Al Lawson Down Under – 1892-93

[Between 2009 and 2011, I maintained a TypePad blog, “More Fiends,” intended to update my book Baseball Fiends and Flying Machines. Those posts can still be found in the Wayback Machine, but I stopped updating that site in 2011. Because this WordPress site promotes and updates all my books, I’d like to republish some of those earlier posts.]

Posted 2/5/2010:

Just as newly digitized editions of Sporting Life have illuminated Alfred Lawson’s misadventures in England during his 1892 baseball tour, so have they shed light on his activities once he arrived in Australia after leaving England. When I was writing Baseball Fiends and Flying Machines, a good sample of Australian papers had already been digitized, and mention of Lawson was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the secretary of the nascent New South Wales Baseball League, a New Zealander named J. A. Chuck, sent regular reports on baseball’s progress Down Under to the American weekly Sporting Life. Therefore two reports previously unknown to me from Chuck are found in Sporting Life that give a lively account of Lawson’s sojourn.

    Let’s set the context for Chuck’s first report to Sporting Life, which appeared in the Dec. 24, 1892 issue. Chuck wrote his letter on Oct. 29, 1892, but because of the length of time it took for mail to arrive from Australia, it was not printed until late December. Chuck said that Lawson had arrived in Australia on Oct. 23. This followed his desertion of the team of New York Amateurs he had led over to England. Lawson had left England sometime in mid-August, and sailed first to South Africa and India before reaching Australia. Meanwhile, an anonymous letter had been sent from England detailing Lawson’s alleged swindling tricks and had been printed in the September 10, 1892 edition of Sporting Life. That article ended with a warning that Lawson was on his way to Australia. J.A. Chuck received a copy of the Sep. 10 article just before Lawson arrived on Oct. 23, so Chuck knew exactly who Lawson was and the nature of the claims made against him. So Chuck reports:

“On Thursday last, Oct. 23, I was addressed as follows:–“‘Mr. Chuck?’
“‘Yes, sir, that’s me; all that remains.’
“‘My name is Lawson. I am a professional base ball player from America.’
“‘Is that so? I have heard of you, Mr. Lawson, and expected your arrival. Are you here on business, or simply taking a run-around?’
“‘Well, Mr. Chuck, to tell the truth, I am trying to kill two birds with one stone. If there are any chances in the base ball business of making money, I am prepared to offer my services either as player or instructor.’
“‘The chances of doing something in that line, Mr. Lawson, at least so far as you are concerned, at present are not very great.’
“‘What do you mean, sir? I do not understand.’
“‘Then I will explain and come at once to the point. Your English record has preceded you, and unless matters can be put right and satisfactorily explained, I, as representative of the N. S. W. ball players, decline to accord you the welcome that should and would be given to any straight-going member of the fraternity.’
“‘Of what am I accused, Mr. Chuck?’
“‘Read for yourself.’
“I then handed Lawson a copy of The Sporting Life which he eagerly scanned. What his thoughts were I do not know, but I can say he appeared much astonished and broke right up. Having finished the article and recovered from the shock, he replied: –‘The writer of that letter is an unmitigated, mean and contemptible liar, filled with gall to the neck, a despicable hound, a creeping crawling scoundrel of the yellowest dye. The facts of the case are as follows…'”

Lawson then gave Chuck a vigorous defense of his actions during the tour of England, rolling off the financial figures from memory. Lawson concluded, “…I give it an unqualified denial. Wll C. Bryan, Sporting Life correspondent, can speak the truth. I invite him to do so; when he does we will see who comes out on top. This is my statement. I will, if required, cover it by affidavit.”

Lawson’s explanation gave J. A. Chuck pause. He wrote, “Someone is cutting it very thick. Who it is, in justice to Lawson and in the interest of base ball, should be decided.” So he concluded in his Oct. 29th report from Australia. What Mr. Chuck was unaware of is that Will C. Bryan had already weighed in with his version of events, which were printed in the Oct. 8 edition of Sporting Life. Copies of that edition would not reach Australia until several weeks after Lawson washed up on shore.

And so Lawson was given the benefit of the doubt and Mr. Chuck arranged for him to serve as an instructor in the South Australia leagues. After a month, Chuck sent another letter to Sporting Life. His letter dated Nov. 27, 1892 (which was printed in the weekly’s Jan. 7th issue) even compliments Lawson: “Notwithstanding the fact that Lawson is somewhat under a cloud, his appearance in our midst has, so far as instruction is concerned, been conducive of good. He has given our pitchers a few pointers, and helped in no small degree to awaken interest in the game.”

But Chuck’s endorsement was limited to Lawson’s role as an instructor. Al Lawson couldn’t resist testing his mettle against the neophyte Australian batters, with predictable results. In a separate letter to Sporting Life, Chuck was so appalled by the effect of good pitching that he thought something in the design of the sport itself must have been inherently wrong:

“When Al Lawson succeeded in striking out twenty-two batsmen during one game any close observer could have noticed that the unprejudiced mind clearly saw something wrong in the State of Denmark…I am fully convinced that base ball will not assume the position that it should until the present power given to the pitcher is somewhat modified.”  (J. A. Chuck in Sporting Life, March 4, 1893)

At any rate, Chuck’s view of Lawson’s character likely took a downturn when the October 8 edition of Sporting Life arrived in Australia with Will C. Bryan’s damning account of Lawson’s actions in England. With some relish, Chuck reported Lawson’s reaction:

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