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Thursday, October 31, 2019

America's Pastime Saved by Beer

It is October and the World Series is on the minds of fans, especially here in Washington D.C. For many people baseball revives memories of sitting in the stands drinking an ice-cold beer on a hot Sunday and watching the game from the cheap seats. To the fans, this is paradise and a way to enjoy America’s national pastime. But as American as this seems, there was a time when Sunday baseball, beer, and the cheap seats not only did not exist, they were banned.

Rewind to the early 1870’s, a time when the future of baseball looked bleak. Stadium attendance was low and fans were leaving the game. Corrupt and drunken players on the field and gambling in the darkest corners of the stadiums were running off baseball’s fan base. It was not uncommon for players to throw games for gamblers or not show for games with teams refusing to finish tournaments or seasons. This behavior threatened the end of an American sport.

The game’s salvation came in the form of William Ambrose Hulbert, in 1875. Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, had enough of the chaos, dysfunction and corruption of baseball. Desiring a change, Hulbert started a new league that we know today as the National League. Not only did he take his team with him, but he took some of the wealthiest teams for his league. From the start Hulbert used an iron fist to institute rules. Most notably, the league controlled the teams and the players, instead of the other way around as it had been. If teams or players failed to heed the rules, Hulbert showed no mercy expelling the violators for life.

Baseball Score Counter, Peter Doelger Brewing, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977, Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Keeping in line with his crackdown, Hulbert banned alcohol at stadiums. The fans had to quench their thirst with something other than beer and whiskey. Today this seems unbelievable: who would ban beer at the ballpark? But times were different. The Temperance Movement during the 1870’s was in full swing throughout the United States, and banning alcohol fell within the societal norms.

Baseball Score Counter, Pfaff's Brewery, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, ca. 1724-1977, Beer Series, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Lastly, Hulbert wanted to clean up the sport’s riffraff fan base. He raised ticket prices to 50 cents, which at the time was a stiff price to pay. Hulbert believed this would prevent the lower classes from attending games, making games more inviting to women and families.

But then a German immigrant came along to throw a wrench, or actually a mug of beer, into Hulbert’s best-laid plans. Christian von der Ahe pictured baseball for the working man. He and several other team owners formed the American Association baseball league in 1881. Many of these owners were connected to alcohol in some form, whether by owning breweries or saloons, or being based in beer cities such as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

This American Association presented an immediate challenge to the National League in that they allowed beer in the parks, sold tickets for 25 cents, and held games for the first time ever on Sundays. Sunday games were extremely important in that for the average American laborers, Sundays were their only day off. The effects of the American League’s changes were swift. In the beginning Hulbert did not view the new league as a threat to his more puritanical National League, but within the first year the wet American league saw more than four times the profits of Hulbert’s dry league. Von der Ahe’s league quickly was nicknamed the “Beer and Whiskey League.”

By the early 1890’s the National League began to see the errors of its ways. In 1891, as the American Association folded, the National League not only absorbed many of the American Association teams and players, but also the practices of Sunday games, 25 cent tickets and beer in the park.
In the end, the National League’s strict rules attempted to save the floundering sport, but it was the development of the American League that laid the founding traditions that truly saved baseball: cold beer. So while we cheer our favorite team this October, we cannot forget that these traditions we have known and loved were instituted by people who made and sold our beer.

Joe Hursey
Reference Archivist
Archives Center
National Museum of American History

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