One Hit Wonders: Jim Bradford
By Glenn McFarlane, of the Herald Sun
Jim Bradford cut an interesting figure as he ran out for his first game for Collingwood in the Round 8 game against Melbourne in 1943.
He had only turned 17 a few months earlier and was still growing, but must have looked little more than a kid that day to the 5000-strong crowd at Victoria Park. The Magpies were calling on whoever they could at the time given the dearth of players owing to enlistments in the Second World War, but there was a bit of buzz around this young hopeful from Abbotsford.
He was known as ‘Nipper’ from the outset. It wasn’t hard to see why. He was diminutive and light-framed and stood out from the moment he stepped onto the ground for his debut.
Over the years there have been many and varied reports as to how tall Bradford was. One source listed his size after his debut game as 152cm (less than five foot), though he is registered in official league records as being 155cm (just under five foot one inch), which still sees Bradford as the shortest player to have played a senior game in VFL-AFL history.
So let’s work with the 155cm figure, and put a context to it. In today’s terms, it would have made him 13cm shorter than pint-sized Western Bulldogs premiership player Caleb Daniel. Even starker is the comparison that could be made between him and current Magpie, 211cm big man Mason Cox. Bradford would have been 56cm (almost two ruler lengths) shorter than the American import.
The height issue alone made Bradford stand out in his Collingwood debut game. But his impact was much more than as just a curiosity, as judged by the fact he is our one-hit wonder series.
Only 23 goals were collectively kicked by the teams that day – with Melbourne winning by a goal – and Bradford kicked four of them on debut (more than anyone else on the ground). He showed an uncanny goal sense, genuine pace and enough potential that would have cheered up Jock McHale over his post-game beer that night.
Bradford was listed in the best players, even though he wouldn’t have looked out of place in schoolboy football, let alone the rough and tumble of the VFL.
One news report from the game, reprinted in an Adelaide newspaper, explained: “A player named Bradford played his first game with Collingwood in the Victorian Football League last Saturday. Bradford weighs only 7st 7lbs (48kg). His height is 4ft 11 in. In addition to kicking four goals, his accurate passing was a strong feature of his play.”
It is not known if that report is accurate. But officially Bradford is listed as the second lightest player to ever take to the field, at 53kg, behind Essendon’s George Shorten (51kg) from the 1920s.
“Nipper’ Bradford did not kick a goal the following week against Fitzroy, but slotted through two more against South Melbourne in his third game.
In that game, there were a few extraordinary scenes when South Melbourne star ‘Gentleman’ Jim Cleary opted not to “clean up” the young Magpie up when he had the chance. The Argus detailed: “On two occasions he (Cleary) could have annihilated Collingwood ‘boy’ footballer Jim Bradford, but pulled aside in order that he would not risk injuring the youngster.”
Bradford was dropped for the next game, and sent back to the reserves once more.
He was back again for the Round 13 game against North Melbourne, which resulted in his first win in black and white senior colours. He kicked three goals against the Kangaroos, the first three successive games kicking that same tally, showing how productive he could be in attack, despite his size.
His seventh and last senior game for Collingwood came in Round 16 – the last round of the season – against Melbourne, and he added one more goal, taking his tally to 16 in black and white.
The Argus reported in May 1944 “Bradford, the midget Collingwood rover, who played (seven) senior games last year, was refused a clearance to Essendon.” He wanted to play as a rover, but Lou Richards had the role, so he had to play in the seconds that year.
His initial request to join Camberwell had been deferred on the same night that the Magpies’ committee was arguing the toss over whether it would allow Ron Todd back from the VFA or not. Bradford transferred to the VFA for four seasons, winning best-and-fairest awards in 1945 and 1946, and he was his club’s best player in the losing Grand Final in 1946.
Bradford was a star in the VFA, playing 76 games and kicking 169 goals. He was considered “one of the cleverest rovers in Association football” and “the idol of Camberwell.” But he was also a fine cricketer – “a dogged left-hand bat” – playing for Camberwell at the same time.
Two years before his death, aged 79, in 2005, Bradford would be named first rover in Camberwell’s team of the century.
Such was his success in the VFA that North Melbourne offered him the chance to come and train with the club in 1949 – and he accepted the invitation.
That led to an interesting night at one of his earliest training sessions, when the small rover was joined by a giant young hopeful who was said to have walked in off the street. The Argus reported in March 1949: “North Melbourne supporters opened their eyes last night when the tallest man they had ever seen ran onto the ground. He was Cecil Barkman, a 7ft 4in (223cm) sailor from a Swedish boat. They were disappointed, however, because his knowledge of Australian football is nil.”
Barkman never got through his first training session; Bradford went onto play the first nine games with North Melbourne in 1949, kicking eight goals along the way, including two goals against his former side Collingwood in Round 1. But the opportunity was only fleeting and the part-time footballer and full-time foundry worker headed back to the reserves.
Bradford took up the chance to move to South Australia in 1950, after an offer to join West Torrens. He continued to play good football in the South Australian league for five seasons, with former North Adelaide player Jeff Pash saying of him: “About the goal front he was the quickest ever … When he was in motion every hair lay along the line of his flight.”
A fan favourite, sometimes dubbed ‘Mighty Mouse’, Bradford played 76 games with West Torrens between 1950 and 1954, kicking almost 200 goals. It was some journey for the kid from Abbotsford who kicked four goals on debut for the Magpies.