Monday, January 30, 2012

Rare 19th Century autograph found

While organizing a collection of vintage stocks and bonds, I came across a 1921 stock certificate for the Lawson Airplane Company, Milwaukee, Wis. 

In researching the company, I made the startling discovery that the man who had signed the certificate as president, A.W. Lawson, was a former major league pitcher, long-time minor league player and a true aviation pioneer.

Alfred W. Lawson, who played pro ball as Al Lawson, was also what could most charitably be called eccentric. 

Al Lawson as an aviation pioneer circa 1910s.
His biography could -- in fact it has -- fill volumes. I'd recommend baseball historian's Jerry Kuntz's Baseball Fiends and Flying Machines, which details not only Al Lawson's life, but also his equally eccentric brother George.

A much shorter synopsis can be found on-line at the SABR Research Journal Archives in an article "Alfred W. Lawson, Aviation Pioneer" by Lyell D. Henry, Jr. . Henry's article includes a decent summation of Lawson's three-game major league career in 1890 with the Boston Beaneaters and Pittsburgh Allegheneys of the National League (he was 0-3 with a 6.63 ERA).

Lawson was born in London in 1869. His family emigrated to Ontario, Canada, the same year, then moved to Detroit in 1872 when they became U.S. citizens.

By the age of 20 Lawson was playing professional baseball. According to, his peripatetic wanderings through pro ball looked like this.
1889 Bloomington Blues, Illinois-Indiana League
1890 Boston Beaneaters, National League
         Wilmington Blue Hens, Atlantic Association
Al Lawson as a ballplayer
circa 1890.
          Pittsburgh Allegheneys, National League
          Harrisburg Ponies, Atlantic Association
1891  Pendleton Ho Hos, Pacific Interstate League
          Oakland Colonels, California League
          Meadville, New York-Pennsylvania League
          Spokane Bunch Grassers, Pacific Northwestern League
1892  Atlanta Firecrackers, Southern Association
          Troy Trojans, Eastern League
1893  Sandusky Sandies, Ohio-Michigan League
1894  Pawtucket Maroons, New England League
          Albany Senators, New York State League
1895  Fitchburg, New England Association
          Lowell, New England Association
          Norfolk Clams/Crows, Virginia State League
          Troy Trojans, New York State League
Unfortunately, statistics for most of his career are lacking.

A decade after his playing days, Lawson managed for three seasons: 1905 Olean (Interstate League), 1906 Oil City-Jamestown (Interstate League) and 1907 Butler (Western Pennsylvania League).

In 1908, Lawson tried to form a third major league. The Union Professional League took the field in April  with teams in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Elizabeth and Patterson, N.J., Philadelphia, Reading, Pa., Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del.. The Patterson team went under in late May, and the team transferred to Allentown, Pa.,  the entire enterprise collapsed a few days later.

Al Lawson's baseball career largely fell in the period between the Old Judge cigarette cards of the late 1880s and the American Tobacco Co. issues of 1909-11. While it has not yet been cataloged, it is possible that Lawson was included in the series of Boston Beaneaters' cabinets that was produced 1889-90 by G. Walden Smith's studio. The web site has an image of Lawson as a ballplayer. It looks to have been a woodcut or similar engraving. That leaves at least some hope that somewhere out there is a baseball collectible that includes Al Lawson's picture.

While he lived a long and public life, I imagine that Lawson's autograph is not easy to come by. This stock certificate was sold on eBay on February 9, bringing $77.

When he left baseball Lawson jumped with both feet into the world of aviation. He moved to Philadelphia and founded Fly magazine, operating it from 1908-09. In 1910 he moved to New York and founded Aircraft magazine, which he operated through 1914. He sold both magazines at the peak of their success.

Before it passed into public usage, Lawson coined the word "aircraft" and trade marked it. He also invented the term "airliner," with which he described his Lawson C-2 18-passenger airplane in 1919.
Al Lawson coined the terms "aircraft" and "airliner," and built the
first multi-passenger plane. 

Lawson learned to fly in 1913. In 1916, he moved to Green Bay, Wis., where he founded Lawson Aircraft Co., to design and build planes. In 1919 he moved the enterprise to Milwaukee and renamed it Lawson Airplane Co.

Throughout the 20th Century, Lawson developed his unique theological philosophy that he called "Lawsonomy," which he described as "knowledge of life and everything pertaining thereto." He wrote more than 50 books on widely esoteric subjects.from physics and economics to world peace. 

To promulgate his theories, around 1940 Lawson founded the unaccredited University of Lawsonomy," at Sturtevant, Wis. There was never much of a physical university, but a large sign in an empty field on the east side of I-94 between Milwaukee and Chicago proclaims the University of Lawsonomy. Painted on the roof of a barn on the property is "Study natural law." Lawson died in 1954.

I've passed that signs hundreds of times driving to Chicago and beyond, and was always mildly curious about   Lawsonomy. Now I know.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The night I "met" Fuzzy Thurston

Menus, circa late 1960s, from the Left Guard restaurant, ownjed by
Fuzzy Thurston and Max McGee.
My two most recent blogs have detailed my attempts to create custom cards of Lombardi-dynasty Green Bay Packers great Fuzzy Thurston.

I actually met Thurston one night . . . sort of.

It must have been about 1971, when Thurston was about 38 years old. I was in college then, and working for a company that traveled around the state of Wisconsin taking physical inventory at supermarkets and other retail stores.

Our crew was headquartered out of Fond du Lac, where I was born and raised. At the edge of town was the "Left Guard," a supper club that was one of a handful Thurston owned along with teammate Max McGee.

One night after we had finished work, our crew stopped at the Left Guard for a drink. There were four or five of us in the car, which was driven by Bill, whose last name I no longer recall. Bill, at that time, really needed to be a "Friend of Bill." It's sobering (no pun intended) to think of all the miles we drove back then with Bill behind the wheel in various states of intoxication.

It was rather late on a weeknight when we entered the bar area of the restaurant. Besides the bartender, I don't recall seeing anybody else in the place . . . except for Fuzzy Thurston.

Thurston was sitting on a stool at the far end of the bar, with his stocking feet propped up on the bar.

After a few minutes, and probably into his second drink, Bill looked over, caught Thurston's eye, and said, "Jesus, you're a sloppy son of a bitch"

That night I witnessed what was usually reserved for opposing NFL linemen, Fuzzy Thurston in action. 

He came off his stool like a shot, grabbed Bill by the collar and belt and gave him the classic bum's rush out of the place, using Bill's head to open two sets of doors. 

Thurston came back in, and resumed his place at the end of the bar while we filed out without a word, helped Bill back behind the wheel and drove back to the nearby mall where we had parked our cars.

Come to think of it, and I may be misremembering because this happened 40 years ago, one of us may have said to Fuzzy as we were leaving, "Thanks for not killing him."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Second-choice custom for Fuzzy

As I posted on Saturday, I had long intended to create a 1958 Topps-style football card of Fuzzy Thurston with the Baltimore Colts. A lack of a suitable foil has sidelined that effort, but since I did find a decent picture of Thurston during his college days, I've gone ahead and created a '55 All-American custom.

In researching Thurston, I was surprised to find he didn't play college football until he was a junior at Valparaiso University in 1954. He had been recruited to Valpo as a basketball player. During and after his NFL career, Thurston continued to be a fixture on the Green Bay Packers charity basketball squads.

With the Crusaders in 1954, when they won the Heartland Collegiate Conference in 1954, Thurston was named an AP "Little All-American." As team captain in 1955, he repeated as a Little All-American and was named the HCC Most Valuable Lineman. In his two years at Valpo, the team was 17-7-2.

Thurston was a fifth round pick (#54 overall) of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1956 NFL draft,but never played for them. He spent two years in military service before joining the Baltimore Colts in 1958. His play during the last four games of the stretch drive helped the Colts to a World's Championship.

Just three days into the Colts' training camp in 1959, Thurston was traded to the Green Bay Packers for linebacker Marv Matuszak. New head coach Vince Lombardi wanted Fuzzy to anchor the offensive line which was integral to the "run to daylight" offense he brought to the Packers' dynasty of the 1960s.

Thurston won five more championship rings with the Packers (1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967) before retiring after Super Bowl II.

In my next posting, I'll tell you about the time I "met" Fuzzy Thurston.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

1958 Fuzzy Thurston custom card -- fail!

Fuzzy Thurston, who starred with the Green Bay Packers during the Lombardi
Dynasty, got his NFL start with the champion 1958 Colts. In this reproductrion
of a brewery premium  photo, he's #64 just to the right of center in the third row.
Well, doody!

It was only a couple of years ago that I learned that 1960s Packer lineman Fuzzy Thurston had actually begun his NFL career as part of the World's Champion 1958 Baltimore Colts.

Since Thurston only appeared on two mainstream football cards, 1962 and 1963 Topps, and a 1962 Post cereal card, I thought it would be neat to create a custom card of Thurston as a Colt in the 1958 Topps format.

I scoured all the usual resources for a picture of Thurston as a Colt and came up empty until I discovered he was included in a team photo premium issued in 1959 by the Colts' radio-TV sponsor National Bohemian beer.

Originals of that premium picture are rare and costly. I thought I'd found a solution when I saw an 8 x 10 reproduction offered on eBay. I bought the repro and stuck it in my "futures" file.

When enlarged to "card size" the image of Thurston
scanned from the reproduced premium photo is not
sharp enough to be used on a custom card.
When I recently completed by first 1958-style football custom (Dave Hanner, presented in my blog on Jan. 18), I decided the time was now to work on the '58 Thurston.

I dug out the photo, scanned it . . . and was greatly disappointed when the quality of the image proved totally unacceptable. Thurston's image on the team photo is about 3/4" square. Because my photo was a picture of a picture, when enlarged to about 2", the player scan was, well, fuzzy.

Perhaps some day I'll have access to one of the original National Bohemian premiums, which are larger (though I don't know the actual size) and may yield a more usable scan.

I did find a nice college photo of Thurston with Valparaiso, so I guess I'll work on a 1955 All-American card. Watch this space for the result.

And, I have a couple of other subjects planned for 1958-style customs.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My first '58 football custom honors Hawg Hanner

I've had a few 1958 Topps-style football cards on my to-do list of customs for a long while. The recent discovery of a Topps Vault photo of a long-time favorite 1950s-60s Green Bay Packer was the impetus to actually get a '58 tribute into production.,

The 1958 Topps football set was a childhood favorite. It was right in my collecting heyday; I was seven years old when the cards hit the street.

Years later, after I had become involved in publishing books, magazines and papers for sportscards collectors, I was made aware of a more local connection with the '58T set.

Pioneer card dealer Larry Fritsch told me that many of the photos of Green Bay Packers that appear in the 1958 Topps set were taken in his hometown of Stevens Point, Wis., in 1957. At that time the Packers conducted their pre-season training camp at what was then the Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point campus, about an hour and a half west of Green Bay. The Topps photographer caught the Packers while they worked out at the city's Bukolt Park. Larry drove me over to the park and some of the background and structures that are shown on the Topps cards were still in evidence.

The posed-action photo of Dave Hanner that I used for my first '58-style custom football card was undeniably from that Summer of '57 photo shoot. However, it was never used on a Topps card.

Hanner appeared on 1954 and 1955 Bowman cards, and on 1957 and 1959-60 Topps cards. I guess we'll never know why Topps skipped him in 1958, but I think my custom card helps fill that void.

As I mentioned, Dave Hanner was one of my favorite Packers of that era. Maybe it was his nickname, "Hawg," that paid tribute to his college days as a two-time All Southwestern Conference lineman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Football players today are apparently too cool or too professional to have old-school nicknames.  

Hanner was the Packers' 5th round draft pick in 1952 and spent more than 40 years with Green Bay as a defensive tackle (1952-64), defensive line coach (1965-71), defensive co-ordinator (1972-74), assistant head coach (1975-79) and scout (1982-96).

A fact that I found amazing while I was googling Hanner's career was that from 1952-64, the Packers played in 167 regular-season and NFL Championship games, and Hanner played in 163 of them -- remarkable given the propensity for injury among NFL linemen. The four games Hanner missed came at the end of his playing days, one in 1961, and three in his final season, 1964.  

What I didn't find while surfing the 'net was any confirmation of the well-known childhood "fact" that Hanner was the cousin of pro wrestler Dick the Bruiser, who, playing under his real name of Dick Afflis, had been Hanner's teammate on the Packers from 1952-54.

While poking around on the internet, I was also struck by the number of fond personal remembrances of Hanner by family, friends and former teammates. You can find some of them here: .

As I said earlier, my Hanner custom is the first of several 1958-style customs that I'm planning. Now that I have the template down, the others should come more easily. Watch this space.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I took a vacation from the hobby

From 12/22-1/9 I was on vacation in Hawaii. I had no computer access, so I had no contact with the various hobby forums. I had no way to work on my blog. I also couldn't do any work on custom cards.

Hey, I survived.

Since I quit working a year ago I haven't really been able to get into the swing of retirement. I always thought I'd have time to read, to learn to play the Call of Duty video games my wife bought for my birthday some years ago, etc.

Instead, I found myself spending 3-4 hours a day on hobby forums, and obsessively turning out custom cards. I was "working" on the hobby on a nearly full-time basis.

I think that two-week hiatus from hobby action will help me put this whole retirement thing in perspective and give me more balance in my remaining years.

What it means to this blog is that I'll be posting a bit less frequently than I have in the past. I hope you'll find the longer interims between entries isn't intolerable.

Stay tuned in the next few days for my presentation of a new-to-me format for my custom card creations . . . 1958 Topps football.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kurt Russell missed the minor league card era

I'm a fan of Kurt Russell's movie and TV work. He's shown great acting range in more than 50 years on the big and small screen. One of my favorites is his role as Wyatt Earp in the 1993 Tombstone.

While he hasn't had any major baseball-related roles, his friend Ron Shelton (himself a former minor leaguer, 1967-71) is said to have written the role of Crash Davis in the 1988 movie Bull Durham for Russell. The studio insisted on Kevin Costner for the role, however.

Kurt Russell spent his early 20s shuttling between Hollywood and the Pacific Northwest as he tried to decide whether he was an actor or a ballplayer . . . or a little of each.

Russell had been signed to a 10-year contract by Walt Disney's studio in 1960 when he had a part in the Elvis Presley movie, It Happened at the World's Fair. He worked regularly in TV and movies for the next decade, but when that contract expired, he decided to give professional baseball a try.

He signed with the California Angels and spent most of three seasons in the short-season Northwest League.
He was a second baseman on the Bend Rainbows in 1971, at the age of 20. He played in 51 games, the most he would play in any one season. For Bend he batted .285 with one home run, though he had 11 doubles.

For the 1972 season he remained in the Northwest League, with Walla Walla, part of the San Diego Padres organization. In 29 games he hit .325 with no power.

He was back on the Angels' NWL team in Portland to start the 1973 season, in the process of being converted to an outfielder. he batted .299, again with little power, in 23 games before being called up to the Angels' AA team, the El Paso Sun Kings of the Texas League.

He played in just six games at El Paso, back at second base, batting .563 when an injury to his throwing shoulder effectively ended his hopes of a career in pro ball. (Though he did make a token at-bat with Portland in 1977, when the team was operating independently, with 38-year-old Jim Bouton as their pitching star.attraction.)

The totality of Kurt Russell minor league career consisted of 110 games over four seasons. His career average was .292 and he had two home runs (one each in 1971 and 1973). The lower minor leagues didn't keep great stats in those days, so I don't know what his fielding was like.

It's too bad that Kurt Russell's minor league career preceded the heyday of minor league baseball card issue. TCMA was only in its second year of what would be some 15 years of team-set production in 1973, and had not yet expanded its reach into the Northwest League. Few minor league teams in 1973 were doing their own locally sponsored sets. The Standard Catalog of Minor League Baseball Cards shows TCMA only set in '73 was for the Cedar Rapids Astros, while local entrepreneurs sponsored sets for the Sherbrooke Pirates, Syracuse Chiefs, Tacoma Twins, Three Rivers Eagles and Wichita Aeros.

All of those early Seventies minor league sets were quite crude compared to the work that would follow by Mike Cramer, ProCards, Best, Classic and even Fleer and Upper Deck in the 1990s.

When I found a picture on the internet of Kurt Russell in the uniform of the El Paso Sun Kings, I decided to invest a few hours in creating a fantasy Kurt Russell TCMA card. I had to improvise a bit for the team logo on the card back, as I could not find a contemporary rendering of the logo, and had to work from the uniform on a photo of uncertain vintage.

The facsimile autograph was lifted from a later photograph, so I don't know how closely it resembles what he would have signed in the early 1970s.