SHELBYVILLE – It’s seen some things, this caramel-colored baseball bat. Smudges on the barrel. Nicks near the end of the bat, chunks of wood missing from this 34½-inch piece of history. If only this stick could talk, the stories it could tell:
About some of the people it met, stars like Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, and luminaries of slightly lesser import – Pope Pius IX and King George V.
This bat could tell the story of a lifelong friendship, of one wedding that led to another, and of one no-hitter that almost led to another. Good thing this bat can’t talk, come to think of it. Because it would have some things to say about Johnny Vander Meer!
This bat was lucky, though. It barely missed the 1919 World Series. The Black Sox, etc. You know that story.
But there are so many stories you don’t know, stories we’re going to wring from this bat, one way or another, as we sit in a restaurant off Interstate 74 near Shelbyville. And before we’re done this bat will have another story to tell, about the two families who came to this McDonald’s. The bat arrived in Batesville in one car but will leave in another, bound for its new home in Avon.
They’d never met, these two families, but the bat is about to fix that. And when it’s finished, it will have one more story to tell. Because these two families – strangers, until now – are really one family. The same family.
Yes, they’re related.
Thanks to this caramel-colored baseball bat.
Linked by baseball, blood
Joe Benz was long and lean, lost in thought, brown eyes typically looking into the distance. He was a 6-1 right-hander, a hitter who switched positions when he discovered his gift for pitching. Today he is 33rd on Major League Baseball’s career list with a 2.43 ERA. He went 77-75 in nine seasons with Chicago before arm trouble ended his MLB pitching career in May 1919.
He was a laconic country boy from Batesville, Joseph Louis Benz, inspiring all kinds of teasing from Chicago baseball writer Ring Lardner: “Sir Joseph Benz of Batesville Manor,” Lardner referred to him in dispatches from a White Sox trip overseas in 1913, describing him as “the bumpkin abroad who slept through stops at exotic ports of call (and) became seasick while riding a camel.”
Reb Russell was short and stocky, fiery with ice-cold blue eyes typically staring through you. He was a 5-11 left-hander, a pitcher who switched positions when his arm gave out and he discovered his gift for hitting. Today he is 20th on Major League Baseball’s career list with a 2.33 ERA. He went 80-59 in seven seasons in Chicago before arm trouble ended his MLB pitching career in June 1919. Russell then signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates, switched to right field and made his MLB outfield debut in 1922 – a debut season that ranked below only Rogers Hornsby in batting average.
He was a chatty country boy from Mississippi, Ewell Albert Russell, earning two nicknames from teammates – “Reb,” as he is commonly known, and the lesser-known “Tex” – and inspiring Chicago short-story writer Ring Lardner’s character Jack Keefe in his most famous piece of fiction, “You Know Me, Al.”
Different and the same, Joe Benz and Reb Russell, teammates for the White Sox from 1913-19 and linked a century later by baseball, blood and something more mystical. More than 20,000 players have appeared in the major leagues, and baseball-reference.com assigns each one a list of the 10 most comparable players, statistically. Of the 20,506 players all time, including more than 5,000 pitchers, the No. 4 comparison for Reb Russell is … well, you can guess.
They roomed together on the road, riding the trains together, becoming close like brothers. Benz invited Russell to his wedding, and introduced him to his cousin, Charlotte Benz.
This is all documented on a handwritten family tree in Batesville, a 30-year-old Benz historical record that refers to Charlotte as “Lotta” and to her future husband as “Tex Russel.”
This explains how Joe Benz’s great nephew, a lifetime baseball fan from Batesville named Bob Hunteman – he’s 80 now – could have no idea Reb Russell was part of his family. Not until his mom, Martha Benz Hunteman, had to go into that nursing home 20 years ago. Bob Hunteman was cleaning out her house in 2003, went out to her enclosed patio, and saw the bat in the corner.
'Wait a minute – Reb Russell is in my family!'
Everyone is shaking hands outside a booth in McDonald’s.
The three siblings from Reb Russell’s side of the family – Diane Minatel Richards (62), Gary Minatel (67) and Louise Minatel (70) – have come with a scrapbook kept 100 years ago by Reb’s wife, Charlotte. Each page is priceless, brittle and cracking in places, little chips at the edges like those on the bat held by Bob Hunteman. Speaking of … look who’s here. It’s Bob and his wife, also named Diane.
“I like you already!” Diane Richards tells Diane Hunteman.
“Bob’s been thinking about you guys for years,” Diane Hunteman says.
Bob’s standing there, holding the bat in front of him like a ringbearer holds a pillow.
Everybody has a seat, and after comparing each family’s handwritten family tree, this is the best anyone can come up with: The three Minatel siblings – Reb and Charlotte Russell’s grandchildren – are distant cousins with Bob Hunteman, whose great uncle was Joe Benz, and whose great aunt was Lotta Benz aka Charlotte Russell.
Bob Hunteman is telling everyone about the bat, how Reb had given it to his good friend on the White Sox, Joe Benz, who gave it to his dad, Michael. Over time, Michael gave it to his son, Michael Jr.
“That’s my grandfather,” Hunteman’s saying of Michael Jr.
“I was looking at this family tree one day,” Bob continues, pulling out a handwritten page from the 1990s. “Here it says ‘Lotta’ and here it says ‘Tex Russel,’ and it took a while to get it through my pea brain: ‘Wait a minute – Reb Russell is in my family!’”
Now both families are pulling out old pictures and comparing notes. Here’s one of Joe Benz, tall and stately, next to his Buick. That guy there is Otto Benz, Charlotte’s brother. Over here, this 8-year-old boy with thick hair standing on end? Hunteman has always assumed it’s Bill Russell, one of Reb and Charlotte’s kids.
“That’s Uncle Billy, all right,” she says. “Same hair his whole life.”
Says Hunteman: “You called him Billy? I knew him as Bill. I knew he had a sister, but she got married and I lost track of her.”
“That’s Marjorie,” says Gary Minatel.
“Our mom!” says Diane Minatel Richards.
Pretty soon everybody is hugging, but there’s one more big reveal. Diane Richards is going through her cell phone – inside a Chicago White Sox protective case – because the picture is in here somewhere.
Johnny Vander Meer and Jimmy Hoffa
“Reb Russell,” the bat says. His signature was seared into the barrel at Louisville Slugger, which has been making signature bats since signing Honus Wagner to a deal in 1905.
No telling how many bats Louisville Slugger gave Russell during his career, or when this exact bat was made, but the rhythms of baseball allow the imagination to fill in the blanks. Imagine this bat joining Russell, Benz and their White Sox teammates on that European tour of 1913, when Ring Lardner joined the team to chronicle its exhibition series highlighted by games in Italy for Pope Pius IX and Great Britain for King George V.
Imagine this bat being used in 1913, when Russell hit a respectable .189 for a pitcher and tied an MLB rookie record with eight shutouts. Russell went 22-8 that season, finishing second to Walter Johnson in the American League’s advanced metric Wins Above Replacement. The next five names in AL WAR that season: Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Home Run Baker, Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb.
Russell made four career starts against Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth, winning two and holding the slugger to one hit in 12 at-bats – the Babe’s second-worst average against a pitcher in his Hall of Fame career (minimum 10 at-bats).
Russell’s first year as a full-time MLB hitter was similarly spectacular, albeit in a smaller dose. After hitting a combined .356 with 50 home runs in 794 at-bats for Double A Minneapolis in 1921 and half of 1922, Russell joined the Pirates in July 1922 and hit .368 with 14 doubles, eight triples and 12 home runs and 75 RBI in the final 60 games. His batting average and 1.091 OPS were second only to Hornsby’s .401 average and 1.181 OPS, and while Russell didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify, he still tied for 11th in home runs.
Imagine this bat doing that.
Benz didn’t have any one season like those, but he was steadily effective – 33rd all-time in ERA, remember – and he threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Naps on May 31, 1914. He allowed the Yankees just three hits in his next start, then took a no-hitter into the ninth against Washington, allowing what has been called a disputed single by Eddie Ainsmith. Rather than throwing his second no-hitter in 10 days, a feat achieved (and bettered) only by Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, Benz settled for a one-hit shutout against Walter Johnson.
Benz was out of the big leagues in 1919, Russell in 1923. A quiet man in life, Benz lived out the rest of his life quietly in Chicago, a church custodian when he died in 1957 at age 71.
Russell died in Indianapolis in 1973 at age 84. He’d settled in his wife’s native Central Indiana and worked as a security guard for the Kingan Meat Factory, located across the White River from old Washington Park, where he hit .385 for the Indianapolis Indians in 1927 to win the American Association batting title at age 38. He played into his late 40s for the Sterling Beer semipro team managed by Jimmy Hoffa’s uncle, Clyde.
'I have a win-win proposal for you'
Bob Hunteman didn’t want to die with the bat stuck behind all those winter coats.
That’s where this story was heading, though, as 2003 became 2023 and he turned 80 and the bat was still in the wardrobe where he’d stashed it 20 years earlier. He’d always hoped to give the bat to someone on the Russell side of the family, but couldn’t find anyone. Cut him some slack – he’d been a manager for a casket company, not a private detective. His online search for a descendant of Reb Russell ended with Reb’s son, Bill.
Any idea how many “Bill Russell” references there are on Google?
Hunteman decided to give it one more try. It was July 31 of this year. He got onto his computer and wrote a letter.
To me, as it turns out.
Hunteman has brought a copy of the letter to McDonald’s to give to Reb’s grandchildren. But first, everyone agrees, he should read it aloud:
To: Gregg Doyel
Subject: The Bat
Without going into great details, I have a win-win proposal for you. You get the story on a bat that belonged to Ewell “Reb” Russell (Chicago White Sox 1913 to 1919). The bat was given to my great uncle, Joe Benz (Chicago White Sox 1911 to 1919).
In turn I get the opportunity to give the bat to a close relative of Reb Russell, if you can find them. Reb lived in Indy after he retired and he had two children, a boy and a girl. Boy’s name was Bill.
I am soon to be 80 years old. My wife and I have three children that are well into their 50s and they have no children. Thus no one close to pass down the bat. So the next best thing is put it into the hand of a close relative of Reb Russell.
Bob finishes the letter to silence. Now Diane Richards is going through her phone again. It’s in here somewhere … ah, there. It’s a picture taken in February 2022, when Diane took her grandson Jonathan – Reb Russell’s great, great grandson – to the Louisville Slugger museum, where the bat-making company has a template of every signature bat it’s made since 1905.
The museum allows family members to see a signature bat, and to hold it if they wear gloves. Here on Diane’s phone is the picture she’s been trying to find: Jonathan, 10, in a vault with thousands of bats, getting into a stance with his great-grandfather’s 34½-inch prototype. He’s wearing white latex gloves.
“Thanks to you,” Diane tells Bob Hunteman, “he’ll be holding the real thing pretty soon.”
“And he won’t have to wear gloves,” Bob says.
Now everyone’s hugging, and this is where I leave. Last I saw of it, the bat was on a table at the McDonald’s in Shelbyville. Is it the same caramel-colored beauty that singled off Babe Ruth, doubled and tripled off Grover Alexander or homered off Burleigh Grimes? No way to know, but 100 years later it has merged two families into one, and anything seems possible.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: How Reb Russell's 100-year-old bat connected a family