Well-timed generosity turned tables in ballgame
Things looked grim for the Prineville Nine that summer day in 1910. The little high-desert town’s baseball team was getting its clock cleaned by the Silver Lake ball club. The score was nine-zip, and the game was only half played. It was shaping up to be a bloodbath.
The game was the third in a best-of-three tournament, a sort of good-natured grudge match between the two central Oregon towns. Prineville was playing host, and had invited Silver Lake to bring its best and its brightest, its fastest-running and its hardest-hitting, to come see who was best.
But after the first game — an unexpectedly brutal loss at the hands of the visitors — the Prineville fans learned the truth: Silver Lake boosters had gone to Portland and hired some professional players for the occasion.
Now, this wasn’t cheating, exactly. Nobody had told anybody they couldn’t hire mercenaries for the event; it simply hadn’t occurred to the Prineville boys to even consider the possibility.
Obviously, though, it had occurred to someone. The team that was taking the field against Prineville, sporting Silver Lake colors, was mostly made up of guys from other places — guys who paid the bills hitting baseballs. Prineville’s motley collection of amateurs — cowboys and shopkeepers who played ball on the weekends — didn’t have a chance.
Still, they managed to rally somehow and tie it up for the second game of the series; no one was really sure how they managed it, and it felt a little miraculous, but there it was. It’s actually possible that the Silver Lake pros let them win, so that the series could go into three games.
But now it looked like Prineville was done for. Silver Lake was about to put it away.
Or were they?
There was a stranger in town that weekend who had a plan for making sure they didn’t. And, what’s more, he had a cool $1,000 riding on it.
That stranger was one Thomas William Lawson.
Thomas Lawson was a very eccentric, somewhat infamous man. He was, essentially, a reformed shark. He’d made a mammoth pile of money in the course of a career on Wall Street that culminated in the most notorious stock-market swindle of the Gilded Age, a swindle that he orchestrated with fellow robber-baron plutocrats William Rockefeller and Henry Rogers.
The three formed an empty shell company called Amalgamated Copper. Then they bought up Anaconda Copper for $37 million, paying for it with IOUs, and set about whipping up a public feeding frenzy over shares in Amalgamated — which was still just an empty shell.
The publicity was Lawson’s particular specialty. People tended to trust him, whereas Rockefeller and Rogers had no such advantage. Now he moved to trade on that trust, declaring Amalgamated the best, most dependable investment he’d ever seen, and when people asked him about the company, he told them, flat-out, “Go your limit!”
Then someone figured out the bait-and-switch, and the bottom fell out. Amalgamated went from $175 to $30 a share. Several investors, ruined after having borrowed heavily to buy shares, are reported to have killed themselves.
This wasn’t his only such swindle, but it was by far the biggest and most successful. It pushed his personal net worth to $50 million.
But he was haunted by the aftermath of this big deed of villainy. Cracks soon started appearing in his sanity, and they got worse after his wife died.
Finally, in 1904, he tried to redeem himself by writing a confession of sorts — a tell-all titled “Frenzied Finance,” which ran as a serial for two solid years in Everybody’s Magazine. It sold copies like you wouldn’t believe, and had a noticeable impact on public pressure to crack down on the trusts. After that, he was heartily loathed by Wall Street, which suited him just fine. He’d made his pile; he was done with all that.
Now Lawson was in Prineville looking for a nice country spread to give his daughter, Dorothy, and son-in-law, Hal, as a wedding present. He just happened to be in town for the game, and no doubt felt putting a little money on the home team would help warm up the welcome the newlyweds would get in their new home town. And Hal, himself a onetime professional baseball player, must have been especially interested in the game. Chances are he was already thinking about joining the Prineville team.
But for Lawson, betting on the home team was one thing. Losing was another. Lawson had not made his fortune by placing bets and letting them lose. It was time to go and do in the bullpen what he’d so often done on the trading floor.
This jovial and charismatic stock promoter, the chief salesman of the biggest bamboozle of the Gilded Age, knew just what to do. Smiling broadly, he made his way down to where the Silver Lake players were resting and catching their breath, waiting for the game to resume.
No doubt he was at his boisterous and hearty best as he stepped up to the members of the visiting ball club, although the records don’t mention that part. What they do mention are his words:
“The drinks are on me!” he roared.
An hour or two later, at the end of the ninth inning, the final score was 10-9, Prineville — and Lawson had run up one humdinger of a bar tab. But then, he’d won a thousand bucks to pay it off with. And his family’s full and enthusiastic acceptance by the jubilant Prineville community was a done deal.
Which was good — not just for the newlyweds, but for the entire state of Oregon. Because Thomas Lawson’s son-in-law and daughter were none other than Hal and Dorothy Lawson McCall. And their first-born son would be Thomas William Lawson McCall, known to his friends (and to voters) as Tom McCall … an Oregonian whom you just might have heard of, once or twice.
Finn J.D. John is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.