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Murray Polner: Review of Edward Achorn's "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey" (PublicAffairs, 2013)

Murray Polner wrote “Branch Rickey: A Biography.”

Edward Achorn, who wrote the justly-praised Fifty-Nine in ’84, an illuminating exploration of early baseball and a pitcher named “Hoss” Radborn, child of English immigrants, who won 308 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, offers yet a new exploration of the nineteenth century game, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Race Made Baseball America’s Game -- a mouthful but a suggestive subtitle. Achorn is editorial page editor of the Providence Journal and a frequent book reviewer for The Weekly Standard.

Much of the book is focused on Chris Von der Ahe, an owner virtually unknown today but who played an absolutely crucial role in preserving and spreading the gospel of baseball. He was a German-born immigrant with little knowledge of baseball when he arrived in the 1870s in St. Louis, where so many Germans immigrants had come to live following the failed German liberal revolution of 1848. Once settled, he bought a grocery and saloon, not far from the local ballpark. He spoke English with a heavy German accent, wore lavishly colored clothing to draw attention, married and divorced with some regularity, and paid piles of money to ex-wives and lovers.

Von der Ahe loved the publicity and newspaper stories about him but he was also a shrewd businessman interested in making money, which he did by selling beer and spreading the gospel of baseball, about which he knew little. Smart, pushy, selfish, competitive and tough, he was very different from the usual run of today’s undistinguished and dull billionaire baseball owners. Achorn compares him to George Steinbrenner, whose constant interference and multiple firings of manager Billy Martin became part of baseball lore, and Charles Finley, who once fired his second baseman for daring to make an error in a World Series game.

It was von der Ahe who helped make the game the nation’s most popular spectator sport. Somehow he sensed that baseball, a foreign game to him, seemed to be in trouble, but might be his vehicle to fame and wealth. When the St. Louis Brown Stockings collapsed in 1878, he rushed into the gap and formed the Browns and had them play in Sportsman’s Park. To the shock of baseball traditionalists in the established National League, he and several others revitalized the game in St. Louis and elsewhere by forming the rival American Association in 1881, which welcomed black players like Fleet Walker and his brother Welday when it added the Toledo team.

At Browns’ games -- and to the consternation of local churches -- the team played on Sunday, the one rest day allowed working people. He sold beer, angering the drys, but it meant money in the bank since he was in the beer business. He also lowered admission tickets to an affordable 25 cents, thereby welcoming the working class who would become the essential fan base for decades.

Early baseball was early on a gentleman’s game, centered mainly in the Northeast. But it began gathering popularity when Union soldiers during the Civil War relaxed by playing the game. By the early 1880s it spread its geographic wings, and cities and towns throughout the East and Midwest had teams. Players were generally uneducated, many of them drunks, gamblers, and some with criminal records. They were dubbed “Traveling Hoodlums” by sportswriters, who themselves helped to popularize the game with their graphic, often blinkered and opinionated accounts of games and players. Games were undoubtedly fixed. With no health insurance or contracts, players had no access to team trainers or doctors. It was a game also played without gloves or catcher masks, only one umpire, and of course no batting helmets (a Branch Rickey innovation).

In 1885, John Montgomery Ward (a figure overlooked by Achorn) and eight other players formed a union and the Players League, which offered health plans, no reserve clause and a profit-sharing system, all a direct challenge to the status quo. Sadly, the league collapsed for lack of money. Ward, a fine pitcher now in the Hall of Fame, graduated Columbia University Law School and eventually became a lawyer for players, a sort of Marvin Miller of his time.

Baseball’s one major league, the National League, would not hire black players and was dominated by William A. Hulbert, a moralist who, much like the avenging Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis after the post-WWI Black Sox scandal, expelled players and two teams because they hadn’t played their full schedule. Like Landis, he never challenged the reserve clause and exclusion of black players. Hulbert’s assistant and friend was the far more historically important Albert G. Spalding, slighted by Achorn, who played a crucial role in the development of baseball. It was Spalding, once a pitcher, who became head of the Chicago White Stockings after Hulbert’s death and continued defending the reserve clause and player salary caps and once led an international excursion to popularize baseball.

Achorn does well to portray a blighted landscape throughout the country when white America’s undeniable racism, unofficially but firmly, caused the banning of black players. He depicts Moses Fleet Walker, the first black major leaguer ( David W. Zang’s 1995 book “Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart,” is a complete portrait of Walker’s complicated, storied and non-conforming life on and off the diamond) and the Michigan-born superstar Cap Anson who, with virtually unanimous approval of the baseball community, kept Walker, his brother Welday, and every other blacks off major league teams. Ironically, black teams then started to flourish before large crowds in places like Cincinnati and Louisville.

Walker was born in 1857 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, seven years after the enactment of the pitiless Fugitive Slave Law, when Quakers were still shielding runaway and f reed slaves. His mulatto parents had probably once been slaves and the region they chose to live included Oberlin College, where Walker earned a degree studying Greek and mathematics. He was then hired by a Cleveland-based team and Achorn’s retelling of a game played in Louisville in 1881, recalls Jackie Robinson’s anguish sixty-five years later. Walker was banned from the game but also denied access to rooms and food service offered to white players. This happened during the post-Reconstruction era backlash, when Jim Crow and its resulting crimes became the law of the former Confederate states and racial discrimination and anti-black violence was common everywhere else. Far too many white players, poorly educated, manipulated by corrupt racist populists, and increasingly the product of families threatened by new immigrants, industrialization, economic depressions and amoral capitalist freebooters, saw blacks as workplace competitors.

It was Cap Anson who led the charge to demand blacks be barred. Achorn quotes from Anson's ghost-written autobiography which is sprinkled throughout with racist terms no longer publishable. “Anson,” writes Achorn, “had his way when he was alive, and partly because of him it took baseball many more years to integrate.” His inflexible views, perhaps growing out of an acknowledged early fear of Indians, meant that “his crusade against a culture of merit in baseball, either made no impression on many of his white contemporaries or won their quiet approval—since many shared his belief that blacks degraded the game.” It also reinforced the broad American faith in white racial superiority. And unlike Robinson, Walker had few defenders. There was no Ralph Branca, Peewee Reese or Hank Greenberg to welcome him, no Rickey to warn Dodger players against opposing Robinson’s hiring, and no manager Leo Durocher to excoriate the recalcitrants.

Still, thanks to the emergence of the American Association by 1882, baseball had come of age. In 1883 a playoff victory by the Philadelphia Athletics against Von der Ahe’s Browns was seen by an unprecedented 16,800 fans and later celebrated by huge cheering crowds in Philadelphia, perhaps larger, Achorn writes, “since a tremendous parade eighteen years earlier had been held to honor the returning heroes of the Civil War.” After that, “no-one could doubt anymore whether baseball would survive, the game that had almost died several years earlier was booming as never before under the mercurial leadership of Chris Von der Ahe.”

When von der Ahe died in 1913 of nephritis and cirrhosis of the liver caused by heavy drinking, many of the stars of his 1883 team returned as pallbearers among them Charlie Comiskey, Bill and Jack Gleason, and surprisingly, Ted Sullivan, a former Browns successful manager who quit in anger at Von der Ahe. Concludes Achorn: “An immigrant grocer, in short, had worked wonders in this foreign land with the game Americans called their national pastime.” A wonderful, unsentimental history of the men who bequeathed the game to us.