Among the motivating factors driving life choices are two that often go hand in hand: inspiration and perspective. People challenged by physical or mental disabilities inspire us by their achievements and provide perspective, as in, “Hey, if you can accomplish all that, maybe I should drop the excuses and try working harder.” In the world of sports, I think of major-league pitcher Jim Abbott, born with no right hand, but who played the field well and pitched a no-hitter, and Tom Dempsey, born with no fingers on his right hand and no toes on his right foot, but became a record-setting kicker in the NFL.
While able-bodied folks can find all sorts of reasons not to attempt something, people like Dempsey and Abbott say, “Why can’t I?” Paradoxically, many see them as handicapped, but they embrace normalcy. And in the North Country, one of the finest examples of that is Joseph Bromley of Ogdensburg.
Bromley was born in October 1908, the sixth child of James and Emma Bromley. When he was just two and a half years old, Joseph was involved in a horrific accident. While left briefly unattended by a sibling, Joe wandered into the road and was struck by an oncoming streetcar. His right arm was severed below the elbow, and his crushed right leg had to be amputated below the knee.
Such accidents with rail systems were common in those days, most often resulting in death. That was the early prognosis for Joseph, but he survived. A subsequent lawsuit awarded $3000 (about $76,000 in 2014) to the boy; his father’s $50,000 portion of the suit was settled out of court.
That hardly ended things for the Bromleys, now faced with the most daunting of challenges. The loss of limbs adds myriad complications to everyday tasks. Mobility, of course, was the overriding issue. A young child, having barely learned to balance and walk, faced major obstacles. But again, non-hindered people see handicaps; the impaired seek solutions to impediments challenging their normalcy.
Because he wasn’t yet three years old, Joseph was carried everywhere by family members, but as he grew, the normal boy within competed with his siblings as any child would. Crutches became useful when he could get around on his own, but Joe eventually tossed them aside for his preferred method of locomotion: hopping. He loved sports, and of necessity learned to play the hand he was dealt. Rather than accept perceived shortcomings as an excuse for not playing, Bromley made adjustments and placed no limits on what he might accomplish.
In 1922, the Ogdensburg Republican Journal reported that the local Rotary Club “authorized the committee on crippled children to purchase an artificial leg for Joseph Bromley … now attending school here and hopping about on one leg.” A wonderful gesture, and helpful for sure, but the word “cripple” suggested a disability, something Joseph didn’t have.
Eleven months after that article appeared, he was touted as the champion coaster of Albany Avenue hill, but not because of the new artificial leg. That, he said, was for “ordinary purposes.” When action was at hand, like sliding down a big hill, he cast the leg aside. With a sled tucked under his arm, Bromley took several hops and then launched himself down the hill, outdistancing all his rivals.
He had also become an excellent baseball player, and by age 15 was captain of The Pastimes. Standing on one leg at home plate, he swung the bat with one arm and hit the ball as well as his teammates.
At 16, he ran into trouble with the law for “having a bicycle in his possession which belonged to another boy.” The comedian within me sympathizes with the victim—imagine telling the court that a kid with one leg and one arm stole your bike! Actually, Joe was proficient on a bicycle and thus fully capable of the infraction. The sentence was one year of probation
At 17, Joe was captain and pitcher for The Sluggers baseball team. His catcher was Chuck Gorrow, one of several brothers who were very active in sports. During that same summer of 1926, area newspapers touted a remarkable feat: Bromley, accompanied by Ralph Gorrow, swam across the St. Lawrence River to the Canadian shore. Waves and current discouraged “normal” athletes from attempting the one-and-a-quarter-mile distance, but both boys were described as expert swimmers. For some time after, Bromley considered a career as a distance swimmer.
Joe was on the first-team pairing of the Scarlets Horse-Shoe team, but sometimes missed matches because of his passion for fishing. Camping with friends while swimming and fishing was an annual rite of summer. He remained an avid fisherman for much of his adult life as well. (If you’re a fisherman, imagine doing everything—tying knots, cranking a reel, baiting hooks—with just one hand.)
He was also a member of the Scarlets Track Team, competing against other city ward teams. And what do you suppose he turned to in the fall? Football! As captain and leader of the Scarlets in the Junior League, he played fullback and right guard. (The jokers among you are wondering if he tried out for kicker.)
It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do once he set his mind to it. When Joe was 21, the Ogdensburg Republican Journal assessed his athletic skills: “He is a good baseball, football, and basketball player. He can ride a bicycle, and light a cigarette while doing so. He likes to box and skate. He has a method of walking that is all his own and gets around town with ease. In going up a stairway, he hops three steps at a time … a normal young man and exceedingly popular. He has been an excellent student in school and is desirous of taking up some profession.”
A year after that report, the media focused on another of his exploits, a bicycle trip with Albert Gorrow from Ogdensburg to Niagara Falls, with stops in Syracuse and Rochester to visit Albert’s relatives. Joe peddled with one leg, using a clip that attached to his left shoe. With only one hand for the handlebars, riding no-hands had become second nature to him. In some towns they were greeted as minor celebrities. Many newspapers featured headlines citing the distance traveled, 300 miles in a day and a half.
At the age of 24, Joe began settling into the life of an average young man. He graduated from the Ogdensburg Business School and married in 1933. By 1935, Joe and Anna Bromley were the parents of a son and daughter.
And at 27, he was still involved in sports, playing for an all-Ogdensburg baseball team against the Fort Covington nine. Ogdensburg was shellacked, 15–0, but the most talked-about feature of the game was first-baseman Bromley, who went 2-for-4 at the plate and handled 10 fielding chances flawlessly.
To support his family, Joe initially worked for the city. In 1936 he found employment with the Standard Shade Roller Company and began bowling on a company team. By the mid-1940s, the Bromleys added a third child, secure in the knowledge that Joe was well liked at work and a valued employee.
Working hard was never an issue. In routine daily life, he wore an artificial leg and carried a cane to prevent falls, but for sporting endeavors, he still tossed the prosthetic aside and competed in his own natural way. In 1949, Jimmy Powers, one of the greatest of New York Daily News sports editors, noted, “Ogdensburg has an amazing one-legged softball star in Joe Bromley.” He continued playing sports into his 40s, but soon began following the athletic exploits of his son Joe.
A divorce followed in 1953. In 1962, Bromley celebrated 25 years with the Standard Shade Roller Company, having achieved the designation of master toolmaker. He remarried in 1965, retired in 1970, and lived in the region for some time before moving to California.
His second wife, Helen, died in October 1983. Joe passed away just 60 days later at the age of 75.
How did Joseph Bromley live his life? That’s an easy one. Remember that game in 1935, when he went 2-for-4 at the plate and handled 10 fielding chances with no errors? Spectators that day saw a courageous, talented, handicapped man battling to overcome extreme disabilities.
But as Joe himself said, “One arm and one leg just feel natural to me, that’s all. If I had another arm and another leg, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.”
Inspiration and perspective in one nice, neat package.
Photos: Joseph Bromley on right, Albert Gorrow on left, at Niagara Falls (1930); Odgensburg Trolley (1910)