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Powel Crosley Jr.: Innovator, sportsman dreamed big

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

Powel Crosley Jr. once called himself a man of '50 jobs in 50 years' - a description that was, if anything, a numerical understatement.

The son of a Walnut Hills lawyer, Crosley was a manufacturing magnate and inventive genius who made phonographs, scalp massagers, radios, canoes, furniture, airplanes, auto accessories, refrigerators, baby carriages, washing machines, stoves and bed-cooling systems.

As a young adult, he flitted from city to city and job to job, working as a chauffeur, telephone repairman, bond salesman, publicity man, car salesman, advertiser and mail-order salesman. He was poised to become a race driver at Indianapolis until he broke his arm cranking a car. In his later years, he tried breeding race horses, cows and even miniature donkeys.

But, of his many jobs, three made his fortune and reputation:

In the early 1920s, he became the world's largest manufacturer of radios.

Realizing he could sell more radios if buyers could tune in quality entertainment, he developed the world's most powerful station, WLW - which reached its 500,000-watt peak in 1934 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt flipping a gold-plated telegraph switch in the White House.

He bought controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds in the 1930s and saw the team win two National League titles and one World Series - in 1940 - during his ownership. He bought the team when it was on the verge of bankruptcy to keep it from moving out of the city - and ensured that it would remain in Cincinnati even after his death in 1961.

With the Reds expected to change ownership this year, Crosley's philosophy of owning a major-league franchise is worth remembering:

'I have no desire to make money out of the Reds, and I'm willing to spend money whenever it will help the club,' Crosley said.

But Crosley's lifelong obsession was to build a small, economical car for the masses - a dream born at age 12 when he and his brother won a $10 bet with their father by powering a four-wheeled wagon with an electric motor and battery.

He made several failed attempts - the first in his 20s when he headed a company that folded after turning out one prototype - before finally introducing the Crosley.

The 1939 Crosley, with its chubby profile, cost $325, promised 50 miles per gallon of gas and was displayed in department stores. World War II interrupted production, but after the war a snazzier version - patterned after the small, lightweight cars of Europe - sold for $850 and got between 30 and 50 miles per gallon.

The two- and four-cylinder engines were built in Camp Washington; the cars were assembled in Marion, Ind. - chosen only after Crosley was unable to find a suitable factory site in Cincinnati.

Crosley hated his cars to be called miniature and would often fold his 6-4 frame behind the wheel to prove that they were 'big enough for anyone.'

Unfortunately for Crosley, his car was 30 years ahead of its time. In the days of cheap oil and post-war euphoria, Americans wanted their big gas-guzzlers from Detroit. Crosley sold about 75,000 cars before closing down the operation in 1952 - he was losing about $200 on every car that rolled off the assembly line - and selling his plants to the General Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron.

Lewis Crosley, whose $8 in savings from his summer job had bankrolled his brother's childhood bet with their father, said the car failure broke his brother's heart.

'It was the first thing he failed on, really,' Lewis Crosley said.

In most of his ventures, though, Crosley had the Midas touch, and perhaps never more so than in his hugely successful radio businesses.

In 1921, Crosley's 9-year-old son, Powel III, begged his father for a 'wireless' outfit. When they visited a Cincinnati store, they found one-tube radios selling for upwards of $120 - roughly 10 times the average weekly wage at the time.

Thinking that was a rather pricey toy for a boy - or anyone - Crosley walked out of the shop with a 25-cent book called 'The ABC of Radio.' After reading it, he spent about $25 on a tuning coil, headphones, a crystal detector, a condenser and other parts and assembled a set himself.

Though all he could pick up with it was a little music from local amateurs, Crosley was convinced the idea had a future. He hired two University of Cincinnati engineering students to develop a table-top radio that could be mass-produced for about $20. The goal underlined Crosley's governing business principle: to 'make available to the average man, at prices he could pay, the luxuries which, heretofore, only the rich man could afford.'

Within a year, he was the world's largest radio manufacturer, daily producing 2,000 sets named Harkos - based on the word 'hark,' meaning to listen - in Northside and Camp Washington.

To build demand for his receivers, Crosley began broadcasting records from his 78-rpm collection over a 20-watt transmitter in his College Hill home, using an experimental license with the call letters 8CR. He later changed the call letters to WLW. America's first 50,000-watt commercial station, WLW briefly operated at 500,000 watts - with a signal that reached coast to coast.

Nicknamed 'Cradle of the Stars,' WLW introduced quiz shows, soap operas and mysteries, with a talent roster that included Doris Day, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Rosemary Clooney, the Mills Brothers, Ma Perkins and Red Barber. Crosley sold the station for $22 million in 1945 to Aviation Corp. (AVCO), which carried WLW into television.

By the time he died at age 74 in March 1961 at his Mount Airy estate, Crosley was famous as the 'Henry Ford of Radio.' But in his heart - and despite his remarkable successes - he would have been happier with just the first half of that tag.

Publication date: 04-08-99

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