Tramping through the Baseball Subculture: The Career of Alfred W. Lawson

By Kuntz, Jerry | Base Ball, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Tramping through the Baseball Subculture: The Career of Alfred W. Lawson


Kuntz, Jerry, Base Ball


Since his death in 1954, Alfred W. Lawson has gained renown as a notable American eccentric. This reputation is mainly due to his post-baseball career exploits as a commercial aviation pioneer, Depression-era populist social reformer, and writer of books detailing his all-encompassing folk philosophy of "Lawsonomy."1 Major league record keeping has long confirmed his three-game "cup of coffee" in the tumultuous National League season of 1890, but further details of his 23 years in baseball have been slow to emerge. Until recently, the primary resource for his sporting career has been a handful of selective highlights mentioned by Lawson himself in autobiographical sections of his books. The advent of digitized historical newspaper collections has revealed rich new insights into Lawson's career as player, manager, league organizer, and promoter. These reports reveal a prototypical 19th century ballplayer, as well as an adept innovator of baseball economics, promotion, and marketing.

Like the majority of 19th century professional baseball players, Lawson came from a lower-class background. His family had emigrated from the East End of London and settled in Detroit, Michigan. As a child he contributed to the family economy as a bootblack and newspaper boy; he also worked in his father's rag carpet home factory. Lawson attended elementary and trade school (participating in student athletics), but his wanderlust led him to leave home at age 17 to seek his fortune. By his own account, in 1887 he arrived via freight train at Frankfort, Indiana, and successfully pitched a game for their independent club against a heavily favored league club. He was rewarded with a $40-per-month contract. That same summer, he moved from the Frankfort club to a team in South Bend.2

In the late 1880s, the Upper Midwest region where Alfred Lawson started playing baseball supported early incarnations of regional minor leagues: the Western League (with cities as far-flung as Denver and Milwaukee); the Interstate League (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana); the Michigan League; the Ohio League; and the International League (western New York, Ontario, northern Ohio). The composition of these regional leagues fluctuated from year to year-if they survived more than one season. Larger cities sup- ported multiple semipro local leagues. Chicago, for example, had a City League and a handful of company-sponsored leagues, including the Garden City League, the Market Street League, and the Wholesale Grocers League. The sports pages from cities with local leagues would often announce open dates as opportunities for unscheduled games, or announce the hastily arranged games themselves.

Lawson played for eight different teams over the next two years (1888-1889), moving between towns in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The reasons for the jumps probably varied: better contract offers, league or club failures, or disagreements with management. The number of clubs he played for was probably not unusual for itinerant professional ballplayers. It is possible that injuries or poor performances might have caused him to be released from some teams, but the incomplete records that have been uncovered so far indicate that he was a pitcher whose talent was on the rise. His appearances for Sterling (Illinois) and Appleton (Wisconsin) in 1889 were phenomenal.3 It is likely that by the time Appleton's season ended at the end of September, Lawson had been advised to head south to play winter ball in Florida in order to hone his skills for the next season.

One can not imagine a better year for a young ballplayer to hope to get his first major league contract than the year 1890. The revolt of the major league union, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, led to the formation of the Players League that year, which depleted the National League of more than 55 percent of its players and took a similar percentage from the American Association. Consequently, the NL and the AA were scouring the nation for young talent in the early months of 1890. …

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