William Cornelius Bryan, Jr. was a minor league player and manager from 1884 to 1888 in the Southern, Northwestern, and Western Leagues, and the Western Association. He was also a war hero, world-class sprinter, a coach and athletic director at various universities, and a promoter of baseball in both the United States and Great Britain. In 1885 he organized the first Southern League. He was later involved in an unsuccessful effort to create a new American Association.
Will Bryan was born on September 9, 1852, in Zanesville, Ohio, to William and Elizabeth (Jenkins) Bryan, the second oldest of nine children. He left home by 1870. According to the Rockford (Illinois) Republic, he started playing baseball in 1873, and his first professional experience came with Chicago in 1874.1 Bryan enlisted in the US Army in 1875 in St. Louis. He was assigned as a hospital steward with the Department of Platte and subsequently attached to the Big Horn Expedition, which traveled to the Montana Territories in March 1876. On March 17, 1876, he was involved in the Battle of Powder River. For his actions during this battle, he was awarded a Medal of Honor in 1899.2 The citation reads:
“Hospital Steward Bryan accompanied a detachment of cavalry in a charge on a village of hostile Indians and fought through the engagements, having his horse killed under him. He continued to fight on foot, and under severe fire and without assistance conveyed two wounded comrades to places of safety, saving them from capture.”
Bryan was discharged from the army on September 24, 1878, from Fort Sanders.3
While stationed in Laramie, Wyoming, Bryan married his first wife, Alice Yund. Alice was born in Ohio around 1856. In 1870 she lived in Falls Township, Muskingum County, Ohio, which county includes Zanesville. Presumably Will met his future wife at home, prior to enlisting. After his discharge, it is not clear where the Bryans headed next. His obituary in the Spokane Review indicates he “was in charge of one of the first baseball teams to invade Salt Lake City, in 1878.” 4 It also mentions that in 1880 he was a member of the Bates hose team, a fire department squad in Denver composed of professional sprinters. “They cleaned up virtually all the professional sprint teams in the west.”
By the early 1880s, the family came back east. The Des Moines Register reported that his first year as a manager was in 1882, when he “organized the famous Council Bluffs [Iowa] team, which beat all comers that season.”5 There he played with and managed several past and future major league players, such as Harry Decker, Milt Scott, Bill Kuehne, Trick McSorely, and Hank O’Day. By the end of the 1882 season, Bryan was back in Colorado, playing first base for the Leadville Blues, where the Larimer County (Colorado) Independent described him as “the champion 300-yard runner of the world.”6 Throughout the 1880s, Bryan competed in match races for money at distances from 100 yards to 440 yards.
The Evening Star of Washington DC stated that in 1883 Bryan was playing in Omaha, Nebraska, but no box scores have been found to corroborate this.7 In December 1883, ads started appearing in the Omaha Daily Bee for Mrs. A. Bryan, dressmaker.8 This could be Alice Bryan, his wife. These ads continued into at least early February 1884. On March 5, 1884, the Omaha Daily Bee told how W. C. Bryan, runner and “base ballist,” returned to town and was promptly given a summons to court on charges of defrauding the Pacific hotel for an unpaid bill after a stay by a baseball club he was managing.9 The next day it was reported that he paid a fine of $25, as well as the hotel bill of $54. Just over a week later Bryan opened a temperance billiard hall at 1511 Farnam street in downtown Omaha. “Mr. Bryan is a gentlemanly and accommodating young man, and will conduct his place in such a manner that he cannot fail to secure a large percentage.”10 In early May he was a member of a committee reorganizing the Union Pacific club in Omaha,11 and by the end of May he was playing games for that club. While the Omaha Daily Bee thought he couldn’t fail, by late July 1884 he was playing for the Evansville, Indiana, club,12 and by the end of 1884, Bryan was in Nashville, Tennessee, where 1885 would prove to be a significant year in his life.
On November 25, 1884, Bryan convened a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, of various clubs throughout the south, at which the Southern League of Professional Base-Ball Clubs was organized. Clubs were placed in Atlanta, Augusta, and Columbus, Georgia; Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama, and New Orleans.13 Organizing the Southern League became Bryan’s lasting legacy in baseball. Bryan was to manage the Nashville club. While he may have been the founder of the Southern League, that did not stop him from leaving Nashville shortly after the season started, on May 19, 1885.14 The Des Moines Register later reported that Bryan left because of “the interference of penny stockholders.”15 He signed on with the club in Macon, Georgia (in the Southern League) later that summer, but was replaced less than one month later.16
During the summer of 1885, he also organized and competed in foot races. In September, he won a $2,000 purse in a 100-yard race in Nashville against W.W. Whitmore of Louisville. Later that month, he organized some sprint races in Macon.17
“W.C. Bryan, well known in base ball and sporting circles as ex-manager of the Macon and Nashville clubs, has been working up a foot race which took place there [Macon] last Wednesday. By one pretext and another the decisions in the various races was postponed until to-day, when its programme published for Wednesday would be completed. A good crowd went to the Base Ball Park this afternoon to witness the races, but Bryan failed to show up. Inquiry developed the fact that the ex-Manager had paid his board, taken his baggage and left. He forgot, however, to go around and settle a few little debts, among them bills for advertising in the city papers.”
Bryan appeared next in Charleston, South Carolina, in late 1885 where he was hired to organize a club for 1886. On December 10, 1885, his wife committed suicide. An article about her death in the Zanesville (Ohio) Times Recorder included excerpts from a letter William wrote to his brother Harry in late November.18 The letter described how Alice had gotten sick in early November, and since that time had “lost her reason, and is raving mad.” She attempted suicide multiple times, and she attempted to kill their baby multiple times, before she succeeded with her own suicide. She left her husband with two young children, including a son only five months old.19 After his wife’s death, Bryan came home to Zanesville with his children.20 He returned to Charleston, while his children were sent to live with his mother-in-law in Laramie.
Over the winter of 1886, Bryan put together a Southern League club for Charleston, including Gus Weyhing, Billy Alvord, Pit Gilman and Jimmy McAleer. In late March 1886, he broke his knee in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Quakers of the National League.”21 The accident ended his tenure as the Charleston manager. About one month after that, the Macon Telegraph reported that “Will Bryan, late manager of the Charleston team, was the victim of a murderous assault… He was struck over the head with a sand bag… and stabbed in the back and now lies in a precarious condition.” While the identity of the attackers was unknown, it was thought to have been related to the presence in Charleston of two professional runners whom Bryan had met some time previously in California.22 Bryan recovered from all of this in time to compete in a pair of races (100 and 200 yards), finishing second in each, at the Fourth of July celebration in Sioux City, Iowa, and later played a few games with the independent Sioux City baseball club.23
By mid-September 1886, Bryan was in Des Moines organizing a club to compete in the Northwestern League in 1887. His profile in the Des Moines Register described him as 6 feet 1 inch tall, 185 pounds, and “one of the fastest runners in the United States, having beaten almost all the fast men, and he has led all the fastest hose teams in America.”24 His time with Des Moines may have been his most successful stint as a manager. He put together a club including eight past or future major leaguers (Sy Sutcliffe, Billy Alvord, Guerdon Whiteley, Bill Van Dyke, Sam LaRocque, Harry Sage, Bill Hutchison, Peek-A-Boo Veach). The club started training in New Orleans in March 1887 and played exhibition games against several major league clubs, including the defending National League champion Chicago White Stockings. (Two scheduled games against the American Association champion St. Louis Browns were snowed out in St. Louis.) By mid-July, Des Moines was in third place, a handful of games behind St. Paul and Milwaukee. On July 13, Bryan received a telegram informing him his two-year-old son had died from the measles.25 On July 26, the “sensation in the base ball circles… was the announcement of the retirement of Mr. Will C. Bryan as manager of the Des Moines team.”26 No causes were given for his retirement, although there was speculation that he would be taking over as manager for Omaha in the Western League at a higher salary. While he umpired and raced in Omaha later in the summer, he did not play with or manage that ball club. The Des Moines club finished fourth in the Northwestern League in 1887, but the core of the team stayed together in 1888 and won the pennant in the inaugural season of the Western Association.
By November 1887, Bryan had moved to Hutchinson, Kansas, where his brother Harry lived, to manage a club there in 1888 in the Western League. He reportedly had offers to manage in Montreal (looking to place a club in the International League) and Wilkes-Barre (of the Central League) as well. This season, his final as a ball player, would prove to be another eventful and turbulent year for Bryan.27
In March 1888, the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Independent reported that Bryan married “an Omaha lady,” Lucy Belle Wetzel.28 On May 21, 1888, Hutchinson lost a game against Western League rival Leavenworth. The Hutchinson Call reported the next day, “The umpire was off in many of his decisions, and the home club suffered thereby. His rulings so incensed Manager Bryan that he acted in a manner that did not receive the approbation of the audience. The directors of the association met this morning, and suspended Mr. Bryan as manager of the club.”29 He was fired less than a week later. On May 30, 1888, Bryan was appointed to organize a team in Sioux City, which was expected to join the Western League in place of one of the clubs that was expected to collapse.30
In early June 1888, Bryan was arrested and taken back to Omaha. “Bryan was held by Justice Wade to the district court on the charge of bastardy, preferred by Nellie Stark, and has been absent from the city several months.”31 Bryan was brought to Omaha to preempt his arrest in Des Moines for seduction. After nearly two weeks in jail, Bryan was released on July 21 “after he atoned with his victim to the satisfaction of all concerned.”32 For those keeping score at home, that is three women in 1888 with whom he was linked romantically.
Less than one week later, Sioux City was accepted into the Western Association (and not the Western League as originally planned) in place of the St. Louis Whites, who folded on June 24. Sioux City played its first games on July 4, a doubleheader against Des Moines, losing both. By August, Bryan was wearing thin in Sioux City. During a series in Milwaukee, he spent two games complaining about umpire Andy Cusick. He finally refused to play another game with Cusick as umpire, at which point Sioux City forfeited their next game, failed to get the guarantee for the previous two games, and was fined by the Association.33 The Sioux City board of directors waited another week before firing Bryan and paying him to leave town. Bryan and his wife headed to St. Louis, where “Mrs. Bryan will receive $30,000 cash at St. Louis and $45,000 worth of property in Illinois.”34 While in St. Louis, Bryan ran several races against H.M. Johnson, the “champion sprinter of the world,” losing races of 100 yards and 200 yards and winning a race of 300 yards, and helped organize “The Professional Athletic Association of America” on October 20, 1888. In December 1888, Bryan and his wife fled to Canada so Bryan could avoid prosecution in Des Moines as the seduction charges there caught up with him again.35 It would be many years before Bryan would return to the United States.
From 1882 through 1888, Bryan had started at least seven clubs (Council Bluffs, Nashville, Macon, Charleston, Des Moines, Hutchinson, and Sioux City), founded an entire league, was fired from at least four positions, and had multiple interactions with the courts. He was also recognized as a world class sprinter and a first-class organizer of ball clubs. This was just Act I.
After going to Canada in December 1888, Will and Lucy moved to England, where he was hired to manage a club in Derby in the first professional baseball league in England.36 The man who hired him, Sir Francis Ley, was a wealthy factory owner who learned about baseball during a trip to the Unites States. He realized baseball, requiring only a few hours, would be more accessible to his factory workers than cricket, which could take days. Ley returned home to England, built the Derby Baseball Grounds, and helped form the first professional league in England in 1890, with the support of Albert Spalding. The Derby Grounds were later used by the Derby County F.C. until 1997. The Derby baseball club, formed in 1890, was the top team in England before pressure over the number of Americans on the club caused it to drop from the league. The baseball club lasted until 1898. Bryan’s son Harry was born in England in 1889, and daughter Margaret was born there in December 1891.
Bryan returned to the US in January 1894 to take charge of the track program at the University of Pennsylvania. In December 1894, the Philadelphia Times ran a profile of Bryan praising the conditioning methods he brought to the school and crediting them for the significant success that the University had in competition during the year.37
“The new ideas in Pennsylvania training are due entirely to the thoughtfulness of Instructor Bryan. To him can be awarded all the praise for the condition in which the men found themselves on the eve of great events… The part he has played in last year’s successes is no small one, and the results are but a reflection on his constant care and guidance of the men physically.”
Chief amongst the new techniques was the use of a steam bath, which Bryan had learned about during his time in England. In his second year running the track program, on April 21, 1895, Harvard defeated the Pennsylvania runners in the 4×440 race in the first ever Penn Relay.
Bryan stayed at Penn through the spring of 1896; his second daughter Gladys was born in Pennsylvania in 1895 or 1896. He was replaced by Mike Murphy, the track coach from Yale, at the end of the school year. That summer, he managed the ball club in Atlantic City.38 (He may have done this in previous summers as well.) In the fall, he moved to Chicago to run the athletic department at Northwestern University, where he remained until the spring of 1898. He resigned his position there to join a volunteer regiment from Illinois for the Spanish American War.39 He was given the rank of Captain, and after the war was often referred to as Captain Bryan.
Following the war, Bryan seems to have drifted for a bit. In November 1898, his name was mentioned as a possibility for participation in the American delegation to the Olympics in Paris as “a man… who is thoroughly familiar with amateur sports in this country.”40 In January 1899 he was reported to be heading to England to organize a squad of players to compete against the leading college and athletic clubs in American football.41 In February 1899, Bryan was granted a franchise in Peoria, Illinois, for the Western Association. The effort collapsed when he was unable to locate a ballpark for the team to play in.42 After the club in Peoria failed, he was connected with a group in Idaho prospecting for gold representing a syndicate organized by former senator John Thurston of Nebraska. 43
In August 1900, Bryan attempted suicide by morphine overdose in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland. He was previously living in Peoria with Major William Brackett, a friend from his days in the military in the 1870s, and under whom he had volunteered the previous year. Allegedly he had an affair with the major’s wife and was kicked out of the house, and the publicity drove him to attempt suicide. Bryan’s wife and family were living in Zanesville at the time.44
On January 17, 1901, a meeting was held in New York in yet another attempt to revive the American Association, with Charles D. White and William C. Bryan as the representatives for Washington, DC45 The new Association, supported by the National League, was to be composed of teams in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Louisville, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. (Not coincidentally, six of those cities hosted teams in the American League in 1901.) The nascent league collapsed in late February. Following this, Bryan went back to Idaho. In June 1902 his group discovered gold in the Stanley Basin. “None of the ore runs less than $200 a ton and much of it is flaked with gold visible to the naked eye and assays as high as $17,000 a ton.”46 Shortly after the find, Bryan applied to have a post office established near the claim, with himself as postmaster.47 Construction was started on a shaft house and stamp mill in September 1902.48
Bryan did not get rich from this endeavor. He returned to Washington D. C., where in 1905 he became the track coach at the George Washington Athletic Association.49 In 1907 he became the Athletic Director for the Colorado School of Mines and helped organize the Colorado State Baseball League. He also served as president of the Rocky Mountain division of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1907 and 1908. He remained with the School of Mines until 1916. From there he moved to California, where he worked at the University of Southern California and then at the University of California, Berkley. While at Berkley, he helped train the “Wonder Teams” under coach Andy Smith in the early 1920s. From 1920 to 1924, the Berkley football team won 44 games with no losses and 4 ties. He moved to the University of Idaho in 1927, where he worked with the track and football programs for two years before returning to California, where his occupation was listed as physical director at a gymnasium in the 1930 US Census.
Will C. Bryan died on March 27, 1933, in Ocean Park, California, at the age of 80. He was survived by his second wife and two daughters (his son Harry having died in 1913). He is buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. He was a man of many accomplishments in his life, but he was also a man of many flaws. When he had moved to England, the Omaha Daily Bee wrote, “Will C. Bryan, the sprinter ball tosser, is in England, and England has our sympathy.”50 Previously, the Evening Kansan (Newton, Kansas) had written, “He is troubled with “big head” from which his recovery is impossible.”51 He was fast: “At the age of 61 he won a gold medal for outsprinting every member of the Denver fire department.”52 Scoundrel might have been an appropriate word to describe him, at least in his younger days. Throughout his life, he remained dedicated to physical fitness and sports, and his impact was large wherever he lived.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
As Bryan moved from city to city, there were mini-biographies published in various papers introducing him to the public. These were useful in tracking his movements and pointing to where specifically to look for details. In particular, three of these proved most informative. The Des Moines Register published one in February of 1887. The Rockford (Illinois) Republic published one in 1899. The Evening Star of Washington DC. published one in 1901. His obituary in the Spokane Review also provided a lot of information on the later part of his life.
General references consulted for this biography included box scores for games from the 1880s as accessed through Newspapers.com and Geneology.com. US Census data was accessed through Geneology.com and Ancestry.com. Other family information was found at FindaGrave.com. Stats and records were collected from Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Information on early professional baseball in England came from this MLB.com article: https://www.mlb.com/cut4/baseball-in-england-has-a-fascinating-history
1 “Peoria Has a Good Manager,” Rockford (Illinois) Republic, March 4, 1899: 8. This biography was published when Bryan was trying to establish a club in Peoria for the 1899 season. No details about his time in Chicago were provided, and nothing was found to support the claim.
2 There is no reason given as to why there was such a long gap between the battle and the recognition.
3 Military records were found at Ancestry.com and http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/1575/bryan-william-c.php.
4 “Will C. Bryan, Sport Fan, Dead,” Spokane Review, March 29, 1933: 10.
5 “The Coming Champions,” Des Moines Register, February 10, 1887: 6.
6 “Fly Catches,” Larimer County (Colorado) Independent, October 14, 1882: 3.
7 “Will C. Bryan. Sketch of the Manager of the Washington Association Team,” Evening Star (Washington DC), January 24, 1901: 9. Bryan was helping organize a club in Washington for a revival of the American Association.
8 Omaha Daily Bee, December 22, 1883: 7.
9 “Welcomed Back,” Omaha Daily Bee, March 5, 1884: 6.
10 “Grand Opening,” Omaha Daily Bee, March 15, 1884: 8.
11 “A Strong Start,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 6, 1884: 5.
12 “The Evansvilles Beaten Saturday by a Score of 11 to 7,” Omaha Daily Bee, July 28, 1884: 8. This box score is from a game in Omaha between Evansville and Union Pacific, the Omaha club that Bryan played with earlier in the season. It is possible he was just filling out the team for Evansville, but the biographical sketch in the Des Moines Register in February 1887 indicates the he played centerfield with Evansville “alongside the great Thompson, now with Detroit, and had an offer to play field with Detroit that season.” This sounds like more than a single appearance in Evansville.
13 The final configuration included Birmingham, Alabama and Macon, Georgia in place of Montgomery and New Orleans.
14 “Baseball,” Nashville Banner, May 20, 1885: 3.
15 “The Coming Champions,” Des Moines Register, February 10, 1887: 6.
16 “Report in Favor of Memphis’ Expulsion,” Atlanta Constitution, June 5, 1885: 5, and “Nashville Ditto,” Memphis Avalanche, June 30, 1885: 4.
17 “Bryan’s Forgetfulness,” The Tennessean (Nashville), September 27, 1885: 8.
18 “Mrs. Bryan Suicides,” Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), December 11, 1885: 4.
19 “Died in Charleston,” Nashville Banner, December 16, 1885: 4.
20 “Personal,” Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), December 18, 1885: 2.
21 “Base Ball Accident,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1886: 8.
22 “Will Bryan Murderously Assaulted,” Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, April 28, 1886: 1.
23 “The Day We Celebrate. The Programme for the Greatest Celebration ever witnessed in Sioux City,” Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, July 4, 1886: 3.
24 “The Coming Champions,” Des Moines Register, February 10, 1887: 6.
25 “Personal and Social,” Des Moines Register, July 14, 1887: 7. FindaGrave.com has Bertie Bryan (1885-1887) buried in Greenhill Cemetery just a few graves from Margaret Yund, who died in 1902. There is a Joseph Bryan buried in the same cemetery in the Potter’s Field who died at age 38 in 1909; he was born about the right time to be Bryan’s other child from his marriage to Alice Yund.
26 “Manager Bryan Resigns,” Des Moines Register, July 26, 1887: 8.
27 “Baseball. All About Montreal,” Montreal Gazette,” January 19, 1888: 8, and “Base Ball Items,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, February 22, 1888: 4.
28 “Baseball,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Independent, March 15, 1888: 3. The identity of Bryan’s second wife was provided on Ancestry.com. Lucy Belle Wetzel was born in Illinois in 1872 and appears in the 1880 Census living in Lincoln, Nebraska with an uncle, as Lucy Whetzell.
29 “Base Ball,” Hutchinson (Kansas) Call, May 22, 1888: 3.
30 “Another Game Won,” Hutchinson (Kansas) News, May 30, 1888: 5.
31 “Will Bryan in Trouble,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, June 7, 1888: 4.
32 “The City,” Omaha Daily Bee, June 22, 1888: 8.
33 “Diamond Dust,” Sioux City Journal, August 19, 1888: 2.
34 “Baseball Notes,” Sioux City Journal, September 11, 1888: 2. The article notes that Bryan’s wife came of age on September 4 and inherit the money.
35 “Bryan Has Bolted,” St. Paul Globe, December 14, 1888: 5. His bondsman went to Washington to try and get Bryan extradited back to the United States, only to be told that a person cannot be extradited for the crime of seduction.
36 “The Baseball League,” Derby Mercury, May 21, 1890: 5.
37 “What Made the Varsity Win,” Philadelphia Times, December 16, 1894: 9.
38 “The Paradise of Health Seekers,” Philadelphia Times, June 7, 1896: 10.
39 “Condemn Hull Bill,” Chicago Inter Ocean, April 8, 1898: 2.
40 “Chicago May Get It,” Buffalo Courier, November 9, 1898: 10.
41 “Odds and Ends of Many Sports,” Philadelphia Times, January 12, 1899: 7.
42 “President Browne Talks,” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, April 14, 1899: 8.
43 “Diamond Liners,” Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, April 15, 1899: 7.
44 “Given a Divorce Hearing,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 7, 1900: 3.
45 “New Baseball Association,” New York Times, January 18, 1901: 8.
46 “Miners Crowd Perilous Paths,” The San Francisco Call, June 18, 1902: 2 and “New Gold Field in Idaho,” Omaha Daily Bee, July 8, 1902: 7. A short blurb about the claim was widely circulated in papers in late June 1902.
47 “Stanley Basin Float,” Silver Messenger (Challis, Idaho), July 1, 1902: 1.
48 “Stanley Float,” Silver Messenger, September 16, 1902: 1.
49 “George Washington Football Manager,” Washington Post, February 1, 1905: 8.
50 “Flashes from the Diamond,” Omaha Daily Bee, March 23, 1890: 9.
51 “Base Ball Notes,” Evening Kansas (Newton, Kansas), August 13, 1888: 1.
52 “Will C. Bryan, Sport Fan, Dead,” Spokane Review, March 29, 1933: 10.
William C. Bryan
September 9, 1852 at Zanesville, OH (US)
March 27, 1933 at Santa Monica, CA (US)
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