Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: THE SUMMER OF BEER AND WHISKEY by Edward Achorn (Public Affairs Books, 2013)

I enjoyed Edward Achorn's previous book about 1880s baseball, which focused on legendary pitcher "Old Hoss" Radbourn's amazing 1884 season.  Here, Achorn paints a wider canvas, discussing eccentric German immigrant Chris von der Ahe's creation of the St. Louis Browns -- the team that would one day morph into the Cardinals -- and the Browns' first pennant race in the two-year-old American Association, the somewhat more loosely-wound rival to the straight-laced National League between 1882 and 1891.  In 1883, St. Louis lost out to the second of what would ultimately be three iterations of the Philadelphia Athletics, but the journey itself is almost secondary to Achorn's picture of the America of the era -- a rough, still somewhat crude, yet exuberant postwar nation that had begun to find its release in an equally rough, yet already quite subtle, bat-and-ball sport.

Achorn claims that the 1883 season "made baseball America's game."  While the addition of a league that sanctioned Sunday baseball, charged only a quarter for admittance, and sold liquor at the ballparks certainly made the pastime more welcoming to many working-class people, and thus helped sustain baseball as a major sport during a turbulent time, I think that the author's claim is mistaken.  Baseball would still have to fight through extreme franchise volatility, a player rebellion that resulted in the brief-lived Players League of 1890, the collapse of the AA in the aftermath of the PL debacle, and the sheer nastiness of 1890s baseball (a good taste of which can be sampled by reading this book) before the arrival of the American League in 1901 signaled the return of the game as a more "family-friendly" pastime.  Even in 1883, fan and player rowdiness vied with rickety and overcrowded grandstands, contract battles between owners and players, and endemic player drunkenness as turnoffs to potential paying customers.  Chris Von der Ahe may have been a great showman who made going to the ball park an experience, but, in addition to meddling with his manager and players, he also encouraged rowdiness, figuring that it would boost attendance.  This darker side of the semi-comical owner does not really come across here.

Of course, a lot of people would argue that baseball wasn't truly "America's game" until the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson.  That story intersects Achorn's, too, as the author devotes a chapter to the trials and tribulations of several black players who attempted to compete in the majors and high minors in the 1880s.  The best-known of these is probably the college-educated Fleetwood Walker, against whom Hall of Fame player and manager Cap Anson famously refused to play, but there were others as well.  Anson gets most of the blame for the color line being drawn, but, in truth, the concern for civil rights was in retreat all across the country as the memories of Reconstruction faded, and baseball simply fell in step.

While I can't really buy Achorn's basic thesis, this is a very enjoyable book for baseball fans and lovers of cultural history.

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