Review: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn

By 1880, baseball was a dying sport in America. Gamblers dominated corrupt National League players, managers and umpires; inconsistent ownership had allowed the dilution of the old National Association of Professional Baseball Players to continue unabated in their rivals markets; most tellingly, the high cost of attendance and the demands of the owners to a ‘gentleman’s game’ had barred women and alcohol from National League ballparks. Fans were abandoning the highest levels of baseball in droves, and by 1880, six of the eight original charter clubs in baseball folded. Sports journalists wrote terse obituaries of a unique sport that had blazed into the public’s fascination only a decade or so before to have flamed out; spent and ready to be returned to the corner lots or forgotten.

It was into this atmosphere that an unlikely person would stride; a successful Prussian immigrant with a comical accent, a weakness for fast women, and a penchant for chloric rages and impulsive decisions that would help redefine how major league baseball operated. In doing so, he would start it down an unlikely road that would one day be the framework of modern professional Major League Baseball.

"Hear dem shouting out dere? Tree thousand tem fools and one vise man, and the vise man is me, me Chris Won der Ahe!" - Chris Von der Ahe

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is a look back at the roots of professional baseball, to a time of rapid change as baseball fought through the long process of turning a game into an effective business. It focuses on Chris Von der Ahe, who bought the St. Louis Brown Stockings (now the St. Louis Cardinals) in 1882 for $1,800. Von der Ahe had been a highly successful beer garden owner, growing it into a larger empire of shops, saloons, and associated businesses. He had noted that his attendance jumped markedly following local baseball games, as fans poured into his businesses for steins of lager. He saw that owning the team allowed him to switch the focus of drinking from the beer garden to the ballpark, which led him to make the Brown Stockings one of the founding members of the American Association League. The aptly titled ‘AA’ League would be dubbed ‘the beer and whiskey’ league by its rivals as a sneer against the idea of grandstands full of common drunkards chasing off God-fearing folk. Instead, the serving of alcohol in AA parks, as well as a $0.25 admission fee (half of what the NL parks charged) opened up the parks to poorer fans and created vibrant support from the working class. The book is framed around the 1883 revitalization of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who would fight right down to the wire for the pennant, re-brand themselves in scarlet, and create a legacy leading all the way to their World Series victory in 2011.

Achorn does a deft job navigating the byzantine world of professional and semi-professional baseball of the era without getting too bogged down in the minutiae. He’s particularly good at weaving information in where it has the most contextual impact, such as the seven-ball walk rule of 1884 and the lack of padded gloves for the fielders. He is equally adept at putting the very different and yet eerily similar interaction between professional sports and their fans into context, as sports writers rile up their readers with vituperative attacks on the manager, the owner clashes with his stars, and players are hailed with bygone nicknames like ‘The Freshest Man on Earth’. (‘Fresh’ in this case to mean verbally combative - Arlie Latham was known for his constant jawing of the opposing side).

"[St Louis is] about the toughest and roughest gang that ever struck the city... Vile of speech, indolent of bearing, impatient of restraint, they set at defiance all rules... the captain is an illiterate individual named Comiskey, whose sole claim to distinction rests on his glib use of profane language." - Philadelphia Press

Achorn structures the book around three phases; the rise of Von der Ahe; the efforts of his opening day manager Ted Sullivan to build a winning club; and the last month of the season as Sullivan is impulsively fired and the team fights to catch the heavily favoured Philadelphia Athletics. The framework allows him to introduce a lot of information vital to view the events in the proper context, but he never quite finds his narrative voice. Von der Ahe is treated as a buffoonish figure, with his thick vaudevillian German accent and seeming cluelessness about how his own team works. But he is also a shrewd, innovative and forward thinking executive who creates the map for the modern baseball market. Likewise, Sullivan is one half John McGraw and one half Connie Mack, right up until the point that he’s too blind to see a young Charles Comiskey working Von der Ahe and the press to be Sullivan’s natural replacement. The last third of the book falls into the Halberstam formula of baseball writing, which is once it gets down to a key game, create narrative like knitting a scarf; perl one of the players situation (‘having been injured and mired in a slump all Fall’) and knit one of the result (‘Latham managed to poke a fastball between first and second’). It’s functional but tired and a bit stale.

One of the more interesting elements in the book involve two players; one who would turn into a major figure in the history of baseball, and the other an amusing footnote. The Brown’s first baseman was a good hitting, slick fielding 24 year old named Charlie Comiskey. Despite 1883 being only his second season, the young player was able to convince Von der Ahe that he was capable of managing the team, which following the firing of Sullivan, he did to finish off the season. The 1884 season would see the situation repeat, with Comiskey helping to remove a more experienced manager and take his place. Comiskey would go from a player to a full time manager, and later a part owner in a St. Paul’s minor league team that he relocated to Chicago to become the Chicago White Sox in 1901.

The other figure was a former Yale ballclub pitcher who took a year off school to accept an expensive contract from the Detroit Wolverines and then later be dealt to the Philadelphia Athletics. Daniel ‘Jumping Jack’ Jones was a pitcher with a unique delivery; he’d kick himself into the air and then fire the ball at the plate. His unconventional style made him a famous collegiate player, and when the Athletics ace Bobby Matthews ran into a dead arm after 380 innings, Jones was acquired to help the club down the stretch. Jones compiled a respectable 5-2 record and a sub-3 ERA despite badly flagging in his last several starts for Philadelphia. It would also be his only season, as he returned to school and joined his mother’s dental practice in New England. He would remain a baseball fan, in part due to his close friendship with one of his catchers, Cornelius McGillicuddy or as he's better known, Connie Mack.

"First base is enlightenment; second base is repentance; third base, faith, and the home plate the Heavenly goal!" - Reverend Frederick Craft's funeral service for Chris Von der Ahe

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey provides an interesting snapshot of the game during the decades it fought to define itself and professionalize into something resembling the modern day. It also outlines several events that impact the growth of the game in Toronto and resonate all the way to the modern Blue Jays. The AA leagues fought bitterly against the National League, with Von der Ahe on the forefront. One of their initiatives against the National League was to demand that games played by other teams with AA league teams would have to match their pricing standards. In doing so, it established the defacto admission price for baseball virtually everywhere at a quarter, and forced owners to use similar tactics to increase the gate, operating wet ballparks. The International League, made up of the merged Ontario, New York State and Eastern Leagues, began playing in 1885 and in 1886 and would include the Toronto Torontos as a league member. Playing out of Sunlight Park near Jarvis and Queen, the Torontos would go on to capture the International League championship in 1887 and play until the league folded in 1890. They would resurface in 1895 as the Eastern League Toronto Maple Leafs, eventually being folded into a new International League before being sold and moved in 1967. The Jays current triple-A minor league affiliate Buffalo Bisons plays in the same International League today.

Besides the league opportunities, Chris Von der Ahe himself created a new type of baseball magnate. He was one of the first that saw baseball as a way to bolster his business empire, as opposed to being the cornerstone of it. His original purchase of the club was a way to increase his beer sales, and his investment into the team was based around his observation that a winning ballclub drove profits in every venue associated with it. A similar calculation formed the basis of the original investment in the 1977 expansion Blue Jays by Labatt’s (who chose the name with the hopes they’d be known colloquially as ‘The Blues’, like their flagship lager) and later Rogers Communications. His efforts to turn attending a ballgame into a wider event, with beer gardens, amusement parks, and bandstands around his yard were the inspiration for Bill Veeck’s efforts in the 20th century, and one needs to only catch a glimpse of Comerica Park to see the concept is thriving still in the 21st.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Archon’s work is that he presents the games and its characters in a way to make them instantly recognizable as sports personalities well represented in today’s game. The narratives of the strident press, the arrogant star, the buffoonish ownership and the ‘feel good’ player who makes it are no different from in 2013 than in 1883, even 130 years later. The game was different, but the people aren’t, and in with that context, it makes it much easier to relate to their efforts, failures, and successes.

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