Book review: ‘The Summer of Beer and Whiskey’

This is from a few years back by one of my favorite chroniclers of baseball history and a damn good newspaper writer.

“The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight made Baseball America’s Game;” By Edward Achorn; Public Affairs; 263 pages.

Recording history is one thing. Giving it life beyond the ink on a page is another.

Edward Achorn is on the list of authors who understands the difference. He doesn’t merely mine and present dusty facts — and there are plenty of those to go around — he crafts thousands of stray historical threads into a rich tapestry that offers more than just a glimpse into his subject, in this case post-Civil War America and the origins of professional baseball.

He creates a complex look into the lives of the people and places he’s writing about — from the industrial northeast to the burgeoning Midwest. He leads readers to a time before automobiles, airplanes, electricity, radio or television. It was time when diseases were still unchecked, morals  loose and baseball gloves did not exist. It was a time when newspapers still ruled the media world — sometimes in frightening ways. And it was a time when a rather complicated game played by rowdy and hard men who might be better described as hooligans became a major source of entertainment, ultimately evolving into what would be America’s “national pastime” for decades.

Achorn, a career journalist and now editorial page editor for the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, is quickly becoming the foremost author today when it comes to baseball’s early history. His first book, “Fifty-Nine in ‘84” looked at the remarkable season of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, a hard-drinking uber-competitive pitcher who won a record 59 games in 1884 for the National League champion Providence Grays. To put the achievement into perspective, the Grays were 84-28 that year and Radbourn pitched nearly every game — through injury and excruciating pain. His goal: To win an elusive title for Providence — and the favor of a woman. It was equal parts history, baseball, love story and the romance of one man’s single-minded quest. Achorn set a high bar, re-creating with startling detail, the city of Providence, its society and the impact sport itself was beginning to have on early American culture.

Achorn’s latest is a worthy match.

“The Summer of Beer and Whiskey” examines the rise of a league that would rival — and eventually merge with the National League. Born of an idea to contest the stodginess of the established National League, the American Association would feature elements its older sibling had eschewed. The upstarts were proponents of Sunday baseball, beer sales and tickets priced so working people could attend the games. It was the beginning of sport as entertainment. The American Association’s shrewd and sometimes colorful owners were risk-takers who were also the first to introduce African-American players to an all-white game.

It succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the league’s founders, who formed the circuit in 1883 at a time when the National League was emerging from a gambling scandal that had tainted its competition and players in the eyes of the public. Four of those early franchises are still around today — the St. Louis Browns (Cardinals), Pittsburgh Alleghenys (Pirates), Cincinnati Reds, and the Philadelphia (Oakland) Athletics.

The leading protagonist was an unlikely grocer and beer garden proprietor by the name of Chris Von Der Ahe. A German immigrant on the rise in St. Louis, Von Der Ahe was perhaps the George Steinbrenner of his day. A blustering businessman with a quick temper that often led to impetuous personnel decisions regarding the St. Louis Browns. Von Der Ahe, though, was also a colorful figure who had a knack for showmanship and drawing fans more commonly attributed to 20th century owner Bill Veeck.

How Von Der Ahe and others put the league — and their respective teams — together, frames the beginning of the book, but the core of the story unfolds with a pennant race that captures the attention of fans from St. Louis to Philadelphia. As one team — decimated by injuries and beleaguered pitchers common to that time — staggers to the finish, it’s obvious that baseball is on its way to making an indelible stamp on a still young nation.

Achorn’s engaging narrative keeps this story moving. As largely unpredictable events unfold, Achorn’s attention to detail creates vivid scenes of outfielders wading into a sea of standing-room-only spectators forced to watch games on the playing field. Infielders make miraculous plays without the benefit of gloves. And weary pitchers, who take the ball day after day with limited time off, throw to battery mates whose bodies are scarred by the barehanded game.

The research required to amass so many details is impressive. Achorn cites no fewer than 65 newspapers as sources. Some are obscure, such as the Jonesville Gazette in Wisconsin. Others no longer exist, a testament to how much the media world has changed over the last 130 years. Achorn finds gold, though, because late 1800s American newspapers covered such local sporting events to near exhaustion. Sports writers of that time were not only comprehensive in their game coverage, but often scathing in their criticism of play on the field. It was not uncommon for writers to characterize the players in print as drunken layabouts and malingerers. Owners were also a frequent source of cruel lampooning.

In that regard, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey” is very much a story that goes beyond baseball. It reveals more about the evolution of popular culture — from entertainment and sports to media and celebrity. In many ways, it serves as a primer for how America got where it is today.


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