Powel Crosley Jr.

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

Apparently young Powel Crosley Jr. had little interest in America’s pastime. Although he grew up in a baseball town, there is no evidence that he ever played the game. His favorite sports were hunting and fishing. His passions were automobiles, airplanes, and yachts. The restless energy, fertile imagination, and adventurous spirit that inspired his multiple careers as a business entrepreneur carried over when he unexpectedly became the owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Spurred on by his flamboyant general manager, Larry MacPhail, and steadied by the business acumen of his vice president and younger brother, Lewis, he became one of the most innovative owners in the history of baseball.

Powel Crosley Jr. was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 18, 1886, the eldest of the three children of Charlotte Wooley Utz and Powell Crosley Sr., a prosperous lawyer. At an age when many American boys were interested in baseball, young Powel was fascinated with automobiles. His father was convinced that the “horseless carriage” was a passing fad, but the son foresaw a great future for the vehicle. At 16 he tried building a car himself. His father bet him ten dollars that the boy couldn’t build a car that could run a quarter of a mile. The youngster spent eight dollars on parts and built a contraption that chugged along at five miles per hour and won him the bet.1

In 1905 the lad graduated from the Ohio Military Institute. He studied engineering at the University of Cincinnati for two years, but dropped out to start an automobile company in Connersville, Indiana, manufacturing an inexpensive car called the Marathon Six. The business failed, and Crosley went to Indianapolis to work for the Fisher Automobile Company. After breaking his arm while starting a car, he left Fisher and went to work for other auto manufacturers in Indianapolis and Muncie.

Crosley said, “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but it was jerked out before I could distinguish its taste from that of the common dime-store variety,”2

While working in Muncie he married Gwendolyn Bakewell Aiken on October 17, 1910. She was a 21-year-old daughter of a music teacher in the same Cincinnati neighborhood of Millcreek, where Crosley had lived as a child. The young couple had two children, a son, Powel III (born in 1911), and a daughter, Page (born in 1912). The Crosleys returned to Cincinnati around 1912.

Crosley eventually married four times. Gwendolyn died of tuberculosis in Bradenton, Florida, on February 26, 1939. In 1940 he married Marianna Wallingford, a marriage that ended in divorce four years later. In 1946 Crosley married a 34-year-old Cincinnati woman, Eva Emily Brokaw, who died on July 5, 1955. According to the New York Times, Crosley was married for a fourth time, a union which ended in divorce. The report did not give the name of wife number four.3

Still fascinated by automobiles, Crosley made several unsuccessful attempts to manufacture cars, until he found success in auto accessories. In 1916 he co-founded the American Automobile Accessory Company. He invented a tire liner, which became a best seller. Another successful product was a device that held five American flags and clamped to radiator caps. Powel had the imagination to invent popular gadgets and his brother Lewis could handle the business part of the operations. By 1919 the brothers had sold more than a million dollars worth of parts and were branching out into other products, such as phonograph cabinets.

Around 1920 young Powel Crosley III asked his father for a radio, an innovation that was becoming popular. Crosley discovered that radios were selling for $100 or more, which he thought was excessive. So he built his own. He started manufacturing and selling radios for $7, making radios affordable for millions. By 1924 the Crosley Radio Corporation was the largest radio manufacturer in the world. In order to encourage the purchase of radios, he started his own broadcasting station, WLW, in 1922. Launched as a 50-watt commercial station, its power was gradually increased to 50,000 watts. In 1934 he boosted the power to 500,000 watts, making it the most powerful radio transmitter in the United States. Many of the nation’s most famous entertainers performed live in the WLW studios each week. Among them were such stars as Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Jane Frohman, the Mills Brothers, Red Skelton, Merle Travis, and Fats Waller. With good reason WLW called itself “The Nation’s Station” and “Your Station of Stars.” Crosley also developed some of the earliest radio serials, called soap operas, sponsored by Procter and Gamble

In 1939 Crosley leased the 48th floor of the Carew Tower, Cincinnati’s tallest building, in order to construct a television station. The Federal Communications Commission granted Crosley a license for experimental telecasts, one of the first to be approved in the United States. Commercial telecasts started on a regular basis in 1947.

Meanwhile, Crosley had added refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and other appliances to his product line. In 1932 he started putting shelves in the doors of refrigerators. For several years his Shelvador refrigerators were among the best-selling models. When his patent expired, the practice was adopted by other refrigerator manufacturers. In 1929 Crosley became president of the Crosley Aircraft Company. He built the Crosley Moonbeam in Sharonville, a Cincinnati suburb. Only five Moonbeams were produced, as the Great Depression halted production. The only Moonbeam still existing is housed in the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in Lexington.

Crosley never lost his interest in automobiles. In 1939 Crosley Motors introduced a small car, with an 80-inch wheelbase, powered by a two-cylinder air-cooled engine, and priced at $325 to $350. Crosley sold over 5,000 cars, before the onset of World War II halted all automobile production in 1942. Crosley converted to war production, developing the proximity fuse (which enabled bombs to explode only when they reached a predetermined distance from their target), and furnished gun turrets, field kitchens, military radios, motorcycles, and a variety of tracked vehicles for the armed services. After the war, Crosley resumed building small cars, and sold about 75,000 autos before ceasing production in 1952. Among his innovations was the first use of disc brakes on an American automobile.

Of course, today’s baseball fans associate the name Crosley with America’s pastime, much more than they do with automobiles, radios, or refrigerators. Crosley acquired ownership of the Reds through another’s misfortune.

In the 1920s, ownership of the Reds was dispersed among many stockholders. Sidney Weil, a Jewish businessman whose ancestors had emigrated from Germany, was among them. Weil had started in his father’s livery business, switched from horses to automobiles in 1919, and had become owner of the largest Ford dealership in Cincinnati. Within 10 years it had become the largest dealership under one roof in the United States.4 He had invested in the stock market and accumulated what he described as “a small fortune.”5 He decided to acquire ownership of the Cincinnati Reds. In April 1929 he achieved his dream by becoming majority owner. Six months later the stock market crashed, taking most of Weil’s fortune down the tubes. Although he struggled mightily, he was unable to recover his losses. He declared bankruptcy in 1933. When he was unable to repay a bank loan of $100,000, the franchise was sold to Powel Crosley Jr., one of the bank’s directors.

The name of the Cincinnati ball park was changed from Redland Field to Crosley Field in honor of the new owner. It has been reported that Crosley wanted to employ Branch Rickey as his general manager, but Rickey was reluctant to leave St. Louis at that time. He recommended Larry MacPhail for the post. In 1934 MacPhail, persuaded Crosley to put the team's games on the air. An executive at Crosley’s WLW hired Red Barber as the club's first play-by-play announcer at $25 a week. On Opening Day he broadcast the first major-league game he had ever seen. Many baseball executives opposed broadcasting games, fearing fans would not pay to come to the ballpark when they could listen to the games free at home on the radio. Experience proved the opposite to be true. The broadcasts created new fans and enhanced the interest of veterans. Attendance increased, as did profits.

Under Crosley and MacPhail, the Reds introduced several innovations into the game. On June 8, 1934, the Reds became the first major-league club to travel by plane, when they flew to Chicago. The event drew very little coverage in the press at the time, probably because it was considered a novelty rather than the start of a trend.

Press coverage was extravagant a year later, however, when MacPhail and Crosley unveiled another innovation, one that was eventually to be copied by every major-league club. On May 24, 1935, the Reds hosted the Philadelphia Phillies in the first night game ever played in the majors. Playing under the lights was not new to baseball. The game had been played under artificial illumination for nearly half a century, but never in the major leagues. J. L. Wilkinson, who surpassed even MacPhail as an innovator, had added a lighting system to his portable ballpark for use in exhibition games at night. After he founded the Kansas City Monarchs, night games were sometimes played in the Negro American League. The Monarchs frequently played exhibition games against the House of David, which traveled throughout the country with portable lights mounted on their equipment truck. The first night game in Organized Baseball was played May 2, 1930, in Des Moines, Iowa, when the home team hosted Wichita in a Western League contest. The Sporting News, however, saw no future for baseball under the lights: “It would seem that night baseball is definitely on its way out. The mourners will probably be few. It was a noble experiment, but like so many others, it didn’t live up to the expectations of its supporters.”6

It took all of MacPhail’s considerable powers of persuasion to get permission from the conservative powers that ran baseball to try his project. Crosley contracted with Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company to design the lighting layout, the Ken Rad Company of Owensboro, Kentucky, to provide the Mazda lights, and General Electric to coordinate the project. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting at his desk in the White House, pressed a gold telegraph key, which signaled MacPhail to throw a switch lighting all 632 Mazda lamps on the eight light towers.7 Night baseball had arrived in the major leagues.

Excitement about the innovation obscured interest in the outcome of the game. For the record, Paul Derringer pitched a masterpiece, and the Reds beat the Phillies, 2-1. Reaction of the players was enthusiastic. Billy Sullivan Jr., the Cincinnati first baseman, said: “No pun intended, but there was electricity in the air, on the field, in the stands, and in the dugout. Ballplayers did not get blasé. They got fired up, too.”

Reporters for the Cincinnati Enquirer shared Sullivan’s enthusiasm. Jack Ryder wrote, “The theory that the players cannot see the ball well under the lights was shot to pieces by the staging of some of the finest defensive plays seen here this season.”8 His colleague James T. Golden waxed lyrical: “The field showed up in a more uniform light, green and tan, than it does in daytime….What clouds there were were so thin that the ball, when it flew high, shone through them like a bald head in a steam room. And when there was no mist, the sphere stood out against the sky like a pearl against dark velvet.”9

Not all of MacPhail’s fellow owners were optimistic about the future of baseball after dark. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Nationals (frequently called the Senators), did not conceal his disdain for Cincinnati and its fans when he opined, “There is no chance of night baseball ever being popular in the bigger cities. People there are educated to see the best there is and will stand for only the best. High-class baseball cannot be played at night under artificial light.”10 One might agree or disagree with the Old Fox about his opinion of Cincinnati and the Reds fans, but it is beyond dispute that he misperceived the future of night baseball. By 1990 every major league club had installed lights, and night games were more frequent than day games. Attendance at night games was much higher than day contests—more revenue for the owners.

Under Crosley’s ownership, the Reds recovered from the doldrums of the 1920s. They won National League pennants in 1939 and 1940 and copped the World Series in 1940, their first world championship since the 1919 Reds won a tarnished crown from the infamous Chicago Black Sox. After MacPhail left for Brooklyn in 1936, the Reds continued to improve under the leadership of Crosley and various general managers. As he aged, Crosley gradually took a less active role in club affairs, but retained ownership and interest in the club throughout his lifetime.

In 1929 Crosley had built a Florida retreat for his wife Gwendolyn on Sarasota Bay. The mansion, called Seagate, was the first residence built in Florida using fireproof steel frame construction that provided protection against hurricanes. Seagate is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been restored and is available for conferences and other events. The Crosley estate in Cincinnati, Pinecroft, has also been restored and is available for events.

In his later years Crosley indulged his passion for hunting and fishing. He spent every August fishing and hunting on an island he owned on Georgian Bay, Canada. He also owned Bull Island off the coast at Bluffton, South Carolina, where he sometimes spent the winter months. He was the proprietor of a large retreat in Jefferson County, Indiana, that is now called the Crosley Fish and Wildlife Area. He participated in fishing tournaments and was president of a sport fishing club in Sarasota. He also owned a house in Havana, Cuba, and another on Cat Cay in the Bahamas.

Powel Crosley died of a heart attack on March 28, 1961, at the age of 74. He had just returned to Cincinnati four days earlier from his winter home in Florida in preparation for Opening Day of the 1961 baseball season, a year in which the Reds were destined to win another National League pennant. His survivors included his daughter, Page (Mrs. Stanley F. Kess Sr.); his sister Edythe (Mrs. Albert Chatfield); his brother Lewis; five grandchildren and six great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son, Powel III, and a grandson, Powel IV, who was killed during the Korean conflict.

Powel Crosley Jr. was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Cincinnati near the graves of several family members.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the following sites were consulted:

www.ancestry.com

www.deadballindex.com

www.sabr.org

www.wikipedia.com

 

Notes

1 New York Times, March 28, 1961.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 “Sidney Weil: Owner of the Cincinnati Reds, 1929-1933,” in Stang, Mark, and Dick Miller (eds.) Baseball in the Buckeye State. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2004, 29.

5 Ibid.

6 The Sporting News, February 8, 1934.

8 Ibid,

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.