Born April 27, 1926 in Oakville, Washington, Russell was a standout pitcher at Vaughn High School from 1942-45. Another local ballplayer, Marv Rickert of Longbranch, was in the Chicago Cubs organization at the time and recommended that they scout Russell. Cubs scout Merv Shea liked what he saw so the Cubs signed Russell and sent him to their farm club in Visalia, California in 1946.
He also spent time with the Class D Iola (Kansas) Cubs in the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League. Russell's parents didn't see much of a future in baseball, however. When a representative of the Saint Louis Browns called, they told him Russell wasn't interested in continuing to pursue a professional baseball career. Instead, Russell pitched for semi-pro teams in Longbranch, Tacoma, Port Townsend and Gig Harbor in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Russell recalls that while playing for the Gig Harbor Merchants from 1950-52, they often faced teams from the Army. "The Army players were always complaining that Gig Harbor was bringing in a pro to pitch against them," Russell said.