Alva Bradley II
Bradley was a Cornell University graduate born into a wealthy family. His grandfather, also named Alva Bradley, a former lake captain, had founded a successful ship-building company in Cleveland and owned a fleet of 18 steamers; the elder Bradley was one of the founders of Case Western Reserve University and gave inventor Thomas Edison his middle name of Alva (he was a friend of Edison's father). The young Alva Bradley's father, Morris Bradley, had built a real estate empire and was one of the city's leading businessmen. The Bradley Building, completed in 1886, the family's business headquarters, still exists today as one of Cleveland's historic landmarks.
Alva Bradley was not the largest investor in the syndicate that bought the Indians on November 17, 1927, from the estate of the late James Dunn, but as a well-established businessman, president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Cleveland Builders Supply Company and a passionate baseball fan to boot, he was the most appropriate face for the group. The Indians had fallen on hard times since Dunn's death in 1922; his wife had inherited the team, but had little interest in running the operation and had left affairs in the hands of caretaker Ernest Barnard, whose primary goal was not to put a winning team on the field but to keep profits flowing while limiting expenditures. Early in 1927, long-time player-manager Tris Speaker had been forced to resign under nebulous accusations related to a gambling scandal that was never fully elucidated. As Bradley later said, the Indians "were not worth a darned cent" at the time he purchased them.
One of Alva Bradley's first decisions was to hire Billy Evans, a former American League umpire, to serve as general manager and vice-president of the team. He then purchased the contract of Wooster, OH native Roger Peckinpaugh from the Chicago White Sox and installed him as the team's manager. He also tried to purchase some star players, reportedly Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees and Rogers Hornsby of the Boston Braves, but was rebuffed in both instances and had to settle on other sources of talent. That turned out to be a blessing, as Evans bid $ 50,000 for Earl Averill, a center fielder who was then playing in the Pacific Coast League and would have a Hall of Fame career in Cleveland.
Anticipating a rise in attendance as a result of fielding a newly-competitive club, Bradley then set his sights on the construction of a new stadium, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, to be built on the shores of Lake Erie with a capacity of over 75,000. He boasted that "We'll fill that place often, every Sunday", but that would turn out to be completely wrong. The opening of the new park on July 31, 1932, took place at the height of the Great Depression and its adverse effect on attendance. The Depression also put a stop to Bradley's free-spending ways. By the end of the 1933 season, average attendance at home games was down to 5,817, making the cavernous new stadium appear completely devoid of fans. Not that it was beloved by anyone anyway: Babe Ruth called it a "cow pasture", local fans dubbed it "the mistake by the lake", while Connie Mack said the Indians had been wrong to leave League Park "the greatest place in the world to play baseball". By 1934, the Indians were back to playing the majority of their games in their old facility, keeping the new Municipal Stadium for Sunday games only. The stadium would remain an unloved albatros around the franchise's neck until replaced by Jacobs Field in the 1990s.
By 1933, Bradley, who himself had never drawn a salary for his position as team president, was forced to issue pay cuts to just about everyone in the organization while trimming payroll to a minimum. The team did have some good players in that era, including the aforementioned Averill who was a star from the get-go, and pitchers Wes Ferrell and Mel Harder. Still, the Indians failed to contend for the pennant and on June 7, 1933, Peckinpaugh was fired after five years at the helm, having compiled a record of 415-402 over the period. His relative longevity would be the exception over the course of Bradley's tenure, as he opened a revolving door of skippers that would earn Cleveland the title of "graveyard of managers". Retired Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson led the Indians to a 3rd place finish in 1934, but he had trouble relating to his players, especially his hurlers who were, contrary to the Big Train, mere mortals. Things came to a head in 1935, when Johnson fired players Willie Kamm and Glenn Myatt, who had been acting as de facto coaches for him (not hiring a full-time coaching staff was another of Bradley's cost-cutting moves). Kamm objected and pleaded his case to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who sent the matter back to Bradley. The owner tried to defuse the situation by offering Kamm a job as a scout for the rest of the season, but Johnson's position had been fatally undermined. The fans became openly hostile and on August 5, Bradley replaced Johnson with Steve O'Neill. Evans resigned at the end of the season.
Bradley hired legendary scout Cy Slapnicka to take over most of Evans' duties in 1936, and he used his talent for evaluating young players to recommend signing 17-year old phenom Bob Feller to a large contract and brought him immediately to Cleveland. The team had winning seasons under O'Neill in 1936 and 1937, although this was achieved with a disparate cast of players including a number of notoriously difficult personalities such as Johnny Allen, Rollie Hemsley and Jeff Heath. In spite of O'Neill's success on the field, he was demoted to a scouting position in 1938 as Bradley accused him of having tolerated insubordination in the clubhouse.
O'Neill was replaced by Ossie Vitt, who had found tremendous success as the manager of the New York Yankees' top farm club, the Newark Bears, and who had a reputation as a hard-line disciplinarian. The Indians finished 3rd in both 1938 and 1939, and players despised their manager who had a knack for "ridiculing [them] in conversations with writers, fans and opposing players and managers". Things came to a head in the 1940 season, when a team that had the horses to win the pennant went into open revolt against Vitt. On June 13, a committee of players approached Bradley asking him to fire Vitt "the sooner the better" if the owner wanted to win the pennant. Bradley stood by his manager, then word of the meeting leaked in the local press and the players were universally criticized as "cry-babies" for complaining about their manager. Vitt's authority was gone by then, with the players only taking orders from coach Johnny Bassler and Bradley refusing to admit his mistake and fire Vitt. The Indians lost the pennant to the Detroit Tigers on the last week-end of the season, and Bradley was convinced that "our players had literally kicked it away", as he told the Sporting News a few years later.
Bradley's optimism was shattered by the painful 1940 season, and he would progressively move into the shadows in the following years. Peckinpaugh was brought back to replace Vitt in 1941 as the team slipped to 4th place and attendance dropped by 200,000 fans. The next season, Peckinpaugh, who had moved up to general manager, appointed 24-year old shortstop Lou Boudreau as player-manager, a move that Bradley did not agree with, thinking that the pressure of managing would ruin the young player's career (he would turn out to be wrong on this count). Bradley was one of the few owners who argued that baseball should be suspended because of World War II, and at that point delegated all authority to Peckinpaugh while working on projects to support the allied war effort. In one of his most important moves, he arranged for an exhibition game between an all-service team and an American League all-star team at Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 that was attended by over 62,000 fans and raised a large amount of funds for the war effort. During that time, he also helped to found the American Association for High Blood Pressure, motivated by his brother's death from heart disease. The organization still exists today and gives out an annual award named after Bradley for scientists involved in research on high blood pressure.
Bradley's fellow owners were by now concerned that he would refuse to sell the team until he reached his long-held goal of returning the World Series to Cleveland, but that he had at the same time lost the fire needed to make this goal happen. They began secret negotiations to sell the team to Bill Veeck, a deal that was concluded for $ 1.6 million on June 21, 1946. Bradley tried to make a solo bid for the team, but was too late to put together an offer. After the sale was completed, Bradley found Veeck's showman tendencies distracting, as he had always adopted a very conservative approach to marketing the team. He thought that fireworks and other promotions were sideshows that distracted from the game and said so to reporters who asked for his views. Still, he could only rejoice when the team he had largely put together, led by Feller, Boudreau, Ken Keltner and Jim Hegan (and Veeck's key addition of Larry Doby) did win the World Series in 1948.
Alva Bradley's tenure at the helm of the Cleveland Indians had been largely successful even if devoid of the top prize, as the Indians were competitive year after year under his ownership. But those years were also marred by constant difficulties with his managers and his reluctance to fire them when they had obviously failed, making the job more difficult for the successor. He was a baseball purist and a conservative, but when he died in 1953, the Sporting News wrote that he had successfully steered Cleveland baseball through the difficult times of the Depression and World War II and left the city with a stronger and better franchise as a result. Not everyone shared this assessment, however: in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, he is described as a penny-pincher for the ages and his every move is explained as a ploy to save a few coins.
- Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella: "Alva Bradley", in The New Biographical History of Baseball, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL, 2002, p. 38.
- Fred Schuld: "Alva Bradley: Baseball's Last Purist", in Brad Sullivan, ed.: Batting Four Thousand: Baseball in the Western Reserve, SABR, Cleveland, OH, 2008, pp. 46-51.