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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,115

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This is the grave of Powel Crosley.

Born in 1886 in Cincinnati, Crosley grew up in a well-off suburban household. He was one in a long line of American tinkerers and given that he was a kid when the automobile took off, this new technology fascinated him. He became obsessed with how cars run. His parents sent him to Ohio Military Institute for high school and then he started at the University of Cincinnati, majoring in engineering. He then switched to law, which his father thought was a more solid career choice. But he dropped out after two years to go to his beloved automobiles.

At first, Crosley supported himself by working for a bank, but by 1907, he was seeking full-time work in the automobile industry. He formed a company and got investors to build an early car called the Marathon Six. This was intended to fill a gap at the low end of the luxury car market, where people such as he and his family could purchase it. He was able to raise a good bit of money but this happened just as the economy crashed that year and the company died with it.

But that wasn’t going to stop Crosley. He moved to Indianapolis and got a job with Carl Fisher, who ran Fisher Automobile. He was just working as a mechanic there, but that was how you really learned about cars in these days. Consider it an investment in himself, to use the parlance of our times. But starting a car could be dangerous in these years and while he was starting one at Fisher’s dealership, he broke his arm. He spent the next few years bouncing between auto companies, sold advertising for Motor Vehicle, which was an early trade journal, and then worked for the Inter-State racing team based out of Muncie, Indiana. In 1911, Crosley came back to Cincinnati. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, our ambitious young gentlemen was definitely not having the success that he had hoped. That would continue for several more years. He supported himself doing this and that while continuing to work for success in the automotive world. He finally had some success in 1916, when he co-founded the American Automobile Accessory Company. Among the things that he produced for cars was a successful tine liner and, huge eyeroll, a flag holder with five American flags that could clamp to radiator caps.

But in the end, it wasn’t cars that made Crosley rich. He did move ahead with his auto business and did quite well. But it was his diversification into other consumer products that really changed his life. Specifically, he became an early radio manufacturer. Still the tinkerer, in 1921, he and his son made their own radio that they could mass produce relatively cheaply. This was a gigantic success and within a couple of years, he was the largest radio manufacturer in the world. This was a moment when radios were rapidly accelerating in their convenience and power and Crosley Radio Corporation led the pack. He also started buying the radio airwaves and created the first radio station empire. WLW in Cincinnati was the first mega-station in the U.S., ahead of WSM in Nashville, far better known today because it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. WLW may not have released country music to the masses, but it did send out the pop music of the generation. Weekly shows out of Cincinnati might allow listeners to listen to Rosemary Clooney or Red Skelton or Doris Day. More risque, they might even let listeners hear Fats Waller, a rare moment when whites might hear Black music.

So now Crosley was a millionaire. And he wanted to have fun with it. So he bought the Cincinnati Reds. The team was in real trouble when he purchased it in 1934. Its owner, Sidney Weil, had lost all his money in the Great Depression and while these weren’t necessarily peak times for Crosley either (who had money to buy radios?), he saved the team from probably being moved from the Queen City. Naturally, he named the field after himself. Equally naturally, he sought to put Reds games on the radio and was uniquely positioned to make that successful. He was one of the first owners to broadcast his games. He also pioneered the use of electric lighting in 1935 so that the Reds could play night games. Attendance soared as people could actually go to the games and then follow them when they couldn’t go on the radio. Within a few years, all teams had radio broadcasts and most teams had electric lights, although the Cubs resisted this for as long as they could because they are a loser franchise made up of loser fans who like losing. Crosley generally lived the life of the rich sportsman generally, going on long hunting and fishing trips, building airplanes, and of course still loving auto racing.

In fact, now that Crosley had money to burn, he went back to his first love. He opened Crosley Motors in 1939. The cars were generally considered to be OK, but not great. He had three factories in Ohio and Indiana and produced over 5,000 cars in the next couple of years. That stopped during World War II when Crosley moved his factories to making military vehicles like the other automakers. In fact, he was involved in the making of all sorts of necessary military technologies during the war because he had so many different factories that could do so many different things. He brought back his own vehicles after the war. He had a very interesting angle–fuel efficiency. He claimed his cars could get 50 miles per gallon. But in the Cold War, Americans didn’t care. Fuel efficiency ended and it became a point of pride to have a gigantic vehicle that burned a ton of gas. Crosley had to end his dream in 1952.

Crosley was a complete racist. In 1945, his factories employed an entirety of 7 Black workers out of many thousands. I assume those were janitors, though one was his personal porter. The government had to intervene here and the U.S. Employment Service began sending Black workers his way as early as 1943. But he wouldn’t hire any of them and the government didn’t do anything about it. When a lawsuit was brought against him in 1945, the company’s response was that they couldn’t hire Black workers because most of their white workers were recent migrants from Kentucky and Tennessee and wouldn’t work with them and didn’t the federal government want to win the war? I assume he also hated unions; all these guys did. But I haven’t seen any information on the issue.

Crosley retired by the mid-50s, selling his corporate assets to AVCO. He remained on the board for several years but mostly engaged in his sportsman activities. Eventually, he deeded his lands for wildlife refuges, both at the state and federal level. That includes Bull Island in South Carolina that became part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which today provides critical habitat for endangered species such as the piping plover and loggerhead turtle.

Crosley died in 1961 of a heart attack, at the age of 74.

Powel Crosley is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other baseball owners, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Former Rangers owner Brad Corbett is in Fort Worth and the disastrous Phillies owner of the 1930s and 40s Gerry Nugent is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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