Born August 27, 1906, and raised in Wartrace, Tennessee, Fred McFerrin Russell was known to thousands of readers for his “Sidelines” column in the Nashville Banner. Russell first entered Tennessee sports pages, however, as an athlete. He came to Nashville to play baseball at Vanderbilt University. After graduating in 1927, Russell considered a career in law but decided eventually to pursue journalism. He began in 1929 as a police beat reporter for the Nashville Banner, but the paper quickly reassigned him to the sports department. A year later, at the age of twenty-four, he became the sports editor.
Through the years, Russell wrote more than twelve thousand columns about local and national sporting events, including baseball, boxing, football, golf, and horse racing. Additionally, he contributed to the Saturday Evening Post as a college football prognosticator. From 1949 to 1962, Russell wrote the magazine’s annual “Pigskin Preview” and offered his opinion of the top twenty football teams in the nation. He also authored several books about various sporting topics. Vol Feats: Records, History and Tales of the Nashville Baseball Club in the Southern Association recounts the story of the Nashville Vols, the city’s longtime minor league baseball team. Big Bowl Football: The Great Postseason Classics chronicles many great football bowl games. Bury Me in an Old Press Box: Good Times and Life as a Sportswriter provides stories and anecdotes about Russell’s career, the events he witnessed, and the people he befriended.
Throughout Russell’s career, his polite nature and love for practical jokes endeared him to many of sport’s greatest names. Those he interviewed included heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and baseball legends Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. Among his friends were the great golfer Bobby Jones, football legend Red Grange, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, and baseball manager Sparky Anderson. Jones, Grange, and Dempsey were among those who attended a banquet in 1953 to celebrate Russell’s twenty-fifth year with the Nashville Banner.
Other friends included journalism colleagues such as Grantland Rice and Red Smith, two of the best writers to cover sports. Russell and Smith traveled together with their wives to cover baseball’s spring training. Their wives drove and navigated while the two writers sat in the backseat, typewriters on their laps, producing columns for the next day. As the years passed, Russell continued to work on a manual typewriter, refusing to use a computer or even an electric typewriter, leaving others to retype his columns.
In 1940, Russell introduced a close friend to one of his greatest passions: Vanderbilt University. Red Sanders, Vanderbilt’s football coach, needed a new assistant, and Russell lobbied for a friend that he felt could do the job. That friend was Paul “Bear” Bryant, and his exemplary coaching career in the Southeastern Conference began with Russell’s assistance. His love for Vanderbilt went further as Russell talked to recruits and potential students about the advantages of attending the university. Today, journalism students can attend Vanderbilt University on the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship.
Russell’s journalistic skills won much admiration and respect and consequently garnered numerous honors and awards. The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame inducted Russell, and he received the Grantland Rice Memorial Award. Other honors included the Heisman Special Service Award and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Distinguished American Award. In 1983, Russell received the Turf Writer’s award for excellent coverage in horse racing, the same year that he covered his fiftieth consecutive Kentucky Derby.
Russell’s career at the Nashville Banner ended in 1998 when the newspaper ceased publication, but he continued to write for the Tennessean. Russell died on January 26, 2003 at the age of ninety-six.