“I’ve been playing some kind of ball for what seems like forever,” said the long-time Antioch resident who was born in 1937. Unfortunately, Russell won’t be playing senior baseball or winning any more Senior Olympic trophies any time soon – he had a severe, debilitating stroke in 2004.
Russell grew up in Hayward where his father, Penny Russell, managed the Hunt Foods cannery. The family moved to Antioch in 1945 when Penny purchased the Hickmott Canning Company on the river just east of town. The business canned peaches, tomatoes and asparagus primarily and, when Penny died, the company passed to his son, Renny, who managed the cannery for 10 years until selling it in 1970, after which he entered the real estate business.
“Real estate was very good to me over the years,” Russell said, “It allowed me the time to continue playing baseball all over the state.”
He played semi-pro ball until the age of 65, accumulating an amazing wealth of trophies, plaques, autographed balls and photographs along the way.
It’s no wonder Penny’s son picked up a love of sports at an early age. Penny introduced youth baseball and softball league play to Antioch, an effort that earned him the city’s Citizen of the Year award. Penny always loved baseball, having been catcher on a Detroit team before coming to California.
Renny began playing exhibition games at the age of 15 for a youth development league sponsored by the Oakland Oaks, part of the Pacific Coast League. A bus accident took the lives of a number of his fellow players in the early ’50s. Russell missed that bus trip as he was playing ball elsewhere. “I’ve never forgotten how lucky I was,” Russell said.
He later joined a semi-pro team many of whose players went on to sign with the Cincinnati Reds and some were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I played against guys like Willie Stargell, Tommy Harper, Randy Johnson and the like. They were really good,” Russell said.
While in school at U.C. Berkeley, Russell played outfield for the number-one ranked NCAA Cal baseball team. He also played football during the 1955-1956 season as a Cal defensive back while also backing up Joe Capp at quarterback.
Russell is philosophical about the current hullabaloo about steroids.
“Steroids are nothing new to baseball and football,” he said. “Years ago everyone knew they were harmful, but guys took them anyway. I still know guys who play pro ball and use steroids. You don’t see any old linemen in the NFL. A lot of those guys can’t walk because of what they took while they were young.”
Russell was a Planning Commissioner and Commissioner of Parks and Recreation from 1968 to 1978. Former City Councilman Allen Payton, who has been a friend of Russell for many years, said, “Renny is really a good guy. He’s done a lot over the years for the city, and he’s known and liked by just about everyone who’s been around Antioch for any length of time.”
Russell earned a master’s degree in business administration and has completed his Ph.D studies with Northwestern University. He is still active in real estate consulting and operates out of Russell Real Estate at 1518 A Street. He is also working to launch a sports memorabilia business on Sixth Street in the former Webb Music Store.
“I’m going to stay busy as long as I can,” he said. It’s very clear that his present physical limitations haven’t curtailed his spirit. Russell can be reached at 754-2220.