Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (2013)

By Edward Achorn

A book like this is a good-sized test about how much you may like baseball.

Do you like it enough to want to read about the 1883 season of the American Association? That's the question that Edward Achorn throws out in "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey." He makes a good case that the season is worth reading about ... even now.

Professional baseball was still in its early stages in 1883. The first team acknowledged to be a professional squad came in 1869, and the National League was formed in 1876. The owners were still figuring out how to get the rules correct, and how to get people to pay to see the games on a regular basis.

In addition, monopolies are never popular, as others like to jump in on the fun and potential money-making. The American Association came along to compete with the National League, and in short order they came to the conclusion that it was better to cooperate than wage war. Thus, there was essentially a truce between the two sides in 1883.

The AA did have a different approach than the NL. The sport was hurt by a rash of gambling in the early days, and it was necessary to win the public's approval back on a mass scale. The National League had relatively high ticket prices in those days as an appeal to upper classes (50 cents!). The American Association cut those ticket prices in half and tried to appeal to a mass audience. It worked, as baseball drew record crowds and was clearly on its way to "national pastime" status.

The star of the book is Chris Von Der Ahe, who founded a team in St. Louis in order to - some things never changes - sell more beer. He was a classic owner in the Steinbrennerian mode, always willing to do something outrageous even though he knew little about baseball. If nothing else, Achorn will make sure that Von Der Ahe's contributions to the growth of the sport will no longer be forgotten.

The game was different then. Not many players even wore gloves, one baseball per game was the norm, playing conditions were difficult, etc. But it's fair to say we'd recognize it today. Achorn has a good pennant race to write about as well, as the pennant goes undecided until the final days. The author also checks in on life in the National League. He offers a particularly good chapter along the way about African Americans who played in the 1880's just before the color line was completely drawn.

This is familiar territory for Achorn, who wrote a book called "Fifty-Nine in '84" about the 1884 National League season. Books like this sometimes suffer from too many quotes from the original source material. The language can be quaint but also can be tough to interpret more than a century after the fact. Achorn doesn't fall into that trap.

Is it fair to call this a season that changed everything for baseball? That's tough to say. Certainly tough times were ahead, and the American Association didn't make it to the 20th century. But the rise in interest at this critical point in baseball history certainly is noteworthy.

To be fair, there aren't many names mentioned along the way who will be familiar to even students of baseball history. That fact alone will limit the audience drastically. But Achorn moves the story along quite well and keeps things entertaining. "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey" certainly will answer your questions about one of the key formative years in baseball history, assuming you had some in the first place.

Four stars.

Learn more about this book.

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