By Trey Williams
Robert Lee Bradley became far better known as “Little Joe” Bradley while making a name for himself in the early 1970s at Science Hill. This year, Bradley will take his place in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
Bradley, listed at 5-foot-6 and 155 pounds as a senior (class of ‘73), was a big reason the Hilltoppers succeeded in football, basketball and baseball.
Bradley, who was elected to the Science Hill Athletics Hall of Fame this year, led Science Hill’s 1972 state tournament baseball team in batting and was the point guard on back-to-back state tournament basketball teams his junior and senior seasons. The late Elvin Little, Bradley’s basketball coach, often said he thought Science Hill could’ve won the state in 1973 if Bradley hadn’t injured his ankle against Greeneville in the region tournament.
“Little Joe took care of the basketball, he played good defense and he was tough,” Little said. “I believe we would’ve won the state.”
Bradley tried desperately to overcome the injury.
“They tried to get me ready,” Bradley said. “I went out to ETSU with Coach (Jerry) Robertson about every day trying to get my ankle to go down. Yeah, they even tried to make a special shoe for me, but it just didn’t work out. I couldn’t run.”
Little’s competitive spirit, Bradley says, was a big reason for the Hilltoppers’ success.
“Coach Little was awesome,” Bradley said. “We would play defense. We weren’t very tall. I think Paul Faw was our tallest player and he was probably 6-2 or 6-3, maybe. But man, I tell you what, we’d get after it.”
Science Hill defeated top-ranked Chattanooga Howard in the state quarterfinals in Knoxville without Bradley. But it lost 57-54 to Gallatin in the semifinals after being tied 54-54 with possession coming out of a timeout with 12 seconds to go.
Gallatin went on to beat Skip Brown-led Dobyns-Bennett in the championship game. It was only D-B’s third loss of the season. The other two had come to Science Hill, which had Charlie Stuart, Ralph Kiser, Gordon Simpson, Paul Faw, Sammy “Mammy” Simpson and Michael Vaughn.
Stuart went on to score in excess of 1,000 points at East Tennessee State. He said Bradley continued to inspire and impact the game even while sidelined against Howard.
“Little Joe Bradley, when I hear his name this is what comes to me,” Stuart said. “My dear friend comes from a great family and always has a smile, never seen him angry. I think of laughter, that teammate that would keep me focused and would be that relief when I was struggling on and off the court. Dedication, loyalty, humble, hard work and an outstanding athlete.
“I consider myself an outstanding basketball player, but he was an athlete, an amazing baseball player. I remember when we played Little League baseball and I was a pitcher, he would come up to the mound with that smile and then proceed to knock my first pitch out of the field for one of his many home runs. Little Joe could play any sport with equal enthusiasm and dedication.”
Bradley began playing Little League baseball at Carver when he was seven. Little League integrated in Johnson City several years later. Little League coaching legend Arthur Lady had scouted Bradley at Carver and asked him to sandbag during tryouts so Lady could draft him.
“He said, ‘What I want you to do is when you come out here to try out, I want you to miss every ball they hit to you and swing and miss every ball that they throw to you,’” Bradley said. “And I couldn’t understand that, you know. So back in the day, you did what your coaches say, right. So they hit the ball to me a couple of times and I let ‘em go through my legs. And they threw it to me a couple of times and I swung at it and missed it.
“And then we had our first game and I hit like, two or three home runs in that one game. And one of the coaches said, ‘Well, Arthur Lady got us again.’”
Indeed, Bradley set a home run record for the Johnson City Major League, one which was eventually broken by Gary Carter.
“They say I hit one that went over to the Dairy Queen (no longer on West Market Street) and it went into the door when somebody opened it, but you know how that goes,” Bradley said with a chuckle. “I saw Gary Carter hit one at Cardinal Park (for Science Hill) to deep center field. I swear, it was still rising when it went over the fence. I ain’t never seen anybody hit one like that before.”
Sammy Simpson was Bradley’s teammate on a Johnson City Major All-Star team that advanced to the state tournament in Pulaski. They were teammates in three sports at Science Hill.
“Little Joe was tough,” said Simpson, who became the first African-American to start at quarterback at ETSU. “He was a good athlete and he’d give you a hundred percent. Joe was pretty quick. Me and him had to guard Skip Brown. He scored on us, but we beat ‘em.”
Brown scored 2,034 points at Wake Forest.
“Skip was awesome,” Bradley said. “Our senior year, I think he scored 27 on me. But then his freshman year at Wake Forest, I think he went and scored 20 on North Carolina. … One of the most exciting games was when we beat D-B in basketball at their place in front of 5,000 people. And we beat them again at ETSU (Brooks Gym).”
Bradley went on to start as a freshman in baseball for Joe Shipley at ETSU. He played center field and led off. He went 4-for-7 with a two-run triple in a doubleheader split with Tennessee, which had Condredge Holloway, Rick Honeycutt, Randy Wallace and basketball assists leader Rodney Woods, who broke his ankle sliding into second base on a steal. Holloway had already turned down $100,000 from Montreal and was a rising Heisman Trophy candidate. Honeycutt went on to the big leagues. And Wallace was a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds.
“I think Condredge could’ve made it to the big leagues,” Bradley said. “That’s how good he was.”
Joe Whitehead got the win in the doubleheader with the Vols. He was the inspiration behind “Little Joe” Bradley.
“Joe Whitehead played on our Little League baseball team,” Bradley said. “And he and I were good buddies. He and I used to hang out. We’d go everywhere together. I’d go over to his house and eat. So they started calling me Little Joe.
“That’s how all that got started. My name isn’t even Joe, but people still call me Joe or Little Joe.”
One of Bradley’s favorite wins in football came against Bearden, which had All-State running back Rocky Goode when it came to Johnson City. Bradley rushed for 48 yards, including a touchdown, and delivered a momentum-building personal foul for a late hit on Goode, who, ironically enough, became an SEC official.
“He was supposed to be one of the best running backs in Knoxville,” Bradley said. “So they come up here and, man, it was a big thing because we hardly ever played a team from Knoxville. And he was about 6-1 and 185 or 190, and here I am 155 playing corner. So I said, “Well, I’m gonna make a statement on this game.’
“So they ran a sweep my way. I got past a blocker that was coming after me and grabbed a hold of Rocky and took him about all the way to the wall where the track was at old Memorial. I took him all the way to there and threw him down. They called a penalty, but it fired us up. And we won that game.”
Bradley played receiver, defensive back, running back and kick/punt returner.
“I hardly ever came off the field,” he said.
Bradley said defeating Dobyns-Bennett, 21-7, in 1972 was arguably his most memorable football triumph. He returned an interception 21 yards to the D-B 24. Gordon Simpson scored two TDs and his brother Sammy scored the other one.
“Mammy (Sammy) was the quarterback and Gordon was the running back,” Bradley said. “They were really good athletes.”
Sammy Simpson recalled Bradley having his number in Little League.
“He could really hit the home runs and he struck me out three times in a game,” Sammy said. “Man, I was mad. I couldn’t hit Joe but I could hit Tony Johnson, who threw faster and pitched a perfect game (in Little League All-Stars).”
Bradley played center field and led off. The state tournament team his junior season included Tim Lady, Richard Gregg, Lynn Shirley, Bubba Bailey and Bill Powers.
“Some call him Little Joe but his accomplishments on and off the field are far from little,” said Shirley, who batted cleanup. “Joe is one of the best baseball players to ever wear a ‘Topper uniform. He played center field and I played right field my senior season when we went to the state tournament. We wouldn’t have been there without him. He was a leader on that particular team.
“He was a great hitter and fielder, just an awesome all-around ball player. Solid as a rock. … Joe is also a wonderful soul and has contributed a great deal to our town and community through the years.”
Science Hill Hall of Famer Walter Bradley was a 1,000-point scorer at Science Hill and an all-conference player at Milligan for Phil Worrell. But more importantly, he suggests, he’s Robert Lee Bradley’s little brother.
“My brother is the reason why I love sports,” Walter said. “Being younger, I looked up to him. So I used this as a tool, not only in sports but in life situations.”
Charlie Stuart, another Science Hill Hall of Famer, said Bradley was a factor in the Hilltoppers beating Chattanooga Howard in the state basketball quarterfinals in ’72 even though he was sidelined. Bradley was always positive and never complained, according to Stuart.
“There were times during a time out when Coach Little would be giving valuable instruction, which sometimes, due to my immaturity, I would not be as focused,” Stuart said. “It was Little Joe that would help me refocus when we would break out of that time out. I could go on and on about Little Joe. I would just say, congratulations on an accolade well deserved and overdue, and say something that I have never said, ‘Thank you’ for being that shining light and moment of levity for me when I really needed it, especially against Dobyns-Bennett and during our game against Chattanooga Howard.”
A great number of coaches and teammates proved to be inspiration for Bradley. Growing up he liked watching Gary “Biggie” Carpenter, Eugene “Red” Gillespie, Johnny Russaw and Charlie Buford. And he enjoyed playing for assistant coaches such as Keith Lyle and Bob May, as well as North Junior High coach Gary Scheuerman.
“Coach Scheuerman was a really good coach over at North Junior High,” Bradley said. “I really respected him.”
Duard Aldridge also had Bradley’s respect. Aldridge coached Science Hill’s baseball team to the state tournament as acting head coach after Dennis Greenwell had a heart attack in 1972.
“I liked Duard,” Bradley said. “He was a good coach and a good person. He played the people that he thought could help.”
Little and Science Hill assistant coach Paul Christman, a long-time successful head coach at Langston High School prior to integration, were invaluable for Bradley’s maturation.
“Paul Christman, what a great man,” Bradley said. “I loved him to death. He was like a father figure to everybody. He was awesome. He always kept you straight. …
“Coach Little had a temper, but he knew what we could do. He’d say you need to get your butts out there and start playing right. We had some good basketball teams – Vernon Crawford, Ralph Kiser, Charlie Stuart, Buddy Stuart, Gordon, Mammy. Man, we had some good ballplayers, and we all got along well together. I made a lot of memories (playing at Science Hill).”