Nonfiction: Baseball may owe its survival to the 1883 pennant race and those who transformed a failing sport.
April 1. “Almost wintry at the ball park and thoroughly cheerless.” That might sound like a recent Twins home opener, but we’re talking about April 1, 1883, in St. Louis, where the game of baseball was about to be transformed.
Edward Achorn recaptures the season that saved baseball in “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.”
In the late 1870s, the national pastime was a disgrace. Gamblers in cahoots with dishonest players corrupted the games spectators were paying to see, so spectators (the word “fan” hadn’t been coined yet) stopped paying to see them. Heavy-handed National League officials made the sport even less appealing by expelling big-city teams and blacklisting star players — not just for cheating, but also for insisting on being paid.
Into this downward spiral stepped Chris von der Ahe, an immigrant St. Louis saloon owner with an outsized personality and the ambition to go with it. Von der Ahe bought into the St. Louis Browns and with some like-minded men in Louisville, Brooklyn, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, helped create the rival American Association in 1881. Unlike the National League, these teams played on Sundays, the only day off for working-class folks. They charged 25-cent admission, half the National League’s 50 cents. They sold beer and whiskey. Spectators came by the thousands.
All they needed now was a pennant race, and in 1883 they got one so memorable it’s surprising that we don’t remember it.
Perhaps it’s because the game that Achorn describes is so different from the one we know. Arm-weary pitchers went days without relief. Road trips lasted a month.With no radio or TV, people waited outside newspaper offices for telegraph updates. The color line hadn’t been drawn yet in Reconstruction-era America, meaning Fleet Walker could play on a white team decades before Jackie Robinson.
Yet some things abide: misbehaving players and penny-pinching owners. The Yankees’ George Steinbrenner had nothing over Von der Ahe, who fired both the Browns’ manager and top player in the last weeks of the pennant race.
With so many stories and personalities, Achorn struggles to maintain a coherent narrative at times. Some digressions are worthy of full books, and maybe they will be. This book includes samples from Achorn’s fine biography, “Fifty-Nine in ’84.”
As with that book, Achorn’s gift for storytelling shines in the climactic games of the season. Vivid scenes put the reader in the stands as pitchers pelt batters, fielders crash through fences and the forces of nature whip up a blinding ninth-inning dust “hurricane.”
When the dust settles, one team will win the pennant, and Americans will rediscover their love of baseball.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.