There must have been something very special in the water of Cleveland’s Payne Avenue neighborhood in the late 1880s. No fewer than seven professional ballplayers grew up there, including the famed Delahanty boys (five big-league brothers!) and Bill Bradley, a slugger who personally carved his own monstrous bat and eventually starred for many years with the local big league club.
Born in 1878, Bradley was an Irish-Catholic who first gained local attention in school as a power-hitting infielder. Upon graduation he gladly accepted a job with the Dangler Stove Company, one of Cleveland’s best employers. The 18-year old soon became the star of the company ball team and his reputation as a talented ballplayer began to spread. Eventually a team in Gallion, Ohio offered Bill $20 a month to play shortstop, thus ending the young man’s days as a stove maker.
In those days, becoming a major league ballplayer was as much about luck and perseverance as it was about skill. Fortunately, Bradley had all three and shaped opportunities for himself wherever he went. After his Gallion experience ended he hustled his way onto a team in the New York State League. There he happened to be in the lineup when a scout, eyeing a pitcher on the other team, was treated to observing Bradley have a big day both at the plate and in the field. Impressed, he signed the budding star to a contract with Troy. Shortly after that, at just 21 years old, Bradley was sold to the Chicago team in the National League.
The year was 1899 and the National League team was called the “Orphans” because their biggest star, the indomitable Adrian “Cap” Anson, had abandoned the team. The castoffs were not expected to amount to much, and Bradley was just another unknown face. However, in a little over a month Bradley batted .310 and showed that he belonged in baseball’s top league. He thrived on the better pitching he faced and also enjoyed making $150 a month.
But money was often a sore point in baseball back then. Teams didn’t have much of it, and players always wanted more. After haggling with Chicago for two consecutive seasons over the terms of his contract, Bradley bolted in 1901 for an opportunity back home in Cleveland with a new team in the American League, a new circuit of teams hoping to challenge the prominence of the long-established National League.
Once more, the new opportunity paid off handsomely. Bradley, working on a generous $3,500 annual salary, led the league in slugging average while scoring 95 runs and handling third base well. He was on his way to stardom.
The next season, 1902, Bradley unveiled a weapon built with his own hands: a homemade bat he named “Big Bennie”. Brown and weighing a hefty 46 ounces, much larger than anything a big league hitter uses today, the bat at first created some good-natured ribbing from surprised teammates. It was, however, was a huge success–at one point Bradley hit home runs in four straight games. His home run production rose to 11 as compared to just a single one the season before. But it wasn’t just the explosion in home runs–Bradley tore through pitchers during a 29-game hitting streak, a record in the new American League for nine years. His average, which was a healthy .293 the previous year, rose to .340, placing him fifth among the league leaders (boyhood friend and future Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty took the prize at .376).
Bill Bradley continued to be the starting third baseman for Cleveland for more than a decade, until leg injuries finally slowed him down. In 1914 and 1915 he played in the Federal League but it was clear that it was time to retire. Taking Big Bennie home to Cleveland, Bill spent a few years as a minor league manager and scout for the Indians. He died in 1954 in his beloved Cleveland, surrounded by family. No one knows what happened to his beloved bat.
Bradley’s innovative Big Bennie foreshadowed a fundamental change in the way baseball was to evolve. With great foresight Bill disdained the common practice of “small ball” that was in vogue during the early years of the game. Most batters were trained to choke up on the bat, to slap the ball where it was pitched, and to perfect their bunting technique. Bradley preferred to drive the ball, swinging from the heels for extra bases instead of fighting for small advancements. When Bradley came to the plate, enemy outfielders took several steps back and the infield made sure to be on their toes. At the end of his career Bill Bradley was able to witness the logical extension of his intuition when a new slugger appeared in the game and changed it forever. That slugger, Babe Ruth, wielded an even larger bat–54 ounces–but owes Cleveland’s Bill Bradley credit for paving the way.