Russ Van Atta
Born: June 21, 1906
Died: October 6, 1986
Russell Van Atta was born June 21, 1906 in Augusta. Russ grew up hunting and fishing in the foothills around his home and blossomed into a solidly built six-footer as a teenager. The exuberance of the Roaring 20s didn’t reach into places like Sussex County, where many people scratched out an existence working in the zinc mines for a few dollars a week. Russ was headed for bigger and better things thanks to a powerful left arm and a reputation as one of the state’s top young ballplayers. He accepted a partial scholarship to Penn State and starred for the varsity from 1925 to 1928 as he worked his way through college. He lost just one game during that time. Among his teammates were future big-leaguers Danny Musser, Phil Page, Buddy Dear and Alan Strange.
Russ signed with the New York Yankees after graduation and finished the 1928 season with Hartford of the Eastern League. He would struggle to control his hopping fastball over the next few seasons with the Class-AA St. Paul Saints before putting it all together in 1931 and 1932. The difference-maker was veteran catcher Frank Snyder, who joined the Saints in 1931. Under his tutelage, Russ became the top pitcher in the American Association.
Russ added an effective curve to his heater and made the Yankees out of Spring Training in 1933 and joined a starting rotation that included Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez and Johnny Allen. His big-league debut was a 16–0 whitewash of the Washington Senators, which was not only notable for the biggest brawl of the season, but also for the rookie’s 4-for-4 batting performance.
Russ went 12–4 in 1933 , including another shutout, and led the AL with a .750 winning percentage. Five of his victories that year came against the Senators, who actually went on to win the pennant. After the season, Russ invited Babe Ruth to join him at the family’s new home in Sparta on a hunting and fishing vacation, and they became fast friends. Ruth continued to visit Sussex County after his playing days whenever he needed a dose of the great outdoors.
Russ’s rookie campaign would turn out to be his best. During a fire in his family’s home over the winter, he cut his left hand and suffered nerve damage. The cut healed but he lost feeling in his index finger. Russ got knocked around early in 1934 and was relegated to the bullpen. In 1935, the Yankees sold him to the St. Louis Browns. With the Browns, Russ carved out a niche as a relief specialist. Despite pitching much of the season out of the bullpen, he was still among the Top 10 in strikeouts.
Russ led the AL in appearances in 1935 and 1936, and was among the leaders in games finished, as well. However, he was never the same pitcher and retired form baseball in 1940. Russ ran for sheriff of Sussex County and, with the Babe stumping for him, won easily. He also served as a county freeholder in the late 1940s before starting an oil business in Newtown during the 1950s. He invested in local real estate and as more and more people moved past the suburbs and into the country during the 1970s and 1980s, he became a wealthy man. Russ suffered from Alzheimers in his late-70s and passed away at 80 in 1986.