligible player. MORE.’

“I run in and show it to Freddie, and he acts nonchalant—‘Maybe we’ll run it tomorrow.’

“I’m screaming, ‘What? Are you kidding? You oughta stop the presses! ‘So he says, ‘Go back and see if there’s more.’

“I was new. I didn’t know he had such a reputation. He had gotten a guy in the AP to write this bulletin and take the machine off line and then send it only to the Banner. By the time I got back, the machine was chattering away again with filler stuff. I must have waited half an hour for the rest of the bulletin before Freddie sent somebody out to tell me it was a joke.”

Accounts of Russell’s elaborately staged practical jokes could fill a book. To him, they are both a proof of friendship and a sign that nothing should be taken with deadly seriousness. “One of the real pleasures of knowing Fred is enjoying his practical jokes—and forgiving him,” says Shirley Povich, the respected Washington Post sportswriter and one of only a few of Russell’s contemporaries who is still in the business.

The stories are so well-traveled that they have spawned dubious variations, and details are sometimes smudged. This much is certain: Almost no one among Russell’s friends escaped unscathed, and almost every sports editor over the age of 50 can recount at least one story of a Russell prank.

Red Sanders, whose own joking once got Russell booted out of a law school class, was a frequent victim.

After Sanders was hired as Vanderbilt’s head coach, Russell invited him over for dinner. The university’s chancellor, whose good graces Sanders coveted, was to be there too. During the meal, Russell proposed that Sanders drive the chancellor home so they could get better acquainted. Then he excused himself, sneaked outside, and tied a foxtail and what he describes as “various other swashbuckling accessories” to Sanders’ car. When the straitlaced chancellor stepped outside to leave, he glared in silence at the flamboyantly decorated car. Sanders, knowing exactly what had happened, wouldn’t speak to Russell for a week.

Another time, Russell invited Sanders to join him in a golfing foursome. Unbeknownst to Sanders, who had agreed to a friendly wager on the match, Russell had secured the services of a caddy who had a gift for picking up golf balls between his toes.

Whenever Sanders hit a decent drive, the caddy, whose shoes had no soles, would surreptitiously remove the ball from the fairway and squish it into the rough. Sanders never caught on. “We told him about 30 minutes after he paid off everybody,” Russell recalls, still smiling puckishly at the memory.

In his books and columns, Russell always describes his pranks in the third person, as if he had been just an amused bystander. “We’d ask him about the practical jokes,” says his daughter Carolyn, “and he’d pretend he had nothing to do with them. He’d say, ‘I’m surprised you’d even think I could do such a thing.’ ”

“Heaven,” Russell once suggested, “is a column that’s been written.” From the 1930s on, Russell produced six columns a week, 800 words per column. Some days, he wrote news stories too.

That daily regimen kept Russell constantly prowling for material, which he often strung together as a collection of notes and bits. He wrote from his cramped Banner office, from his home, from stifling press boxes, from hotel rooms, and occasionally from aboard trains. Often, he’d stay up all night writing.

A late-breaking news flash often caused a finished Russell column to be scrapped. But his deadlines were as sacrosanct as a postman’s rounds. During the 18 years he’s worked with Russell, Biddle remembers him missing only one week—after open-heart surgery. “And he apologized for that,” says Biddle, still awed. “He dictated his column to his daughter.”

Eventually, Russell allowed himself the relative luxury of only five weekly columns. He cut back to three in 1971, then finally to one. But he still crafts them, as always, at an old manual typewriter, pecking the words with two swift-moving fingers.

“He told me one time, ‘I can’t see myself doing this when I’m 65,’ ” laughs Allen. “That was about 1967.”

When Tom Robinson was a wide-eyed, fresh-faced rookie Banner reporter in 1976, Russell gave him his press pass for the second game of the World Series in Cincinnati. “I was in the front row of the press box, with Shirley Povich sitting on one side of me,” Robinson recalls. “I felt like I was among journalistic royalty. When I got there, I thought I’d have to show the gate attendant some ID. But he looked at the pass and said, ‘Oh, you must be using Freddie’s pass.’ And I thought, ‘Man! Even the gate attendant knows who he is.’ ”

Ballplayers sometimes spit on umpires nowadays, but they don’t draw toy guns on them anymore. Journalists do not recommend players to coaches, or coaches to boards of trust. For the most part, the trains no longer run.

We get to know athletes today in three-minute “up-close-and-personal” TV segments. There is no time now to “get behind” the story, as Russell liked to do.

Sports and sportswriting have changed. Essentially, Fred Russell has not. Therein lies his enduring appeal.

He is still adding to his circle of friends, his courtly style unchanged. After Peyton Manning was named the Banner’s SEC Player of the Year, Russell wrote him a congratulatory note. Several weeks ago, Manning phoned Russell, just to chat and see how he was doing.

Though he has never contented himself to rest on them, Russell has been accumulating laurels for decades. In 1969 he received the College Football Centennial award. The Golf Writers Association honored him in 1972. The U.S. Olympic Committee presented him with its award for distinguished journalism in 1976.

Russell has received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association. And the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation. And an award from the National Turf Writers Association. And from New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. He’s in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

He has also received a prestigious award named for his old friend, Red Smith, and the very first award named for his boyhood hero and honoring “distinguished writing in the Grantland Rice tradition.”

Perhaps Russell’s most memorable tribute came 45 years ago, when the Banner organized a banquet to mark his 25th anniversary with the paper. More than 600 people attended, including a senator, two congressmen, the mayor, General Neyland, the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, the president of the Sugar Bowl, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, and old coaches and athletes from everywhere. Red Smith and Bill Corum flew down from New York. Local imaginations were particularly captivated by the arrival of three sports legends—Grange, Dempsey, and Jones—who committed to make the trip as soon as they heard their friend was the guest of honor.

In thanking all the friends who came to honor him that night, Russell sounded much the way he does today—stunned by his good fortune. “I’m honestly dreaming,” he marveled. “And I don’t know when I’m going to wake up.”

Grantland Rice, far from Tennessee and near the end of his life, was too ill to attend. But he composed a poem, like those Russell had grown up admiring, and the wistful, homesick verses were read for the crowd. They began:

“Freddie, the south wind’s calling

From far and far away.

I see the twilight falling

On the hills of yesterday.

I find an old, old yearning

And when I turn to you,

I meet old pals returning

To find a dream come true.”

Almost all of Russell’s own old early pals are gone now. Red Smith. Bill Corum. Bear Bryant. Red Sanders. Tom Siler. Wally Butts and Bob Neyland. Grange, Jones, and Dempsey. All gone.

“Granny” Rice died in 1954. After almost 65 years of marriage, Kay Russell died in 1996.

Fred Russell has outlived an era—the days of shin-kicking competitive journalism, when newsrooms were rumbustious beehives, and when athletes and writers were often fast friends. The days before everything was business.

Now Russell has even seen the passing of his beloved Banner—the only paper, he once said, for which he could imagine working.

But he hasn’t outlived his love for sportswriting. With the Banner’s demise, Russell’s byline will migrate “across the hall” to The Tennessean. (Modest to the end, he privately expressed surprise that his longtime journalistic rivals would want him.)

He’ll have the same office at 1100 Broadway. He’ll still keep daily hours. And next week, he’ll sit down again at his old Royal typewriter and begin another column.

Ironically the first news of Russell’s move appeared in Sports Illustrated, in a brief story by former Banner sportswriter Dana Gelin. The morning paper had been scooped, one last time, by a Fred Russell story.

I meet old pals returning

To find a dream come true.”

Almost all of Russell’s own old early pals are gone now. Red Smith. Bill Corum. Bear Bryant. Red Sanders. Tom Siler. Wally Butts and Bob Neyland. Grange, Jones, and Dempsey. All gone.

“Granny” Rice died in 1954. After almost 65 years of marriage, Kay Russell died in 1996.

Fred Russell has outlived an era—the days of shin-kicking competitive journalism, when newsrooms were rumbustious beehives, and when athletes and writers were often fast friends. The days before everything was business.

Now Russell has even seen the passing of his beloved Banner—the only paper, he once said, for which he could imagine working.

But he hasn’t outlived his love for sportswriting. With the Banner’s demise, Russell’s byline will migrate “across the hall” to The Tennessean. (Modest to the end, he privately expressed surprise that his longtime journalistic rivals would want him.)

He’ll have the same office at 1100 Broadway. He’ll still keep daily hours. And next week, he’ll sit down again at his old Royal typewriter and begin another column.

Ironically the first news of Russell’s move appeared in Sports Illustrated, in a brief story by former Banner sportswriter Dana Gelin. The morning paper had been scooped, one last time, by a Fred Russell story.

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