"Players today know that there is free agency, but they don’t know the backstory behind it.”
Watching baseball in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was talk of a new trend in sports. Many people believed we were at the advent of the era of the great two-sport professional stars.
Bo Jackson was doing ungodly things in Major League Baseball and the NFL. Deion Sanders was as good a corner as there ever had been and he was also contributing very well in baseball when he could. Remember when he played an afternoon game against the Steelers in Miami and made it to his Braves NLCS game in Pittsburgh later that night?
Brian Jordan excelled in both sports and guys like Josh Booty, DJ Dozier and Chad Hutchinson gave the NFL and Major League Baseball a try as well.
While many had tried in that era and in the years before, the trend never caught on and it’s now been 16 years since Drew Henson played two NFL games in 2008 to become the last two-sport star.
Not long before Bo and Deion, a future MLB All-Star was a record-setting Big 8 quarterback and although he didn’t do both professionally, his two-sport career at the University of Missouri was no less impressive and landed him in the Mizzou Hall of Fame.
That All-Star outfielder is Phil Bradley and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Bradley went to Missouri with the intent of trying to play both sports and not long into his first collegiate game, an injury thrust Bradley into the starting quarterback role and he simply became one of the most successful quarterbacks in school history.
After his four-year run, Bradley had been named the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year three times led them to multiple bowl victories and finished his career as the all-time yardage leader in the history of the Big 8, a record that stood for ten years.
He obviously was no slouch in baseball either. Bradley was an All-American outfielder who led Missouri to the Big 8 championship in 1980 as the tournament MVP and to berths in the NCAA Tournament in 1980 and ’81. By the time he was done, Bradley held multiple school records in baseball and football. His number 15 is retired in baseball and he was inducted into the University of Missouri Hall of Fame in 1990.
Bradley went on to a nine-year Major League Baseball career and remains a popular player in Mariners team history to this day. He just missed out on the glory years of Mariners baseball of the 1990s, but he was among a crop of talented youngsters who laid the foundation for that success.
Most recently, Bradley was named the 2023 Curt Flood Award winner by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
On this Super Bowl weekend, it’s appropriate that we feature someone who starred in baseball and football, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Phil Bradley.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bradley! Between your baseball and football accomplishments we have a lot to talk about, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
I started off in Little League playing in Virginia. My dad had a team that was more of an instructional team than one that competed a lot. From there, he put me into Little League across town in Petersburg, Virginia. He worked at Virginia State in Petersburg. When I was in sixth grade, we moved to Illinois and I continued on that path. It wasn’t what it is today with all the travel ball.
I always tell people that I played Major League Baseball, but if there was anything I could do again, it would be college football. Back then, that was the best experience ever.
You weren’t just a baseball star growing up. You had a fantastic high school football career and excelled at both at the University of Missouri. What sport would you choose as a favorite?
Baseball was always my favorite. I didn’t play football until I was in high school. Football was a means of getting a scholarship. I played well enough my senior year of football that I was offered a scholarship at the University of Missouri and I also wanted to play baseball, so I was only looking at schools that would allow me to do that. It turned out that my college football career was way more than I imagined. I didn’t know if I could play at that level or not, I just wanted a chance. Things just kind of fell into place and they fell into place rather quickly.
They sure did! By the time your career was over, you were the all-time yardage leader in Big 8 history and three-time Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year. Could you talk a little about your career as a record-setting QB at Missouri?
After my first fall training camp, I turned out to be the backup quarterback. I was an 18-year-old kid weighing 155 pounds and the backup quarterback at the University of Missouri. Our first game was against the University of Southern California. The second quarter of that game, our starter got hurt, so lo and behold, there I am. I didn’t know what to expect. The first play we called an option. I held onto the ball and made some positive yards, but in the process, I got hit from behind and fumbled. That’s how my college career started.
I started the next four games, went to the bench, then started the last two. I went on to have a very good career. If you would ask someone in Missouri about Phil Bradley from the University of Missouri, they would know me more for football than baseball. I always tell people that I played Major League Baseball, but if there was anything I could do again, it would be college football. Back then, that was the best experience ever. We played nationally ranked teams in and out of our conference. The schedule was very competitive and that’s why I went there. Their schedule was set up to where if they had a good year, they could compete for the national championship.
Phil Bradley #29 of the Seattle Mariners during a game against the Baltimore Orioles on May 31, 1987 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
You won two Bowl Games when that was a much bigger deal than it is today and you also had a huge win over Nebraska in 1978 when they were #2 in the country and lined up for a potential shot at a national championship. Was that Nebraska win bigger than the bowl victories?
No question about it. Absolutely. The Nebraska win capped off a season that we started by going into Notre Dame and beating Joe Montana. Unfortunately, we had two bad losses along the way that derailed us, but that 1978 team was the best team I ever played on. We had Kellen Winslow, an NFL Hall of Famer, we had Eric Wright, who has four Super Bowl rings with the 49ers. Our running back was James Wilder. We had numerous guys who went on to the NFL. My best chance of continuing with football was to go up to Canada to play. I had an offer from the Canadian Football League, but they needed a decision before the Major League Baseball Draft and I just felt like I couldn’t make that decision at that time. I put all my eggs into the Major League Baseball Draft basket and that turned out OK too.
You were only a couple of years removed from Missouri when Bo Jackson broke through as a multi-sport star and were still active at the time he was doing those great things. As someone who was a multi-sport star yourself, what are your thoughts about those few guys who could do that on the professional level?
I was only a multiple sport guy in college and that was difficult enough. Those guys were doing that professionally and doing it well. I wouldn’t even know what that would feel like. I can’t even imagine how talented you have to be to do what they were doing. I don’t know that I could have done that. Playing professionally requires a lot of preparation and work. I don’t know that I ever had the desire to play two sports. I was content playing baseball.
You were drafted by the Mariners in 1981 when the franchise was just a few years old. They hadn’t had that much success to that point, but you were part of a group of really talented young guys. What was your experience like being drafted and coming up through the Mariners system?
It was probably more a blessing to be a young player in the Mariners system at that time than a curse. The Major League team wasn’t doing well, but that gave younger players opportunities quicker. We got more chances and sooner chances than we would have in a more established and successful organization. By being with the Mariners, it accelerated our paths to the Major Leagues.
Phil Bradley #29 of the Philadelphia Phillies bats against the Pittsburgh Pirates during a game at Three Rivers Stadium in 1988 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
You came up in 1983 for the first time around the same time as guys like Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Harold Reynolds and some other really talented guys. What was it like breaking through with those players and giving hope to Mariners fans for the first time?
I came up briefly in 1983 and then the 1984 season was my first full year. It was when some of the prospects were getting an opportunity. Management decided to transition to the future. We still had some veterans, but some of the young guys were getting a significant opportunity. I was a backup, but Alvin Davis was a starting player. Mark Langston and Mike Moore were in the starting rotation. Moore and Langston were in the same draft as me in 1981, so to get there in 1983 that happened pretty quickly. We just started to show the signs of the team trying to go in a different direction.
Your second full year in 1985 was a breakout season for you. You hit .300 with 26 home runs and 100 runs scored. You had 33 doubles, 22 steals and 88 RBIs too. You made your only All-Star Game in 1985 too. What was that experience like being a Major League Baseball All Star?
There were 20 future Hall of Famers in that game. That was my second full year, so walking into the clubhouse was very intimidating. I had a half of season like those guys, but I wasn’t one of those guys. These were perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. I’ve looked at that roster, and I’m sure there were other rosters that looked like that, but that game was something else. And it was both clubhouses too.
You played for a couple of tough managers in Dick Williams and Frank Robinson. What was your experience like playing for those guys?
They were tough guys that expected you to come to work to do your job. There wasn’t a lot of patting on the back or relationship building. They had a job to do and you had a job to do. Some players didn’t adjust to that very well. But back then we didn’t worry about the things you see players worrying about today. We worried about whether or not we were in the lineup. If we were in the lineup, that was an opportunity for us to put up numbers and get paid. I sometimes talk to players I played with or against and the phrase that always comes up is, “Could you imagine?” Could you imagine these guys playing for Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, Frank Robinson or Billy Martin? It’s a different time and different era. I’m not saying the managers today or better or worse, they’re just different. It’s a different time and that’s just how it is.
Phil Bradley of the Baltimore Orioles bats in 1989. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)
Very different indeed. I wanted to ask about your relationship with Mariners fans too. Anytime I see some of the young Mariners stars from the ‘80s brought up, fans really have a positive reaction. They seem to really love guys like yourself, Alvin Davis, Langston, Harold Reynolds and that era of Mariners baseball. How do you look at that time in Mariners history?
Well the frustrating thing about playing for the Mariners back then was that as soon as we started to get some traction, we never got what we needed as a team to move to the next level. Oftentimes, they would make trades that would set us back. It was always a running joke that every fall, you could look up and see former Mariners in the postseason. Those were guys traded at the deadline and went on to do bigger and better things. It was frustrating to know we had those guys and if management would have added to our team, we could have gotten to that next level. I got to a point where I got too expensive for them, so they traded me. But when I look back at my career, my best days were with the Seattle Mariners.
Indeed. When I think of Phil Bradley I think of those great young stars in those awesome Mariners uniforms of the 1980s. But as you mentioned, you were traded to the Phillies and then the next year traded to the Orioles. Your one season in Baltimore was that shocking 1989 season when they had a 33 game improvement from the previous year. What was that season like for you?
I always say that was the worst team I played on, on paper, but the best team I played on, on the field. That’s why the game isn’t played on paper. If you sit down and look at the names on the roster and match them to any of the other teams I played on, you’d say the 1988 Phillies roster was better as were the rosters in Seattle. But at the end of the day, it just all worked for us in Baltimore. It didn’t matter who we had or who we played, it just worked, day in and day out. We had lost 107 games the year before and there were no expectations. Then [in 1989] we came down to the last series of the year and still had a chance. In fact, in two of the games we were winning in the latter stages of the games, but couldn’t hold on. We came up two games short
It was a really memorable season that is still talked about today plenty. Moving forward to 2023, I saw that you were the Major League Baseball Curt Flood Award Winner last year. Congratulations on that! Could you talk about what it means to win an award of that magnitude?
The MLBPA decided to start a Curt Flood Award about four years ago to honor and reflect on the sacrifices that Curt Flood made. In a lot of ways, Curt Flood gets overlooked. If you read about him and what he did, every professional athlete who plays a team sport that has a collective bargaining agreement should thank Curt Flood for that. Without free agency, you’d have no opportunity to choose where you’d want to work. He gave them the opportunity to negotiate a bigger contract. Back then, he sacrificed everything so that people could do that. To be associated with that kind of commitment is a pretty special thing. Players today know that there is free agency, but they don’t know the backstory behind it. They don’t know that there was a time where there was no free agency.
That’s true, Curt Flood should be a Hall of Famer for his play and his sacrifices, but that’s a different story. For now, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your stories. It’s been incredible talking baseball with someone who I really admired growing up. Last question for you, when you look back and reflect on your career in baseball, what are some thoughts that come to mind?
There were two things that happened to me in my career that still get talked about. First, being the 20th strikeout in Roger Clemens 20-strikeout game in 1986. I’m not the least bit ashamed of that. There’s a saying that when somebody makes history, it’s always gonna be at the expense of someone. Roger’s stuff was electrifying that night. We were in a terrible stretch of striking out as a team. We were striking out at least 10 times as a team every night. The funny thing is that we were winning that game late. Dwight Evans hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to win it. How would that game have been remembered if we would have beaten him that night? I really would like to know how hard he was throwing that night too, because I never saw him throw that hard before. We faced him later in the year and I had three hits off him.
The other one was being the leadoff hitter the first night game at Wrigley Field. That game got rained out, but it happened and I was proud of that. I actually homered that first at bat, so I have the first home run in Wrigley Field at night, unofficially. You know, I played in Japan too and if you added up my home runs in the majors and Japan, I ended up with 99. That home run in Wrigley would have been my 100th home run.