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.

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