The Summer of Beer and Whiskey
Three weeks ago, at the New Yorker blog, Jon Michaud wrote about a book I might otherwise have missed, Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game. As Michaud explains,
the dramatic 1883 pennant chase in the American Association forms the core of Edward Achorn’s newly published history, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” but it is far from the only reason to read his book. The eighteen-eighties were a pivotal time for the national pastime. Baseball (or “base ball,” as it was known then) was losing fans, many of whom were disenchanted by high ticket prices, cheating scandals, and the malevolent influence of gamblers on the sport. In 1881, a newspaper editor referred to baseball as “a dead crow.” Achorn argues that the American Association did much to revive interest in the sport and propel baseball toward its place at the heart of American culture. Combining the narrative skills of a sportswriter with a historian’s depth of knowledge and stockpile of detail, Achorn has produced a book that is both entertaining and informative.
I downloaded the book’s free opening portion from Amazon and had a look, anticipating that I might turn to it on finishing Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers. But instead I turned to Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
After that, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Achorn’s book. I have a long list of books that struck me as potentially more interesting. They’re not short, though, whereas The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is just 260 pages. Two nights ago I started it. I’m now about 145 pages in.
Like any good writer of history, Achorn excels at making time vanish, so that the events of the 1883 baseball season seem as real as today’s Mariner 2-1 loss to the Yankees (another wasted pitching gem by Felix Hernandez).
I had long imagined that late nineteeth-century baseball wasn’t the real thing. It was certainly different. In his blog post, Michaud touches on this:
Among the many rewards of reading Achorn’s book is learning about the ways that baseball in the nineteenth century differed from the sport we now know. Games were officiated by a single umpire. Players did not wear numbers on their uniforms, nor did they use gloves. Before they took the field, they often served as ticket-takers at the ballpark gates. The first team to bat was determined by a coin flip. But the most startling difference can be found in pitching. The pitching leaderboard for the American Association’s ninety-eight-game 1883 season would be unfathomable to the modern fan used to five-man rotations and squadrons of bullpen specialists. The Reds’ Will White led the league with forty-three wins. He pitched five hundred and seventy-seven innings, including sixty-four complete games. His earned-run average was 2.09. On the Fourth of July, 1883, Tim Keefe of the Metropolitans gave a one-man display of pitching fireworks, hurling both ends of a doubleheader, winning the first game with a one-hitter and the second with a two-hitter.
Yet, in Achorn’s hands, the differences melt away. Team owners want to control player rights. (We learn about the origin of the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team forever.) Players abuse substances to their detriment. (Alcohol.) Teams in the thick of a pennant race attract big crowds. And an upstart league competes against an established one, until the older league merges with and absorbs the more successful teams of the new league. (Think 1950 and the absorption of the All-America Football Conference with the NFL, or 1976 and the NBA-ABA merger.)
That thing about players not using gloves, though–that’s different. So too the absence of a rule that when a pitcher hits a batter with a ball, the batter goes to first base. From what I’ve read so far, these differences led to high injury rates. And no batting helmets either. This was a dangerous sport.
Again, though, it’s the similarities that come through. However dangerous professional baseball was, it sure beat working in factories or mines at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of protection or insurance for workers. The player salaries, in relative terms, were nothing like those of today. Yet, they were viewed as privileged, as this passage attests:
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette … found it astonishing that any professional player would squander his extraordinary good luck by becoming a drunkard. After all, many men toiled six days a week, ten hours a day, doing brutal, dangerous physical labor for a pittance. The paper noted that:
a ballplayer’s path in summer time is on beds of flowery ease. He gets a big salary, travels all over the country, stops at good hotels, and has the best of everything. He is paid by the public to furnish one hour and a half of amusement each afternoon [games weren’t dragged out by television ads between innings or players stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust their clothes], and he certainly should be able to keep clear of whiskey during the season, especially as he had all winter to get even. The great trouble with some men on the Allegheny club is that they look on base ball merely as a pretext to open their pores and enable them to sweat out the whiskey drank the night before. They regularly fill up and regularly sweat it out at the expense of the reputation of the management and the regret and sorrow of all lovers of base ball hereabouts.
Too bad Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the heroes of the 1986 Mets, didn’t read this warning before squandering their own careers.
Another difference is worth mentioning. Not a baseball difference, but a difference in the distribution of US population between then and now. Much of the book focuses on teams in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. In the 1880 census, the largest eight cities, in order, were New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [not consolidated with New York until 1898], Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. In the 2010 census, Philadelphia had dropped from 2nd to 5th, St. Louis from 6th to 58th, and Cincinnati from 8th to 65th. (This is a bit deceptive, since suburbs weren’t as significant in 1880 as now, so one should compare metropolitan area populations. Doing so makes the decline of St. Louis and Cincinnati less dramatic.) It’s a very different US that the book describes.
Jumping ahead three decades to 1900, a review of the census clarifies why it is that the cities with teams in both the National and American Leagues were New York [including Brooklyn], Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. They were, in that order, the five largest US cities. Which reminds me, I should explain that the 1880s St. Louis Browns team of the American Association featured in the book was not the ancestor of the later American League St. Louis Browns (still later to move to Baltimore and become the Orioles). Rather, it was the ancestor of today’s St. Louis Cardinals.