Sports: Basketball & Baseball
Born: March 12, 1906
Died: November 24, 1967
Russell Collier Saunders was born March 12, 1906 in Trenton. A superb all-around athlete with a shock of red hair, he was known to local baseball and basketball fans as Rusty. Rusty stood a strapping 6’2” and tipped the scales at 200-plus pounds; at Central High School he was a man among boys. Rusty’s basketball talent came from his father, Jack, who was one of the game’s first pro players at the turn of the century.
Trenton was a hotbed of basketball when Rusty was a teenager. He competed in the city’s leagues against older, more experienced players as a teenager, and joined a local pro team in 1924 at the age of 18. The game in the early 1920s had been evolving from favoring brute strength to speed and agility. Rusty had both to spare.
One year later, the first “national” basketball league began play. The American Basketball League brought together the country’s best pro clubs under one banner. Rusty signed with the Brooklyn Arcadians. The Arcadians soon dealt him to the Washington Palace Five, a club owner by laundry king George Preston Marshall, who would later buy the Washington Redskins. The ABL had some legendary stars under contract, including Honey Russell, Ray Kennedy, Marty Barry, Nat Hickey and Elmer Ripley. But 19-year-old Rusty outscored them all. He totaled 238 points in 34 contests in an era when winning teams typically scored 25 to 30 points a game. The Palace Five finished 3rd with an 11–5 record.
Washington finished second by a game in 1926–27 and Rusty led the ABL in scoring again, with 399 points in 42 games. In the decade that followed, Rusty suited up for ABL clubs in Brooklyn, Ft. Wayne, Trenton, Boston, New Britain, Passaic and Kingston. He was usually among the league leaders in scoring, and led the Ft. Wayne Hoosiers to the ABL finals three times. In 1932–33, Rusty played for the Trenton Moose in the Eastern League and led the club to the championship. In 1933–-34, Trenton joined the re-formed ABL and made it to the finals, but lost to the Philadelphia Sphas. Rusty was the leading scorer in the playoffs.
From 1927 to 1931, Rusty also played pro baseball. After helping his minor league club to the Blue Ridge League title in 1927, he was called up by the Philadelphia A’s as a reserve outfielder. Though he only saw action in a handful of games, he got to rub elbows with some of his baseball idols, including Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins and Zach Wheat. Rusty was a superb hitter—in 1929 and 1930, he hit over .390 in Class B ball with the Portland Mariners and Elmira Colonels.
In the late 1930s, Rusty barnstormed with the Original Celtics. He continued to play pro ball until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. After the war, Rusty played one final season, at age 40, for the Indianapolis Kautskys of the National Basketball League. By then age and injury had eroded his skills.
When Rusty retired, most experts rated him among the Top 5 pivot men in pro basketball history. He was also one of the game’s highest paid players. After his tour with the Celtics, he started a second career as a corrections officer in the New Jersey State prison system. Rusty lived in Trenton after his basketball days. He passed away there at age 61 in 1967.