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Sullivan leaves lasting mark on area

After his family and his country, the things Russell G. Sullivan loved the most were Stafford County and baseball.

The White Oak native, who passed away Saturday at age 90 at Mary Washington Hospital, played for the Detroit Tigers from 1951–1953, then went on to become one of the Fredericksburg area’s wealthiest men, was a larger-than-life figure who remained down to earth.

He hated to talk about himself, but told a reporter that one of his proudest moments came during batting practice before a game between the Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox’s Ted Williams, considered by some the greatest hitter who ever lived, watched the young Sullivan hit one ball after another into the seats and said, “Boy, you hit ’em as hard as I do.”

He also recalled hitting a home run off the lights atop the right field roof at Briggs Stadium, a blast similar to the one Reggie Jackson famously hit in the 1974 All-Star Game after Briggs had become Tigers Stadium.

A career highlight came when Sullivan hit a mammoth home run into the third deck of Briggs Stadium’s right field pavilion on Sept. 25, 1952, to help Detroit pitcher Hal Newhouser win the 200th game of his career. He said that was the hardest ball he hit in the majors.

Harrison Sullivan and Lorenzo Sullivan, his father and grandfather, were homebuilders in the Fredericksburg area. When he was 8 years old, young Sullivan began helping them. By 1954, during baseball’s offseason, he had begun his own contracting business, doing much of the labor himself, including electrical work, plumbing and bricklaying. When his baseball career ended, he threw himself into the business with the same gusto with which he played ball.

Years before the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington as the Nationals, Stafford County was making a pitch to become the site of a Major League Baseball stadium. The county had a 250-acre tract adjacent to Interstate 95 that developer Bradford Kline had offered to donate and Sullivan had put up the $150,000 fee required for a site to be considered. He also offered to throw in $5 million of his own money toward construction costs if the Stafford site was selected.

Sullivan had put the money up anonymously, and asked a newspaper reporter not to make his generosity public.

Asked why he was willing to do it, Sullivan said hosting a major league ballpark “would be a gold mine for the county.” He seemed to care more about the people of Stafford reaping the benefits than any personal gain.

By 1988, he estimated that he had built more than 5,000 houses in Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George, Fauquier, Prince William, Orange and Westmoreland counties.

At that time he was listed as the No. 7 taxpayer in Stafford, behind only Virginia Power, Southland Corp., C&P Telephone Co., Continental Telephone Co., RF&P Railroad and Aquia Harbour Inc.

“It certainly is a dubious honor,” he said with a laugh.

He built the controversial Executive Plaza building on Caroline Street that is the tallest in downtown Fredericksburg and dubbed by some “The Big Ugly” because it doesn’t fit in with the architecture there.

He also helped run a motocross track in White Oak and farmed 850 acres of corn, wheat and beans.

Walter Jervis Sheffield, who was one of his attorneys, recalled Sullivan’s kindness. Sheffield said Sullivan gave “sweetheart deals” to many who had rented homes he had built for years so that they could afford to become homeowners.

He was an appointed a member of Stafford’s Board of Building Appeals for many years. He lost a run for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors to longtime county official Alvin Y. Bandy in 1995.

Sullivan joined the Navy upon his graduation from Falmouth High School in 1943, and was assigned to the USS Hancock, an aircraft carrier, which dodged kamikaze attacks when sent to support the invasion of Okinawa during World War II. He sometimes served as a tail gunner on a dive bomber, “I was so young that I didn’t know what claustrophobia was,” he said in a typically self-deprecating manner.

After being discharged from the military, he played professional baseball for 10 years. Sullivan, who was nicknamed Rabbit, also played for the semipro White Oak Oaks for years.

There is a mural of him as a ballplayer in the Russell Sullivan Gymnasium at the Massad Family YMCA in Falmouth.

Michael Zitz