In the early 1880’s, professional baseball in the U.S. had a popularity problem. It couldn’t shake its association with gambling and fixing games, and the nation’s top professional league, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, had a penchant for kicking out popular players and teams if they did not tow the company line. The National League also limited its own popularity by selling tickets for fifty cents (expensive at the time), banning alcohol and women from ballparks, and refusing to play games on Sunday. In the era before stadium lighting and televised broadcasts, this limited spectatorship to upper middle class professionals who had the time to take off work to attend games.
Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game chronicles how a German immigrant grocer and beer garden owner in St. Louis, Chris Von Der Ahe, challenged the national league’s model. At a time when many thought that baseball’s rise to popularity would be over before it started, Von Der Ahe recognized the potential of large immigrant populations, mostly German, in the Midwest. He created the American Association with the intention of selling more beer. Tickets to Association games were a mere 25 cents. They played games on Sundays, the only day that the working class could go to the ballpark. Association teams filled their rosters with young talents and players that had been banned from the National League. Many of the Association’s teams resided in working class western river cities––St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh––and these teams are now recognized as some of baseball’s flagship franchises.
The bulk of Achorn’s book narrates the Association’s 1883 season, often through the lens of Von Der Ahe’s St. Louis Brown Stockings franchise, and uses the era’s sporting press as sources. This structure has some shortcomings. For starters, it limits interest to readers who are interested in the history of baseball, rather than how baseball fits in to the larger American story. Sure, we learn the names and accomplishments of fairly unknown players, and some might get a kick out of the quirkiness of late 19th century professional athletes. Academic-minded readers, however, will likely be more interested in examinations of the immigrant, blue-collar culture that existed around the Association rather than the detailed narrative of a May 1, 1883 extra inning game between St. Louis and Cincinnati.
It’s also interesting to note that the situation of baseball in the 1870’s and 80’s resembles today’s competitive gaming that we read about in Taylor’s book. There was no centralized body with control over the sport. Sure, the National League was the most established league, but in 1880 alone six of its eight teams folded. Leagues routinely started up, in 1884 and 1885 there were different third leagues attempting to compete with the National League and American Association. Both of those third leagues folded after one year. Players, and even teams, jumped from one league to the other, either because of a ban or because of their own ambitions. Player salaries, usually a percentage of the ticket sales for the day, were hotly contested and far from a guarantee. The process of the National League’s eventual consolidation of power and its evolution into a centralized governing body recognized nearly unanimously by baseball players and spectators is beyond the scope of Achorn’s work, but it nevertheless raises questions in my mind about how that might occur in the sphere of video games, and whether or not that is something that would be a good thing for the gaming scene.
Either way, Achorn is fairly convincing in his argument that the Association was vital for the growth of baseball into something that could be claimed as America’s national game. In an era when a few National League teams were folding every year, the recorded attendance of Association games, and fact that some of its teams are among the most famous in baseball today, suggest that the league did in fact play an important role in the history of baseball. The Association folded in 1890, but some of its best teams merged into the National League. Furthermore, the Summer of Beer and Whiskey rightly establishes the importance of blue collar, immigrant populations, many of whom didn’t speak English, which is sometimes overlooked in the story of “America’s game.”