George Washington Bradley
O. P. Caylor
Unfortunately, finding a good pitcher at this point wouldn't be easy at any price. An unprecedented number of professional teams – thirty-two of them in the major and top-tier minor leagues – had already combed through the nation's amateur and lower professional ranks for talent.
Even so, one battered veteran turned up in May who was available to the highest bidder. George Washington Bradley was a name pitcher and a "sharp, hard hitter," a fierce competitor who was not above using violence to win, and one of the greats of early professional baseball. In 1876, pitching for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, he was nothing short of brilliant, winning forty-five games, posting the National League's lowest earned run average, throwing the first no-hitter in League history – and coming within one out of throwing the second. Granted, he may have reportedly met secretly with his catcher, and the two softened the game balls by slamming them with a bat against a stone slab, carefully covering them with a cloth so that they would not be stained. Such deadened baseballs, of course, were harder to drive for distance.
The Chicago Tribune wondered about the "putty ball" that Bradley's team used, remarking that "instead of responding with a click when hit, it simply gave a dull thud like a chunk of mud." When umpires finally caught on, and the League began requiring that game balls be taken only from sealed boxes, after being wrapped in foil, Bradley lost his edge and began spending more time at third base than in the pitcher's box. He earned the nickname "Grin" for the ugly, even fiendish, expression that seemed frozen on his face. "No one before ever had such a tantalizing smirk," one reporter recalled in 1892, "and none of the modern detachment has given evidence that they can successfully imitate it." Given his fierce competitiveness, rampant cheating, and nasty bickering with umpires, some considered him little better than a thug. … O. P. Caylor complained that Bradley – "he of the ungodly grin" – was as "successful at making himself obnoxious to the crowd" as he was at pitching. "But he can grin and kick and spout billingsgate," added another reporter. "In those things his average is No. I."
By 1883, he was a thirty-year-old on the down slope of his career, working mostly as an infielder, but struggling to keep his job with the National League's Cleveland club by showing off some new pitches during spring trainer. His manager, Frank Bancroft, was not impressed. Though the club was paying Bradley the not-inconsiderable salary of $175 per month, Bancroft dropped him from the regular team, condemning him to the reserve squad, and was prepared to grant him his release. Bradley began writing to other managers, letting them know he was available. … even though Bradley was not the hurler he once was, he didn't have to wait long for a response from talent-starved professional clubs.
Bradley quickly shook hands on a deal with the Association's Pittsburgh Alleghenys, who had lost their number-one starter and desperately needed help. But before he could arrive, Pittsburgh fans were shocked to learn that Bradley had broken his word and jilted the Alleghenys for a better deal from the Philadelphia Athletics, who wished to use him at third base as well as in the pitcher's box. "Moral: Never count on a ball player until you have him signed and locked up past the possibility of escape," the Pittsburgh Dispatch observed bitterly. Philadelphia supporters, of course, were delighted. "Bradley's ascension to the Athletic club has greatly strengthened the nine in its weakest point," one reporter gloated. …
The Alleghenys, led by Association President Denny McKnight, were not inclined to forgive and forget. Furious to be facing Bradley in his first Association appearance, the club lodged a formal protest, charging that he was ineligible to play because he had first pledged himself to Pittsburgh. The harsh feelings between the rivals threatened to fracture the Association. The owners convened an emergency meeting on June 5 in Cincinnati to try to resolve the dispute. Called to explain himself, Lew Simmons [owner-manager of the Athletics] glibly reminded his fellow moguls that, although he may have violated the league's rules in wrestling Bradley from the grasp of another club, "every other club in the association, with the exception of the Cincinnatis, was equally as guilty." The red-faced executives had to admit that Simmons had a point, and they went home without punishing anyone. Six weeks later, however, President McKnight was still barely speaking to Simmons, a man he now considered a scoundrel.