Bill Russell‘s Formative Years: Growing up with Pittsburg’s Superstar Native Son

Ken Peak / Special to the Morning Sun
Ken Peak, right, with Bill Russell at an Aug. 31, 1997 L.A. Dodgers game.

There’s a rather famous line by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen who remarked in 1988 to his political opponent Dan Quayle (who’d compared himself with JFK): “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” To pirate that phrase a bit, today he might say: “Kenny Peak, you knew Bill Russell, you grew up with Bill Russell. Bill Russell was a friend of yours. But you were no Bill Russell.”  

From grades 4 to 11, I lived about a stone’s throw from Bill. I was at 523 E. 23rd and Warren and Fern Russell and their 5 kids lived at 525 E. 22nd. And for several years, we kids played whatever sport was in season on the “sandlot” (for those too young to know about sandlot games, see “The Sandlot” movie, 1993) that belonged to the very gracious (and tolerant) Elmer and Regina Smith at 506 E. 23rd (photo). Though unbelievably small when viewed today, in the mid- and late-50s it was for us like competing in Yankee Stadium. 

It soon became obvious (even as a third grader) that Bill had special hand-eye coordination, speed, ability to use a bat or glove, or whatever. What was most frustrating was the fact that, not only was I never nearly as good as he was, but I was a year older. Trying to hit, throw, catch, shoot, run, or pedal on his level was a lost cause. When I could finally hit a groundball to the alley at the far end of the ‘lot, Bill could reach the alley in the air; much later, when I managed to reach the alley with a flyball, Bill could roll it to the house beyond (now gone, it was once inhabited by the Joe and Betty Turnbull family; Joe was also my LL coach with Barney’s Pharmacy); and when I could finally reach that house with a grounder, Bill could bounce the ball off of its roof. Might as well have been competing with Mantle or A-Rod. You get the picture.  

With the exception of basketball – another sport where Bill was extremely gifted and put me to shame; the only basketball hoop was on the garage in my back yard at 523, so we kids logged hundreds of hours there as well – neighborhood kids played baseball or football year-round on the ‘lot as weather permitted. The number of kids varied, depending on who showed up (two Smith boys, Russ and Blaine, were regulars). The yard of the house to the east of the ‘lot was blanketed with thick brush and sticker bushes, causing many scratches and torn clothes while searching for the many baseballs it claimed over the years. We even held track events on the ‘lot: our discus was a square piece of steel, and a cane pole served as our javelin; the same cane pole and an old mattress supplied our high jumping. But Bill’s major gift was always baseball, and like most Pittsburg kids of that era, we logged many hours per week playing catch and hitting grounders with each other until we outgrew the ‘lot. We didn’t leave the house without our gloves and little league team caps.  

Smith Family Sandlot, 506 E. 23rd St.

We had other pursuits, of course, such as riding bikes (Bicycle cards were attached to the spokes with wooden clothespins to sound like motorcycles) and earning money by mowing lawns and delivering Grit newspapers. We rode often to Deramus Park for practices and games, out to The Dumps on E. 23rd near the tracks (yes, we were duped into hunting for snipes with gunny sacks), and to Kabie’s Grocery at 22nd and Michigan to buy a tall bottle of Royal Crown for a nickel. Sometimes an adult would drive us to Lincoln Park or Rocky Ford for a swim. I guess you could say we were kind of on the lower side of the economic ladder – literally close to living on the “wrong side of the tracks” – but no one told us so we didn’t know.  

My family moved to Girard in 1964, so afterward I had little contact with, or news about Bill. But there were a few exceptions. For example, during a basketball game at Girard High in fall of ‘65 I was sitting on the team bench getting an injured ankle wrapped and glanced up behind me; there sat Bill. In ’69, while on spring break in Florida, a tv announcer said that Bill had won a game for the Dodgers with a homer (my first inkling that he’d made the “Bigs”). In about ’73, I passed Bill at 20th and Broadway – he in his new dark blue Cadillac, myself in an 8-year-old Chevy (bought on a PPD cop’s salary). Then in about 1978, Bill’s sister Jane Ann informed me that Bill had phoned their mother asking her how it felt to have a millionaire in the family: he had just signed a three-year contract for a million dollars (today’s starting Dodgers shortstop: $5m. per year).  

The last I saw Bill was in 1997; I contacted him about going to LA with a friend to watch a game; he sent a letter and tickets, and brought us down on the field pre-game (photo), where he was signing autographs and also doing a surprisingly good job (now at age 50) of pitching batting practice.  

Regarding his playing career, Bill went to the Dodgers a 20-year-old outfielder in 1969, getting 48 hits in 98 games. During the 1970–71 offseason he was converted to a second baseman, and a year later, to shortstop (also a switch-hitter), becoming a regular in 1972. He would be the Dodgers’ starting shortstop for the next eleven years, along with Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey; the group stayed together for nearly nine seasons (a record), with four pennant wins and one World Championship. Bill’s 18-year career included 2,181 games, 1,926 hits (46 homers), .263 average, and three NL All Star game selections. He also served as the Dodgers manager from 1996 to 1998, replacing Tommy Lasorda. A little-known fact: his nickname was “Ropes” after Dodgers manager Walter Alston told Ken Boyer to show rookie Bill “the ropes.” It staggers the imagination to think of how many star athletes, U.S. presidents, and other dignitaries and celebrities (especially being based in California) this Pittsburg man played for and amazed – and air miles he logged - during those 18 years. Per his sister Erma, Bill and his wife Susan now reside just outside of LA.  

Others will have their own memories of Bill’s years in Pittsburg, including his basketball success at PHS (where he apparently excelled, with Ron White and others), American Legion baseball, and so on. Although he’d likely have succeeded anyway, I’d like to think that our 23rd St. sandlot games during those grade-school years helped to hone his skills and make him the superstar he would become. And while he and I basically went different directions in 1964, I’ll always remember trying – and failing - to be even half as good as the future superstar of Pittsburg’s “Yankee Stadium” sandlot on E. 23rd St.