CROSLEY - Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed a Nation
Review by Steve Wright - November 26, 2010
Among the great names of American entrepreneurs, innovators and success stories of the Industrial Age, Crosley is lost.
Though not as wealthy or influential as the Rockefellers, Fords, Carnegies or others, brothers Powel and Lewis Crosley made their mark on the early American consumer age -- yet they are fairly anonymous even in their home state of Ohio, not even a half century since their deaths.
I spent the first 35 years of my life in Ohio. My grandparents very well could have had an old Crosley radio.
I listened to superstation WLW, 700-AM and enjoyed the pageantry of Major League Baseball's home open played in Cincinnati -- a decades-old tradition in tribute to the first professional franchise in the history of America's Pass Time.
I may have vaguely heard that before WLW was bought up by a giant conglomerate, that a local Cinci family had owned the powerful, 50,000-watt radio station.
I'm sure my avid following of baseball history must have uncovered some mention of a Crosley Field -- the fabled old home of the Reds/Redlegs.
But it was abandoned and demolished by the time the Big Red Machine was terrorizing the National League from the early to mid 70s at the sterile confines of the new Riverfront Stadium on the Ohio River.
To give the Crosley name its proper place in 20th Century American history: Ohio author Rusty McClure -- son of Ellen Crosley McClure, the daughter of Lewis M. Crosley, the surviving direct descendant of the Crosley brothers.
Crosley (Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation) escapes the pitfalls that could have swallowed an author writing his family's own history.
But McClure, along with David Stern and Michael A. Banks have produced a highly-readable book worthy of its New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek bestseller status.
In Crosley, we meet brothers Powel and Lewis. Powel, older by two years, was the dreamer, schemer, restless innovator who used his boundless energy to tap into emerging American consumer trends before they became trendy.
Lewis was the steady, quiet brother -- a gifted engineer who guided a team of fellow engineers, designers, assembly line workers and others.
He was the rock-steady, can-do cog that oversaw every aspect of production -- whether the item being produced was a radio, automobile, large appliance, radio station or piece of equipment to help the Allies win World War Two.
A brotherly bond & putting a human face on greatness
Impacted greatly by their father's loss of fortune, home and status during the Great Panic of 1893, the Crosley brothers formed a bond that only could be broken by death.
However, each brother's reaction to their prominent attorney/investor father's virtual bankruptcy was as different as day and night.
Lewis remained a rock -- living in a walk-up apartment building when his brother was living the millionaire's life. Lewis was frugal, grounded, balanced to the point where even though he did the work of dozens of men, he was always home to his family by 5.
Powel was the risk-taker, the gambler, the one ready to leap off the tall cliff in hope of bighting onto the brass ring before falling into the abyss below.
Powel suffered many a setback in his 20s, losing large sums of cash and blowing up opportunities to the point where no one in the family could have imagined him a wealthy and powerful man just a few years later.
Through the 500-page historical journey, McClure puts a very human face on every twist and turn.
Before we see a single black and white image of Powel in the pages of Crosley, we see a powerfully-built and driven man using every bit of his 6-foot-4 frame to dominate business deals, press events and even clashes with the highest ranking members o Washington D.C.'s government power elite.
Lewis, also over 6-foot-tall and as capable man as one ever born in the hills above the mighty Ohio River, is warmly portrayed as the rooted family man with the soul of a Midwestern farmer, not a captain of industry.
Powel, the true moneymaker and leader of the brothers, was a family man too -- but flying about the U.S. to work hard on business and play hard at sea and the hunting range didn't exactly mean he was home for dinner at 5 every weeknight and around to play father and husband on the weekends.
Nevertheless, he was crushed by the death of his first wife and the eventual lost of his namesake son (Powel III) and grandson (Powel IV.)
Together, the brothers Crosley teamed to sell their famous radios to consumers around the globe.
They didn't invent radio, nor were they the first to sell them. But they strived to make radios much less expensive than the others on the market.
Author McClure dubs this Powel's business model of selling to "the masses, not the classes" -- a method of selling under-priced, well-built products and profiting on a high margin of sales.
It is little wonder with this Model T-like business plan that Powel himself put his formidable public relations and marketing skills toward creating a national image as "the Henry Ford of Radio."
To program those radios, and to have a means of advertising their product over the air waves, the Crosleys created one of the first radio stations in the nation.
WLW, right from the start, became a giant in the industry. Along the way, it launched the careers of the Mills Brothers, Doris Day, Andy Williams, Red Barber and countless others.
To this day, WLW is one of the most powerful and popular AM radio stations in America and it continues to create larger than life on-air personalities.
It also is flagship of the Cincinnati Reds, the team the Crosleys saved during the depression by purchasing the basically bankrupt local team.
When attendance was sagging, Powel fought with baseball's tradition-bound old owners and commissioners and eventually won the right to hold the first-ever night baseball game in 1935.
The brothers Crosley had earlier pioneered another mainstay of pro baseball -- the broadcast of a live game.
The Crosleys owned the Reds for nearly three decades, guiding them to a World Series victory and changing the name to Red Legs during the Cold War intensity of the mid to late 1950s -- when 'Red' sounded a bit too communist to a city that had forced the changing of streets with German names all the way back to WW1.
Automotive Dreams & Unheralded Legacies
Powel and Lewis Crosley also led the way toward more affordable home refrigerators and freezers -- buying the patent that allowed their brand to be the first with shelves -- a long-standard feature that was both innovation and domestic godsend when unveiled.
Lewis, who had served with the Army Corps of engineers, even worked on secret projects with the military to develop technology used in the European theater when the U.S. joined in the WWII battle.
Powel, who was always obsessed with the automobile, had crossed paths with the legendary Carl Fisher and his Indianapolis Speedway during Crosley's booms and busts as a young entrepreneur.
That obsession led Powel to sell the Crosley companies in 1945, so he could rejoin his consuming desire of being a major builder and seller of compact cars.
Always ahead of his time, Crosley was developing cars that could get 50 miles to the gallon -- at a time when a gallon of gas barely cost 20 cents.
Though some rival dealers -- particularly Nash with its Rambler -- had success with compact cars, Powel Crosley might have been too far ahead of his time.
A half century before hybrids and Smart Cars, Crosley was spending his millions on innovative engines, gas mileage and small car affordability.
But America, finally free of WWII and its rationing of everything, was ready to show its wealth and power...right down to the everyman who was willing to spend more for big engines, long fins and powerful sedans that commanded space and attention on the vastly expanding network of roads to suburbia.
Never able to satisfy his craving to be America's No. 1 automobile innovator, Powel Crosley died in 1961 at the age of 74 -- perhaps the most unheralded great entrepreneur and developer of consumer goods in the 20th century.
Lewis Crosley, the publicity-shy gentleman farmer younger brother lived all the way to 1978.
Living till a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday, Lewis got to witness back-to-back world series championships by the Reds under the guidance of the recently deceased Sparky Anderson and the on-field excellence of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and other stars.
Hometown heroes and world-class industry innovators, the Crosley brothers finally get their due in McClure's riveting ($24 hardback, Clerisy Press) 21st century publication: Crosley.
Wright is the author of more than 5,000 published articles on urban life, architecture, public policy, planning and design. He is active in working to make sure universal design, which provides barrier-free access to people with disabilities, is incorporated to the essential and rapidly-evolving practice of sustainability.