May 12, 1948
When Indians relief pitcher Russ Christopher takes the mound, he does it with as much heart as any player on the roster. Yet it’s his weak heart that will end his career.
Christopher’s weak and leaky heart will force the 30-year-old pitcher to make 1948 his last season in the big leagues. Physically, he doesn’t feel he has the strength and endurance any longer to withstand the conditioning necessary to pitch at this level.
“I can’t go through another spring training like this last one,” Christopher said. “When you feel so tired that you just want to lie down, then I think it’s time to quit. It used to be that I could run across the field a dozen times. Now I can just about make it once.”
Christopher has pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics since 1942 primarily as a starter, but as he has aged his heart has continued to weaken, causing him to not have the strength to pitch an entire game. In 1947, Christopher pitched his first season exclusively out of the bullpen. But when the rigor of spring training seemed to become too much, Christopher told Athletics manager Connie Mack that 1948 would be his last season.
“I should have kept active this last winter because my heart became weaker than it ever was. If I should break an arm or leg now, I’d be through. A long rest would soften my heart so much that I’d never be able to get back into condition.”
Instead, when Mack learned of Christopher’s intention to retire after 1948, he sold his contract to the Indians on April 3 this spring for $25,000. Indians president Bill Veeck – fully aware of Christopher’s intentions – purchased his contract, knowing it was only a one-year investment, but an immediate investment to improve the team.
To date, Veeck has gotten exactly what he’s paid for. Christopher has not allowed a run in eleven and one-third innings in the six games he’s appeared in. He’s 1-0 with four saves. Last weekend, Christopher closed three games in less than 24 hours. He finished Gene Bearden’s 6-1 victory in Washington on Saturday evening, then finished both ends of the Sunday doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday afternoon. In three games, he retired all five hitters he faced.
Indians manager Lou Boudreau has used Christopher in late-inning, tight situations, a role most teams do not reserve for a specific pitcher. The tall, thin and lanky underhand pitcher has a devastating sinker that often induces groundballs to retire hitters. He transitioned from an overhand pitcher after a shoulder injury left him no choice but to drop down and throw from below while still a minor leaguer.
What will push Christopher out of baseball is exactly what pushed him in to baseball. His weak heart made it difficult to find employment doing any physical labor. At the suggestion of his mother, he tried baseball.
“I couldn’t get a job because of my weak heart,” Christopher said. “I suppose if it weren’t for the heart I’d now be working on the railroad. Anyway, I had to play ball to make a living. My younger brother, Loyd, was a pro ball player and my mother kept telling me I was as good as he was.”
Russ’ brother, Loyd Christopher, has been a career minor league outfielder who has appeared in 16 career big league games between the 1945 and 1947 seasons. Loyd played with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs in 1945 and Chicago White Sox in 1947.
Russ broke in with El Paso in the West Texas-Arizona League as an outfielder as a member of the New York Yankees organization. He occasionally threw batting practice and his teammates suggested to the manager that he consider letting Christopher pitch in games.
The manager stepped in the box during batting practice to see for himself one day. Christopher’s first pitch drilled him directly in the back.
“He told me I wasn’t fast enough because it didn’t hurt him,” Christopher smiled. “Afterwards in the clubhouse, I saw that he had a big, red welt on his back and I knew darn well he was lying.”
Christopher emerged as a pitcher, but his weak heart was what jettisoned him from the Yankees to the Athletics in 1941. At 6-foot-5 and only 180 pounds, trainers were looking to build weight and strength to his frail frame. A routine examination was supposed to get Christopher a tonic to help build weight and muscle mass.
“I was told to sit on a rubbing table and to do so I had to sit in a cramped position,” Christopher said. “My heart began to beat faster and when the doctor examined it he just shook his head. That was the end of the examination. He never gave me a tonic and a little while later I was drafted by the Athletics.”
He was made available in the Rule 5 draft by New York and the Athletics selected him on September 30, 1941. The next season he went 4-13 with a 3.82 ERA in 30 games and 18 starts, including ten complete games. However, he has been encouraged by doctors numerous times to stop playing baseball, that the physical activity is not safe for his long-term health. Christopher only weighs 160 pounds currently.
“Well, what else can I do? Playing baseball is the only way I can make a living. I can’t get another job.”
In 1944, Christopher was 14-14, with a 2.97 ERA and pitched 215 1/3 innings, yet spent ten days in a hospital bed. His heart rate remained normal if he was laying down in bed, but if he stood up or left his bedside his heart rate skyrocketed.
“I had a tough time in spring training that year,” he said. “In fact every spring since then I have had to take it easy until I got my ‘second wind.’ After I reached that point I was all right and could finish the season without any trouble. You see, I have to condition my heart like I do the muscles in my arms or legs. Every winter it becomes so soft that it takes a while for it to strengthen again.”
Despite his great start in his new role, Christopher remains insistent he will not pitch after 1948. He admits the only reason he is pitching his seventh season is for the increase in benefits to his big league pension for when he reaches a retirement age or for his beneficiaries in case of death. Christopher is married with two small children, a daughter, 3, and an infant son to support, yet he has no idea what he will do for a livelihood when he leaves the game.
Instead, Christopher is enjoying his last season in the big leagues. Christopher could have a somber or negative attitude toward the hand he has been dealt. Instead, the dry, sarcastic, laughable pitcher is enjoying his $10,000 salary this season – the most he’s made in a year as a professional.
Veeck’s investment in the weak-hearted Christopher and the 1948 season has paid off so far but still may be a risky gamble, even in the view of the reliever himself.
“I think he was gypped,” Christopher joked. “I think he was gypped but maybe he can charge it up to a loss on his income tax.”
Photo: Cleveland Indians promotional photo