Arnold Russell umpire copy

The Austinville graduate, who passed away in 2018, received a Distinguished Service Award from the Alabama High School Athletic Association in 2009 for his work as a baseball and softball umpire in a career that spanned 60 years. Russell was also a championship youth baseball coach in the Morgan County community of Slip Up. He was one of West Morgan High’s most involved boosters. Russell served the athletic program for many years as a clock operator for the school’s football and basketball games. Russell worked for the state highway department for 46 years.

60 years of balls and strikes

Arnold Russell became a legend umpiring baseball and softball games

By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

Back in the day when Ricky Bowling was in the middle of a hall of fame basketball coaching career, he also coached baseball at his alma mater West Morgan.

Bowling’s time coaching baseball brings back a lot of memories. One that stands out involves umpire Arnold Russell, who is being inducted into the 2024 Class of the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 4 at the Priceville Event Center.

“It was the year where they changed the rule on the catcher blocking the plate when a runner is trying to score,” Bowling said. “We had a game at home and Arnold was the home plate umpire. There was a call at the plate that went against us.

“I went running out there to complain. I don’t remember what I was saying, but I guess I was loud enough that the fans in the stands could hear me. When I got to Arnold, he just looked at me and said ‘Don’t yell at me Ricky.’”

Bowling stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and without saying a word headed back to the dugout.

“I couldn’t believe I had raised my voice to Arnold Russell,” Bowling said. “That man had done so much for me and so many other people in the West Morgan community.  I felt awful.”

Russell, who died in 2018 at age 87, was honored by the Alabama High School Athletic Association in 2009 with a Distinguished Service Award for his career as a baseball and softball umpire that covered 60 years.

There’s a lot more to the Russell story than just his career as an umpire. He also coached championship youth baseball teams. Russell was one of the most loyal boosters for West Morgan High athletics. He worked 46 years for the Alabama Department of Transportation and had key roles in major road construction projects like Decatur’s Beltline Road that was built in 1966.

“Arnold was amazing. He was in his mid-70s and still umpiring high school playoff games,” Decatur’s Mike Jones said.“He and Charlie Smallwood were a great umpiring team.”

Russell also worked senior league baseball games. The competition at that level is usually more laid back, but Jones recalls one game where a player from out of town upset the usually easy going Russell.

“Arnold threw the player out of the game,” Jones said. “I think that was the only time I ever saw him do that.”

Later in the game between innings, Russell talked to the player he had ejected.

“Arnold then came over to our dugout and said the player had repented,” Jones said. “He asked if we were OK with him going back into the game. We said sure. That’s just the kind of person that Arnold Russell was.”

In a 2002 Daily story, Russell described his philosophy on being an umpire.

“You have six calls to make in a ballgame: Ball, strike, foul or fair, out or safe,” Russell said. “The rest of it’s picky.
If I’m behind the plate, I want to satisfy one person when that ballgame’s over and that person is me. If I satisfy myself, then I’m in good shape.”

In the early days of his umpiring career, Russell was also a youth baseball coach. His teams represented the community of Slip Up in western Morgan County. The community is better known today as Pleasant Hill.

“We played on a field with no lights near Arnold’s house that was really a cow pasture,” Harry Knop said. “When we had a home game, we had to get out there early to clean up the field. I can remember Arnold’s wife Nell out there with a shovel helping us.”

Russell’s teams dominated the league along with the West Morgan team coached by Arthur “Mojo” Keenum. Russell and Keenum teamed several times as the league All-Star coaches.

“Arnold and my Dad were best friends,” Nancy Keenum said. “They loved to compete against each other. Their All-Star teams were always really good.”

One of their best All-Star teams was a group of boys ages 11 and 12 that went all the way to the Bronco state tournament finals in 1966. Bowling was one of the team’s stars.

“I loved playing baseball and I loved playing for Arnold,” Bowling said. “He was a patient coach who would help make you the best player you could be.”

The 1966 team advanced to the state tournament finals in Birmingham with a trip to Texas on the line.

“We played a Birmingham team in the finals that had a lefty pitcher named Rick Neel, who later played football at Auburn,” Bowling said. “He was a hard thrower, but we scored four runs in the top of the first before we had an out. We ended up scoring six in the inning.”

The Birmingham team rallied to win 13-12 on a walk-off home run. That team would later win the Bronco World Series by beating a team from Japan in the finals.

“Later the Birmingham coach told my Dad that we were the best team they had played,” Arnold’s son Randy Russell said.

When baseball and softball were out of season, Russell could be found at West Morgan High. He was the clock operator for football games. He became a fixture at the West Morgan Gym as the clock operator during basketball season.

“He loved being there and would do anything you needed,” Bowling said.

Because of the packed seating in the West Morgan Gym, Russell suggested to Bowling that the game clock should move to the upper level behind the home bench. A metal cage that hangs out over the crowd was constructed. It was eventually named in Russell’s honor.

“Sometimes there would be a lot going on during the game and Arnold said he could see better from up there,” Bowling said. “The refs didn’t like it, but it became Arnold’s place.”

It’s difficult to travel through Decatur and not feel the impact of Russell’s work for the state. He was the project manager for the construction of the Beltline in 1966. It was one of the most impactful road construction projects in the city’s history.

“Dad didn’t go to college, but when it came to road work he was a lot smarter than a lot of the state’s engineers who did go to college,” Randy Russell said. “When he was in high school, Dad said he basically taught his senior math class. He was great with numbers.”

In the 1950 Austinville school annual, Russell willed his physics book to a friend in the junior class.

“A few months before Arnold died he was on a tractor cutting a field near my house,” Bowling said. “I stopped and we had a long visit. I have a lot of great memories of a good man who was all about the kids.”

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