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Bill Bradley, a defensive master lost in time

The third baseman epitomized small ball in the early 1900s.

Bill Bradley Of The Cleveland Naps Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

History can reveal things to you if you spend a bit of time studying it. For instance, I didn’t realize until I started this little quest through the most valuable players (by WAR) in Cleveland baseball history that there is a long thread of incredibly good third base play throughout their history.

After Al Rosen and Ken Keltner in our last two editions, we find ourselves in the world of deadball baseball.

It was a weird time, where Home Run Baker led the league in dingers with like nine. In all this, with Nap Lajoie getting a team named after him, Cy Young emerging as a great “fireballer”, and so much more, rose a young, talented hitter named Bill Bradley. Earning 34.9 wins above replacement for Cleveland’s team of many names, he ranks 20th in team history and stands as the godfather of great hot cornermen for the franchise.

Bradley was a man out of time. In an era where scraping a run or two across the plate could ultimately secure the game, where a double and a pair of sac flies was considered a rally, Bradley wanted to blast the ball to all fields. He called this small type of ball “foolishness” and would have fit in perfectly in today’s game. For a few years at least, he practiced what he preached.

After a couple of seasons in the National League with Chicago, where he played a combined 157 games, Bradley moved to the newly minted squad in Cleveland, at the time known as the Blues because of their blue jerseys. Incidentally, considering how we’re already kvetching about what to call the team in the future, it’s refreshing to see a team just kind of say “screw it”, and do that.

For four years, from 1901 to 1904, Bradley was a menace to opposing hitters. He wasn’t just one of the most impressive young players in the league, he was simply one of the best. The aspiring Bradley and Lajoie formed a formidable duo that few other squads could match.

Bradley was third in all of baseball over those years with 23.8 WAR, buoyed as much by his .312/.348/.455 batting line as by his glove. Over those four years, he led the league in fielding percentage and turned the most double-plays three times. He was aces, as they say, a perfect type of player for the time. In everything I’ve read, he basically sounds like if we just transported José Ramírez to 1901. Brash, aggressive on the basepaths, excellent defensively, and looking for that Home Run Pitch (or Triple Pitch, I guess would make more sense for that time), and with an attitude to match.

It would have been fun to bookend 100 or so years of Cleveland baseball history with essentially the same archetype of player at third, between Bradley and Ramírez. That, sadly, was not to be. Four years of Bradley obliterating pitches came to a swift end as bad luck, a bastard from New York, and bad health bit him viciously over the next several years.

Prior to the 1905 season, he was diagnosed with “autotoxicity”, which sounds bad but actually means nothing. Literally, it just means your body is kind of bad now. That was medicine in those days, where the doctor comes in and says you have consumption, or the wasting disease, or like Babe Ruth that one year just a big ol’ bellyache.

For Bradley, it was just that he got sick with something or other, and his offense never got the chance to recover. If you look at the deeper numbers — or, in the case of the Deadball Era, anything beyond batting average and RBI — he was starting to fall off. His slugging percentage fell from .496 in ‘03 to .409 in ‘04, and his on-base percentage fell 12 points to .334, as well. Something was up, he was getting a bit worse.

Then he fell off a cliff, hitting just .268/.321/.353 in 1905 and piling up just 4.8 WAR, his lowest total in four years. Then he broke his wrist in 1906 because of a headhunting pitcher named Bill Hogg, missed half the season, and hit just .275/.324/.361. That’s still a combined 112 OPS+, so compared to his peers he was still an above-average bat and did pile up 7.8 WAR over those two seasons, but that’s a far cry from the MVP-caliber campaigns of just a couple of years prior.

If this had held up, and if he’d had something resembling modern medicine or splints, we’re still talking about a great player with the addition of his still-good glove. Whatever strength his Garbage Body Syndrome sapped, whatever bat speed the broken wrist stole, it didn’t reduce his ability to snag a hot liner or turn a double play. Bradley simply never recovered though, and the bat continued to fade.

In 1907 his batting average slipped to .223, then a dead cat bounce to .243 in ‘08, and that was the last time he’d see above the future Mendoza line as a regular player. He’d stick around in Cleveland for four more years, but the story of the incredible young talent was gone.

That isn’t the whole story though. As a younger man, when he was a budding superstar, Bradley mocked that small ball type of game that was the standard. Why bunt a guy over when you can just crush a triple to the fence, after all? With the fading bat, that quickly became a problem for him. While the defense was probably enough to make him stick at third, Bradley needed a reason to exist beyond just being a walking glove.

This is where it gets a bit neat. How often have we heard the guys in the booth talking about how a player who’s being shifted on, or whose weakness is being exploited, doesn’t just try to do the little things a bit more? Go the other way, move a man over, the whole defense thing, stuff like that. Bradley suffered through a miserable ‘05 and ‘06, and plainly saw the writing on the wall in a way that many (at times greater) players never have.

So what did he do? He committed to small ball in an absolutely absurd way. In an era where the sacrifice was just part of the game, Bradley set a record in 1907 with 45 sac bunts. He broke that record a year later with an astounding 60 sacrifice bunts to his name, which stands to this day as the second-highest mark in baseball history. Only Ray Chapman, also a name in Cleveland baseball lore, ever had more in a single season.

Ultimately the fading bat is what doomed Bradley’s career. As the reaction time faded at third, a guy who could barely crack .190 at the plate had no role. In his last three years in Cleveland, he earned 1.8 WAR and was a negative asset in two of those years. What’s interesting is just how much of a flash in the pan he was, how little he seemed to stand out in the history of a pretty great franchise.

One of the sources I’ve been using for these articles is a 1949 book called The Cleveland Indians by Franklin A. Lewis, who covered the team for the Cleveland Press from 1938 to 1958. It’s one of a series of books that were written around 1950 that gave a whole history of each team in the league. It’s pretty extensive, telling stories that newspapermen learn in a more narrative fashion than a typical history book.

Thing is, as far as I can tell, Bradley isn’t mentioned even once. He was around with Cy Young and Addie Joss and of course Nap Lajoie, all larger stars and ultimately legends of the game, so it’s possible he was glossed over. And he was out of the game by the time the author was entering the first grade, so he wasn’t someone that Lewis just kind of remembered from his youth. On top of all that, the Naps/Blues/Bronchos never won anything with Bradley, and finished as high as second just once, in 1908 when Bradley was already a shadow of his former self.

Maybe he was a good player on a bad team, filling up the box score but ultimately not electrifying the crowd nationally or pulling any publicity. Especially when playing in Lajoie’s shadow. But for him not to be mentioned seems a little off, like there’s just more to it. He was very good for a few years and a solid contributor for several after that. He continued to help the franchise after his days were over, doing some scouting for Cleveland in the ’20s and ’30s. He’s actually the guy that found the previous entrant to this list, Ken Keltner, and recommended him to the front office. Still, of the several non-Bradley-focused sources I’ve found (SABR, Wikipedia, some old newspaper articles I found online), he isn’t mentioned except in passing.

Sickness and injury are not a rare story for a faded talent, especially at the turn of the last century. Bradley was on the precipice of greatness for a time, and it stinks that he’s not well known outside Cleveland, and had his career shortened by influences outside his control.

More than anything though, what matters is how he recognized what it took to win. Whether it was using his prodigious bat to drive home runs or move a guy over when he couldn’t get it done anymore, it’s a rare thing for a guy to be that team-first. I’m still not sure if a sac bunt record is one to be all that proud of, but it’s something at least.

It helped him keep a job though, and may have helped the team win a couple more games. Seems to me that’s all he cared about. Not a bad epigraph.