Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey - Edward Achorn

Not all the books my dad sends along are about war and killin'. Sometimes they're about baseball, and alcohol.

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey focuses primarily on the American Association's 1883 baseball season, and how the ideas the Association applied helped keep baseball from dying out. As described by Achorn, baseball was fading in popularity as it entered the 1880s, in large part because of several game-fixing scandals, and because it was being marketed to a more limited, upper-class (or at least middle-class) audience. One of the primary characters in the book is Chris Von der Ahe, a German immigrant who owned a brewery and took a chance on starting up his own team (the St. Louis Browns, who later became the St. Louis Cardinals, as opposed to the later version of the Browns, who eventually became the Baltimore Orioles, not to be confused with the Baltimore Orioles who were part of this American Association). The National League wouldn't let him in, so he found some other like-minded fellows who started up their own teams and formed their own league.

The American Association's key was to market the game more towards working class folk. Seats were available for a quarter, rather than 50 cents. Games were played on Sunday, the only day most laborers had off. And beer and whiskey were sold at the game (small wonder, considering several of the owners, like Von der Ahe, owned their own breweries or distilleries). They would offer contracts to players the National League had blacklisted, and even players still under contract to National League teams. All this was frowned upon in certain sectors (especially in the offices of those National League teams), but it worked, especially as they were able to lure more of the best players to their league, raising the standard of play, making it more exciting for the fans. Achorn focuses on the '83 season in large part because it's the first year where all those things come together well, and also because it's one of the seasons that perhaps best encapsulates Von der Ahe (think George Steinbrenner: Mercurial, hungry to win, willing to spend, inclined to meddle).

Achorn fills the book with the colorful characters of the era, detailing the difficulties teams had keeping their players from partying too much, and the inevitable media backlash  For all the things that were different about baseball then versus baseball now - no gloves, needing to throw 7 balls to walk a batter, fans sitting in the field of play when the crowds got too large, games routinely ending in 90 minutes - there were a lot of similarities. The connection between sports and alcohol, obviously. Teams would pay lip service to the idea of their players having strong moral character, but ultimately look the other way for talent. The media siding with management against the players (the fans do this, too, especially these days, which is one of the things I find most distasteful about other sports fans). Players will be "man" enough to hit other players with pitches, but not bold enough to admit it was done on purpose. Trying to influence umpires. Players will be criticized for doing things with too much flash (if it doesn't work, that is). Arlie Latham got some criticism for cutting in front of the shortstop to field balls, then flubbing them. Doubtless no one would complain if he'd made the play.

Achorn also expands the book beyond just the American Association, checking in on the National League when developments there impact the Association, and also devotes a chapter to the resurgence in leagues for black players at that time, which was unfortunately made necessary by racists pushing for segregation. Cap Anson plays a major role in that chapter as someone who pitched a fit when he had to play an exhibition game against a Toledo team that employed Fleetwood Walker, an excellent catcher who just so happened to be black.

It's an excellent book that recaps the important games of the pennant race with an appropriate tension, and gives a real sense of how quickly the public's interest in baseball was rekindled once they had the opportunity to actually go see games.

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