Book Review: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey


In The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight made Baseball America’s Game, journalist Edward Achorn takes us back to the days of old-school baseball.

The book, published by PublicAffairs Books at the end of April 2013, takes us all the way back to the 1883 baseball season. The season in particular was a turning point for the game. In the National League at the time, not only were Sunday games not allowed but alcoholic beverages were not being sold at the games either. Furthermore, they didn’t have a two-tier pricing system for admission to the games at the gate.

This was not the case in the American Association, the newly founded league that consisted of the St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Athletics, Louisville Eclipse, Baltimore Orioles, New York Metropolitans, Columbus Buckeyes, and Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Some of these teams did make their way over to what we now know as Major League Baseball although their names have since changed. Others folded and their names later came back when other teams moved to those cities as a way of paying homage to the early days of baseball.

Achorn takes a lifetime of research into 19th Century baseball, of which many players are now forgotten, and gives us a vivid history of that season.

In some ways, this book tells us the story of Chris Von der Ahe. He was a German grocer and beer garden proprietor. He spent his life savings to start the franchise that we now know as the St. Louis Cardinals. But in the 1880s, this team was called the Browns. He didn’t know much about baseball and had the George Steinbrenner type of relationship with his managers but at the time, baseball was dying and he helped change that. In doing so, he became what can only be described as “one of the most important–and most amusing–figures in the game’s history.

The American Association came to be only because beer was prohibited at National League games. This maverick league consisted of teams that held a liquor interest of sorts.

The pennant race between the Browns and Athletics was a tight one. The Browns didn’t win in the end but that didn’t make the game any less exciting.

In the epilogue, Achorn writes:

"For all he did to save and revitalize baseball, to popularize Sunday ball and beer, to lend color and dazzle to the game, and to found and lead one of the great franchises in baseball, Chris Von der Ahe deserves a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Due to his flamboyant personality, later generations have been left with the belief that he was a buffoon. Nothing could be further from the truth after taking a trip through time.

For fans wanting to get an idea of what the early days of the Cardinals/Browns were like, I highly encourage you to take the trip through time to the wild season of 1883.