The summer of 1883 proved to be a pivotal time for American baseball.
A brash German immigrant and beer garden owner, Chris Von der Ahe strode onto the scene to found a new franchise, the St. Louis Browns — a team that would later become the St. Louis Cardinals.
His motivation? To sell more beer. And while he made a fortune, he also changed the sport forever.
Von der Ahe would go on to help found a new league called the American Association, providing a stark contrast to the buttoned-up National League. Tickets were cheaper, games were held on Sunday and the booze flowed freely.
"This greatly expanded the reach of baseball and made it a much more popular game," Edward Achorn tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.
For the first time, baseball was opened up to "people who traditionally couldn't go to ball games, including immigrants and working people," Achorn says.
Achorn tells the story of baseball's early days in his new book, The Summer of Beer And Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game.
On Chris Von der Ahe
"He's just a wonderfully colorful character. He would go into the clubhouse after games and sort of yell at players, 'Vy did you drop dat ball?' — You know, as if they did it on purpose. He didn't really understand all the finer points of the game. But he was a brilliant man. And he just made baseball honest, he made it fun, and he just made the game boom."
On the risks players faced in the 1880s
"Just like America it was a very tough time. You had to be a rugged individual. And it was dangerous, especially for catchers. Catchers had no covering on their fingertips. Foul tips could hit their fingers and there were just grotesque and painful descriptions in the newspapers of the time about some of the injuries, I mean, exposed bones and blood dripping all over the place. The rest of the fielders played bare-handed. If you catch a hard-hit ball by a professional hitter with a bare hand, you'll know what that means."
On rowdy fans
"Fans would drink heavily. They would scream at the umpires. They would go out onto the field after games if they were upset, and try to attack him. I mean, 'Kill the umpire,' was not just a saying ... Baseball was this highly cathartic thing and people could go to the games and let out their emotions that were so repressed in America's Victorian society."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. For many of us, the soundtrack of spring is the unmistakable sound of leather connecting with wood.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Batter up.
LYDEN: And we thought we'd go back to baseball's early days - 1883 - a pivotal time for the sport. A brash German immigrant and beer garden owner Chris Von der Ahe strides onto the scene, founding a new franchise, the St. Louis Browns. You'd know them today as the Cardinals. Why? To sell more beer, of course. Von der Ahe would go on to help form a new league, and the game would be forever changed.
It's all chronicled in the new book "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey." And for author Edward Achorn, whose own family history is deeply rooted in baseball, it's much more than a game.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) The exciting baseball drag - don't you be a quitter. Show them you're a heavy hitter.
EDWARD ACHORN: We go way back as baseball fans. And I found all these old programs, and my grandfather recorded who he was at the games with, and it was with my grandmother before they were married. So he courted her at the 1914 World Series between the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Athletics at Fenway Park.
LYDEN: So this is definitely in your blood.
ACHORN: Oh, yes. I love this stuff. And I love baseball for many reason. I mean, I think it's the perfect game. But I also love it because it's this wonderful window into the culture of the time - any period you look at it. And it just says so much about America and its people and its values in any period you look at it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Used to be a baseball maniac (unintelligible) a ball...
LYDEN: Well, take us back to this early period, even before your grandparents' time. Your book is about the summer of '83 - 1883. Let's talk about what the baseball of the 1880s was like. What were the players like?
ACHORN: Just like America, it was a very tough time. You had to be a rugged individual. And it was dangerous, especially for catchers. Catchers had no covering on their fingertips. Foul tips could hit their fingers, and there were just grotesque and painful descriptions in the newspapers at the time about some of the injuries. I mean, exposed bones and blood dripping all over the place.
The rest of the fielders played barehanded. If you catch a hard-hit ball by a professional hitter with a bare hand, you'll know what that means. Pitchers worked incredibly long periods. I mean, they were considered wimps if they didn't finish the game they started. Now, pitchers are on 100-pitch count. They played very hard. They wanted to keep these jobs because they didn't want to end up in the mines or on the farms or in a factory somewhere.
LYDEN: Into this world strides a German immigrant who plays a huge role in the creation of American baseball. And I'm talking, of course, about Chris Von der Ahe. Who is he? Tell us about him.
ACHORN: Well, he was a German immigrant. He came here with nothing. He became a grocer and ran a saloon. And he knew next to nothing about baseball. The professional game was almost dead. He decided to invest his lifesavings and try to make a go of it, and he made a fortune. He did it by selling beer, scheduling games on Sunday and charging cheap admission price.
And he knew this would draw in thousands of people who traditionally couldn't go to ball games, including, you know, immigrants and working people. I mean, people work six days a week. And this greatly expanded the reach of baseball and made it a much more popular game.
LYDEN: Tell us about his personality, just a really colorful character.
ACHORN: Oh, he's just a wonderfully colorful character. He would go into the clubhouse after games and sort of yell at players: Why did you drop that ball, you know, as if they did it on purpose. He didn't really understand all the finer points of the game. But he was a brilliant man. And he just made baseball honest, he made it fun, and he just made the game boom.
LYDEN: And loved the ladies.
ACHORN: That was his great failing. I write in the book about one 1885 game where his girlfriend was sitting in the grandstand, and his first wife came over and clubbed her on the head with a soda bottle. He went through three marriages and really lost his fortune in part because of that.
LYDEN: He goes on to create something called the American Association. Tell us about a man who will be his foil - a National League figure - and this is William Hulbert, who is president of a much more established National League.
ACHORN: Yes. The National League observed blue laws, and Hulbert was trying to improve the tone of the game. So he banned Sunday games, he didn't want beer at the ballpark, and he charged 50 cents admission, which was a, you know, pretty high price back in those days.
LYDEN: Well, double what Von der Ahe was charging.
ACHORN: That's right. And then along came these other owners. Some of these cities had been kicked out of the National League for refusing to go along with that stuff, and they created something called the American Association. They permitted Sunday ball, they permitted beer at the ballparks, and they charged 25 cents. And their critics called this league the beer and whiskey league very scornfully.
LYDEN: You write about the rowdies at these games, the fact that the patrons, they were drinking, and they were letting off steam.
ACHORN: Yes. One of the incredible things, when you look at early baseball, is what happened to the umpires. And fans would drink heavily, they would scream at the umpires, they would go out onto the field after games, if they were upset, and try to attack him. I mean, kill the umpire was not just a saying in the 1880s.
And I write in the book about some cases where players surrounded the umpire with their bats to try to protect them from being attacked. So it was a very sort of robust time where fans felt free to express themselves.
LYDEN: These cities are going through industrialization in the 1880s, people are working six, sometimes seven days a week, and this is a chance to see a game and unwind.
ACHORN: That's right. That's - baseball was this highly cathartic thing. And people could go to the games and let out their emotions that were so repressed in America's Victorian society.
LYDEN: At the end of this summer, where baseball's becoming more modern, there's going to be a pennant race between the Philadelphia Athletics and Von der Ahe's beloved St. Louis Browns.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ACHORN: Eventually, Philadelphia does squeeze out a victory, but they do it in this very tense way. I know this is baseball played a little differently than it is today - bare-handed, as I mentioned, and also the pitcher worked out of a pitcher's box instead of on a mound - but I still think it plays much like the modern game, and the pennant races were just as exciting. So it was fun to go back to this period and pull up these stories nobody's talked about for well over 100 years.
LYDEN: You bring it all to life. Thank you so much.
ACHORN: Oh, thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: Edward Achorn, author of the new book "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) For it's one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ball game. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.