Chicago Baseball Museum

July 31, 2007 A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization   VOLUME 2007 ISSUE 3  
Baseball Books
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A “Hey-Hey!” for Jack Brickhouse
John Ely Homecoming
Collecting Chicago
The Business of Baseball
Beer and Baseball: A Look Back
Casey Crosby
A Chicago Tavern
Andrew "Rube" Foster Excerpt
Wrigley Field's Last World Series
Pre-National League Excerpt
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Beer and Baseball: A Look Back
by Steve Hamburg

Beer and baseball are as inseparable as Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris, or Tinker to Evers to Chance. From the earliest days of the professional game, beer has been much more than the fans’ refreshment of choice. The brewing industry and the National Pastime have been loyal partners.   
Contrary to legend, baseball wasn’t born in pastoral Cooperstown under the watchful eye of Abner Doubleday. Instead, our “most democratic of games” evolved from the British children’s game of rounders and the patrician sport of cricket. And counter to its image as the rural pastime of simple farm boys, baseball was initially an urban activity for gentlemen of means.

While there are many debates about baseball’s origins, there is broad acceptance that Alexander Cartwright codified the first playing rules for his colleagues at the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City in 1845. The following June, the Knicks were drubbed 23-1 by the New York Nine in the first recorded game played under the Cartwright rules against a rival team.

Coincidentally, a revolution occurred that would inalterably change the appearance and flavor of beer. In 1842, brewers in Pilsen, Bohemia developed the first clear, golden beer. Lager was born, and this lighter, more attractive, and refreshing beverage quickly took the world by storm. It arrived in the United States along with a million-plus German immigrants, including families whose names would become synonymous with beer and baseball in the United States: Miller, Schlitz, Anheuser, Busch.

With immigration booming, the gentleman’s game of baseball was now being embraced by different elements in a radically changing American society. Fraternal orders, ethnic clubs, businesses, workers and trade groups established their own teams. The Civil War (1861-65) also hastened the spread of the game as never before. At war’s end, baseball was the national game.

By the end of the 1860’s, competition between amateur clubs grew so intense that money crept into the game. Even before the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first openly professional club in 1869, the best players were drawn to the highest bidder. Some things never change.

Ambitious entrepreneurs took control, fencing in ball fields and charging admission. They also quickly recognized other revenue streams, including a certain golden malt beverage. To be sure, money invited greed and corruption into baseball, but without it, the modern professional game would never have evolved.

Corruption took its toll, however. Questionable competition, drunken rowdiness, and a post-war economic depression turned fans away. Reform came in 1876, when William Hulbert of Chicago fathered the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (today’s National League). The new league banned gambling and alcohol, proscribed Sunday games, and set the price of tickets at 50 cents.

These reforms worked to a great extent, but they also effectively turned baseball into a white-collar game. Without Sunday play, baseball excluded most working-class people, who routinely worked six days a week. The 50-cent ticket price was also beyond the means of average folks (by comparison, in 1967 one could still see a Major League game for $1.50). When the league voted in 1878 to expel any team that still sold beer, or didn’t drop players or officials that participated even in non-league Sunday games, that was the last straw.

A group of owners, particularly from major brewing cities, broke off from the National League in 1881 to form a new venture, the American Association. It was no coincidence that four of the founding owners were brewmasters themselves. The AA countered the NL’s elitist approach and pitched baseball directly to the workingman. Sunday games were in, tickets were only a quarter, and beer was back.

Derisively called the “Beer and Whiskey League” by National League proponents, the AA survived for 10 seasons, competing strongly and even defeating the National League champs multiple times in an early version of the World Series. When it finally folded up shop after years of battling the NL, the American Association bequeathed the senior circuit more than half its teams and its three articles of faith – cheaper tickets, Sunday ball, and beer sales. Baseball would never be an elitist game again.

The beer sold at AA parks would be completely recognizable to us today. We know that American brewers were already using corn and rice adjuncts, and their beers were lighter-bodied, less bitter, and served colder than traditional ales or original European lagers. Many of the brands they drank are still with us. Three modern ballparks bear their names.

In the July 2002 edition of American Heritage (“Beer and America”), author Max Rudin argues that the modern period in the history of American beer can be traced directly to the American Association. Beer’s connection to sports, leisure, male bonding, and especially the American working class, all began with this long-forgotten baseball league.

So, next time you’re quaffing a few cold ones at the old ball game, raise your glass in overdue appreciation to the Beer and Whiskey League – the old American Association.


Steve Hamburg is a beer and baseball historian from Chicago.

Published by Dr. David J. Fletcher
Copyright © 2007 Chicago Baseball Museum. All rights reserved.
The Chicago Baseball Museum is tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
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