A prep basketball star, Bill Russell (no relation to the great Boston Celtics center) was signed to a baseball contract out of a Kansas high school too small to field a baseball team. He played in the outfield his first two years with the Dodgers, and manager Walt Alston considered him an even better outfielder than Willie Davis. But Alston needed a shortstop to replace Maury Wills in 1972, and Russell was chosen. After a rough start, leading National League shortstops in errors in 1972, he was named to the 1973 All-Star team. He would be named an All-Star again in 1976 and 1980.
Teamed with Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Ron Cey for over eight years, Russell was an integral part of baseball’s longest-lasting infield and a vital cog in the Dodgers’ annual drive for a pennant. With Russell at short, the Dodgers made it to the World Series in 1977, 1978, and won it all in 1981. Only Zach Wheat played more games and seasons as a Dodger than Russell.
A finger injury made his throws erratic late in his career, and he retired after 1986 to become a Dodger coach. When Tommy Lasorda retired on July 29, 1996, Russell was named as the team’s interim manager and earned the full-time job after leading the Dodgers to a strong 35-21 finish and a playoff berth. During the 1997 campaign Russell used 101 different lineups as the Dodgers finished just shy of the Giants in a tight NL West race that came down to the last series of the season.
The team was sold after the season to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group, who showed little tolerance for a slow start in ’98. On June 21, Russell and GM Fred Claire were both shown the door with the team lingering at 36-38. Stung by the firing, the Dodger great didn’t return to the majors until the 2000 season, when he joined the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as Larry Rothschild‘s bench coach.