1885 Lawson Game Tournament had Big Prizes, Big Money … and Possibly, no Winner
A popular tournament for a new card game sort of dropped off the face of the earth for no good reason
The 1880s saw the boom of trade cards and also cigarette cards. But the pre-war era would eventually include all sorts of baseball playing card games, too, and the first and most important one just might be the 1884 Lawson Game.
It is often cited as the first baseball-related card game set, though, at least one other set believed to be produced in 1884 exists (The Parlor Base Ball Game). But nevertheless, it was one of the earliest games meant to allow players to participate in a real simulated baseball game using playing cards.
A popular phrase used in the advertising of the game was, ‘Base Ball with Cards.’
How far did they take that slogan? Well, one of Lawson’s ways of advertising was to have a real tournament where participants played actual simulated games using the cards.
The hook here was that the participants were real professional baseball players from National League teams. Eight teams were in that league, so that worked out to a relatively basic 8-team bracket — see below.
These players represented their specific professional teams and were chasing big prizes. Several prizes were given away with the grand prize of $500 in gold and a silver bat being given to the champion team. As you would expect, these tournament games were played at times when the teams faced each other.
These were the participants in the tournament. Some teams, you will note, have more than two names. But only two players participated in a game.
- Boston Beaneaters – Charlie Buffinton and John Morrill
- Buffalo Bisons – Dan Brouthers and Hardy Richardson
- Chicago White Stockings – Ned Williamson and Fred Pfeffer
- Detroit Wolverines – Ned Hanlon and Joe Quest
- New York Giants – Roger Connor and Joe Gerhardt
- Philadelphia Quakers – Andy Cusick, Joe Mulvey, and Jack Manning
- Providence Grays – Arthur Irwin and Paul Radford
- St. Louis Maroons – Fred ‘Sure Shot’ Dunlap, Orator Shafer, and Fred Lewis
Now, a few things here. First, the tournament was somewhat star-studded. While collectors of cards after the pre-war era may not recognize many names, Hall of Famers such as Brouthers and Connor, the first great home run hitter, were among the top players of their time.
Another interesting thing regarding the players? Well, Dunlap and Lewis had a bit of a blow up over the summer after a game. In addition to playing on the team, Dunlap was also its manager. Lewis was incensed at Dunlap during a June game and threatened to throw Dunlap over the fence. Whoops. He was fined $100 for the event. The pair must have made up to some degree, though, as they played together in the semi-finals of the tournament later that year.
Umpires were also presiding over the events. Their role included determining which player would deal the cards. Somewhat trivial? Yes. But one interesting fact is that a person by the name of ‘C.A. Burgess of Boston’ was once listed in the results as an umpire. That would almost certainly have been Charles Burgess, who was the Lawson Game’s treasurer that was from Boston.
And making it even more about an actual game, Lawson had the scores of the games published right along with the scores of actual baseball games in the newspapers, even tracking the runs in each inning. Seriously. You’d find the results mixed right in with the box scores of the actual games. In fact, here’s a picture of one from an 1885 edition of the Boston Globe. On top of all of that, some of the writeups were far lengthier than the one presented here with full game details and such.
Now, here’s the real interesting thing about that. It didn’t display as a traditional advertisement and Lawson may not even have had to pay for it.
Why do I say that? For one thing, the game’s company was based out of Boston and the company had run several other ads in the Boston Globe, presumably spending good money. For another, since the tournament included real baseball players, newspapers like the Boston Globe were probably more interested in running it. I wouldn’t be surprised if these results, which were clearly pseudo advertisements, didn’t cost the company a dime.
Sure, the games were fun. But there were real stakes involved, too, with a number of prizes were given away.
Historian John Thorn states that a total of $1,600 in gold and trophies was up for grabs. That number is different in other sources, though. For example, a May 1885 Boston Globe article puts the number at $1,000 in gold and trophies while an 1885 issue of the Wilkes-Barre Record says the champions would win $2,000.
So what was the real number?
First-round losers were given $10 per team while winners received $40 per team along with a silver ball worth an undisclosed amount. That gives us a total first-round amount of $200 cash plus the value of the balls. I haven’t seen a number for prizes in the second round but the grand champion was to receive $500 with the runner-up given $100. In addition, the winner would receive the silver bat worth $200. That gives us a total of $800 in cash plus the $200 silver bat for a total of $1,000. But that doesn’t account for the second-round prizes and money, nor does it account for the value of first-round prizes, such as the silver balls.
My guess is that the $1,600 is much more correct, if not entirely accurate.
As mentioned, the eight National League teams participated in the tournament. Here is a bracket with the teams and results. The final scores for the games are in parentheses.
You’ll notice that Chicago cruised to the finals after beatdowns over Buffalo and St. Louis. Interestingly, that followed their results of the regular season as they won the National League with a record of 87-25. On the other side, Philadelphia won a pair of one-run games to get to the finals against Chicago. Finally, note that I could not find a result for the first-round Boston/St. Louis game, but St. Louis ultimately won.
Lawson advertised the final matchup of Philadelphia and Chicago after the semifinals were played. But no mention of when that game would take place was mentioned in newspapers and, to date, no information is know about the final contest. Thorn’s article mentioned he also couldn’t find it and that thought was echoed on this site, too.
So was the final ever played? Given the stakes and all of the promotion around the tournament, I would be shocked if it didn’t.
Think about it. $500 is no small amount today, though admittedly, you’d have a hard time finding interested major leaguers to participate in an event for that sum. But back in the day, it was a lot of money and it’s hard to imagine players participating in the tournament and then simply not playing the final with that much at stake.
Taking a guess at when a game could have occurred, that would likely be in October when the two teams played a series in Chicago starting on October 6 through October 10. Not only that, but the company had announced an October finale earlier in the tournament. But an exact date was always kind of fuzzy since it depended on who would make the final since the game would have to be scheduled around a time when the participants’ teams would play ‘real’ baseball against each other.
The dates were probably fuzzy throughout the whole tournament, to be honest. Several other game dates were advertised before ultimately being changed. That could have been due to all sorts of things, including travel arrangements, conflicts with scheduling of players, venue logistics, or a million other issues.
A Potential Winner?
So, do I have any thoughts on a potential winner? Glad you asked.
It’s tough to say, obviously. However, a November 1885 article in the Saint Paul Globe is worth a look. That article makes an interesting reference to a mysterious silver ball.
(Abner) Dalrymple took the silver ball won by the team in a game of base ball cards against a competing club this summer.”
Now, note that this is a different silver ball than the one given by Nat Goodwin (an actor and somewhat of a sports agent) to the team after the season. We know that because the article makes a reference to that one earlier. This second ball mentioned here is a clear reference to the ball that the team would have won in June when they defeated Buffalo.
That is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it seems to indicate that the prizes won may not have been the players’ to keep. After all, if that was the case, why would the ball end up in the hands of Dalrymple, who didn’t appear to take part in the tournament at all? Dalrymple was a star player but it makes much more sense that Pfeffer or Williamson would have wound up with it since they were the ones that played in the tournament.
Second, it is interesting that only a ball is mentioned here. After all, the winner of the tournament also received a silver bat. It is difficult to imagine the bat not being mentioned as a prize to be given away and only the ball. Could that have been because Chicago lost the final game and, thus, didn’t get the bat?
We may never know but it’s an idea.