No, this isn’t a beverage post, nor does it reflect in any way on how my summer is going so far. Newborns tend to discourage that sort of thing. Rather, this is a book about one of my other summertime favorites: baseball.
Summer of Beer and Whiskey tells the story of the American Association, a short-lived professional baseball league that played from 1882 to 1891. It provides an extensively researched narrative covering the Association’s founding and the thrilling 1883 pennant race between the St. Louis Brown Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics. As an upstart rival to the National League, the Association sought to re-popularize the sport after a long string of embarrassing scandals caused the general public to lose faith in the integrity of the game and its players. Standing in stark contrast to the perceived elitism and puritanism of National League President William A. Hulbert’s iron rule, the Association would revolutionize the sport at the professional level by lowering ticket prices, playing games on Sunday, and allowing the sale of beer in stadiums. These changes did not come without controversy as critics dubbed the Association the “Beer and Whiskey Circuit,” on account of most team owners having interests in saloons, biergartens, malting, and breweries, and accused them of soliciting “hoodlums” and “riffraff” as fans by making games affordable to the workingman. However, despite this skepticism, the American Association successfully expanded the game’s audience and helped rescue the sport from financial collapse before eventually folding and merging into the National League.
I found this book fascinating and had a hard time putting it down. I knew pretty much nothing about this part of baseball history and really enjoyed reading about it. One thing I found interesting was the reign of William A. Hulbert and the absolute power he had over the sport as National League President. From imposing the Reserve Clause, which would prohibit Free Agency in Major League Baseball for nearly 100 years, blacklisting players from all levels of professional baseball for transgressions against the League, and expelling big market teams for not following his edicts, most notably the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Mutuals in 1876 for having to cancel games and the Cincinnati Reds in 1880 for refusing to stop the sale of beer, he was certainly an interesting figure to read about. It makes you really see how much power has shifted to the players and the player’s union over the last few decades.
I also enjoyed reading about how much the game on the field has changed in the last 130 or so years. As a modern fan, many aspects of the game back then may seem nearly incomprehensible. On the field, things like the absence of fielding gloves and protective gear were probably the most striking examples of these differences. Needless to say injuries were common and many careers came to unfortunate ends as a result. There were also a lot of differences in the rules governing gameplay that drastically changed the dynamics of an at bat. One such rule that particularly amazed me was hit batsmen not getting a free base, a loophole some pitchers would dangerously exploit to their advantage. These differences, however, are just the tip of the iceberg and there are plenty more that come up as you read through the book.
It was a different world statistically as well. Just take a look at some of the American Association’s leaders in pitching statistics at the end of the 98 game 1883 season (as listed in the book’s appendix):
Complete Games: 68
In today’s era of 162 game seasons, 43 wins is a lofty goal for two years. Pitching 619 innings is a milestone that would require a combination of exceptional health, skill, and willing management to reach in three seasons. As for complete games, today’s specialized bullpens have made those a much rarer feat. According to Baseball Reference, you’d have to go back to 2011 (James Shields with 11) and 2008 (CC Sabathia with 10) for the last two times a Major League pitcher even broke into double digits.
If you are a fan of baseball and its history, definitely consider checking out this book. Edward Achorn tells a highly entertaining story that does an excellent job bringing this period of baseball history to life in a manner that is both interesting and informative.