This article was written by Jim Rygelski
This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles
This article was originally published in “St. Louis’s Favorite Sport,” the 1992 SABR convention journal.
George Washington Bradley, author of the National League’s first no-hitter, left his mark on St. Louis baseball in a couple of important ways. At the beginning of his career he helped cement the city’s interest in the “national game” by being the ace of its first professional nine; toward the end of it he helped prevent St. Louis from claiming its first major league pennant.
Throughout a career that saw him play nearly every position, Bradley remained a dependable player who avoided the vices that curtailed not only the careers but also the lives of some of his contemporaries. A look at his life shows that ballplayers then, as now, wanted to be paid handsomely, wanted to play for a team close to home, and wanted to show they still had it when others had concluded that their best days were long gone.
Bradley was born July 13, 1852, in Reading, Pennsylvania. A right-handed thrower, he first pitched professionally for a club in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1874. The following season he was a member of the St. Louis Browns, one of two “Mound City” teams entered in the National Association, American’s first professional league. When the N.A. was reorganized as the National League for 1876, Bradley was counted on heavily to help the Browns bid for the league’s “whip pennant.”
“It must suffice to say that the chief credit of most of the victories gained by the ‘Brown Stockings’ undoubtedly belonged to Bradley’s wonderfully effective delivery,” read an 1881 account of his life in the New York Clipper, then perhaps the most respected source of baseball information.
Making that wonderfully effective delivery was no easy task. Hurlers then were required by the rules to put the pitch where the batter wanted it (either a high ball or a low ball) by a submarine- style motion requiring the hand to pass below the hip while pitching from a ground-level box just over 45 feet from the plate. Pitching records from that era had none of the detail that today’s do, but it appears that Bradley was indeed effective. In 1875 he was in the box for 33 of the Browns’ 39 wins, and in 1876 he pitched all but four of the team’s 577 innings, helping the Browns win 45 of their 64 matches, good enough for third place. (NL standings were then based on games won, not percentage, and the Browns won two fewer games than Hartford and seven less than Chicago.)
“The batting of the visitors was weak, as it usually is against Bradley’s pitching,” read an 1876 newspaper account of one of his games. “The pitching of Bradley may, therefore, be said to have been very effective, for the Louisville boys are all big men and hard hitters,” read another account from that season, this one after he and the Browns had whitewashed Louisville by a 3-0 score.
A shutout was a team effort in those days, and no finer example exists of this from that season than Bradley’s and the Browns’ 2-0 win over Hartford at St. Louis’s Grand Avenue Park on July 15. Sportswriters of the day gave much ink to the fact that this was the third straight shutout the Browns had registered over Hartford that week but barely noted (and usually well into their stories) that this was a no-hitter. (J. Lee Richmond, who tossed a perfect game in 1880, confirmed in an interview with The Sporting News founder Alfred Spink that this was a prevailing attitude, noting that he didn’t recall “any particular fuss was made about [the perfect game] by any newspaper.”)
Bradley pitched 16 shutouts that season, still the big league record, and the modern encyclopedias list his earned-run average as a league-leading 1.23. The 1877 Spalding Guide, using the standards of the time, lowers that to 1.12, still the best in the NL Bradley was, of course, aided by fine fielding support and by the rule that allowed the home team to choose the ball. Since the Browns stressed defense, they usually used a very dead ball at their Grand Avenue Park, and 11 of the shutouts were registered at home. The league adopted a standard ball the following season.
Bradley had made other news just two weeks before his no- hitter. Wanting to play closer to home, he had signed a contract for 1877 with the Athletics of Philadelphia. The league’s constitution allowed players to sign during the season with a different club for the following year just as long as they honored their current commitment. Signings such as Bradley’s were common until the NL instituted the reserve clause in 1879.
The Athletics, however, didn’t finish their 1876 schedule and were tossed out of the league because of it. Bradley was then lured to the champion Chicago White Stockings for 1877. On his first appearance in St. Louis in a Chicago uniform, Bradley received “a rather hearty round of applause,” then beat the Browns 4-2. But neither Bradley nor the Chicagoans fared well in the NL second season. The White Stockings tumbled to fifth place, and Bradley lost 23 of his 41 decisions. He was not re-signed.
After a year with a minor-league team in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was back in the NL in 1879 with Troy. It was the last year that he was primarily used as a pitcher, and Bradley was in the box for 40 of the 56 Troy losses.
The beginning of the new decade found Bradley with a new team, the Providence Grays, and a new role, that of “change pitcher” behind the club’s ace, John Montgomery Ward. When he wasn’t pitching, Bradley usually played third base, and he was there when Ward recorded the majors’ second perfect game, on July 17, 1880.
After two undistinguished seasons in Cleveland, the 31-year-old Bradley finally made it to Philadelphia in 1883, this time signing with the Athletics of the American Association. The Athletics held a slim lead over the St. Louis Browns most of the summer and had a 22-game margin with just seven games left to play when they came to St. Louis in late September.
In the first game of the series, Bradley started at third base but was switched to center field after making four errors to help the Browns stay close. But in the bottom of the ninth he redeemed himself with a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch to thwart a St. Louis rally and preserve his club’s victory. After the Browns won the second game, Bradley was the surprise choice to pitch the finale of the three-game showdown series.
Six years later he visited St. Louis and shared with The Sporting News his reflections on that September 23, 1883, game: “I remember how the Browns smiled when they heard I was going to pitch. Oh what pie and oh what pudding. When I got in the square, however, it was though I was born again. ‘Go in, old Brad,’ I heard someone say, ‘and let the folks know you have come to life again.’ Well, I went in and you know the rest.”
The Browns got only three hits and didn’t score until the eight inning. But then it was too late, as the Athletics won easily 9-2 and hung on to edge St. Louis by one game for the pennant Bradley was rewarded with his release. “[They] sent me adrift just as you would a broken-down horse,” he told The Sporting News. “But that was strictly business, you know.”
He pitched credibly for Cincinnati in the short-lived Union Association of 1884, suing the club for $3,100 (quite a princely sum in those days) that it owed him when it went out of business, eventually settling for about half. He called it quits as a player after one game with Baltimore in 1888.
He turned to minor league managing and, in the 1890s, police work in Philadelphia. An 1899 account of Bradley said, “He looks well and as young as he did 20 years ago.” As a police officer, he often pulled duty at the two 20th century ballparks in Philadelphia.
A non-smoker and non-drinker, Bradley lived in Philadelphia until age 79. He died on October 2, 1931, during the World Series between the Cardinals and Athletics, two teams for whose precursors he had been such a star.