Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: July 8, 2007
THE BEER AND WHISKEY LEAGUE
David Nemec's 1994 book TB&WL has the subtitle, The Illustrated History of the American Association -- Baseball's Renegade Major League. And as far as I know, that's just what the book is -- the history, not just a history. It's "everything you wanted to know" about the American Association, and then some, and along the way, readers learn a lot about "the League" -- the National League, founded in 1876 -- the Union Association (a one-year wonder in 1884), and the Players League, an 1890 experiment that also fizzled after one season.
Between 1882 and 1891, the AA was a competing major league. Back in those days, fans needed a scorecard to keep track of the teams, as well as the players. It was musical chairs every year, with some cities getting shut out, others rewarded with franchises, and still others lining up for the next round. Sometimes teams folded mid-season, with another team from a new city completing their schedule. Very hard to follow.
Which is why David Nemec's book is so valuable. He has sorted things out, so that the reader need not be a historian to venture into this unstable environment. He provides all the background you need to see how the AA started up, and then he gently guides you, season by season, through a ten year's maze.
If I had any lingering doubts that the ballplayers in these olden days were more colorful individuals than today's players, TB&WL erased them. The short profiles and anecdotes scattered on almost every page, are like a second book, that can be read all by itself. These accompany photos or sketches of solitary players or whole teams (none very large), and break up the history as they add spice to it.
Not all of the stories have happy endings. The AA earned its Beer and Whiskey League nickname by "brazenly permitting" the sale of alcoholic beverages at its ballparks. But so many players seemed to have drinking problems themselves, one wonders if that contributed to the moniker. With small rosters, having a few guys hung over, or unable to make it to the park, was no small problem. But think about it, this first generation of pro BB athletes were all young men, half the time playing on the road, and maybe even when playing "at home," removed from family and friends. Add the challenge of handling more money than they were accustomed to see, stir in the temptations of booze, gambling, loose women (or whatever), and you can see what AA managers had to deal with.
One playing-manager who was fairly successful at it, was Charlie Comiskey -- Nemec rates the Old Roman as the top skipper in the league's history. Commy had another challenge -- handling the St Louis team owner, the scheming, demanding, colorful and wealthy Chris Von der Ahe. Perhaps their relationship trained Commy for his later partnerships and feuds with Ban Johnson. In any case, Comiskey steered his teams to pennants with Yankeelike regularity, while the innovative first baseman himself ranked second in AA games played (1032), fifth in total bases (1554), fourth in runs (816), and second in hits (1199).
This book's chronological structure spends just enough space, I think, on each season. Or maybe it just seemed like just enough, since I recently finished a book that devoted its almost 300 pages to just one summer (Crazy '08). The seasonal chapters begin with an intro -- what happened in the off-season? Which teams are back? -- then marches through, month by month, giving readers the highlights and a feel for the streaks and slumps that add up to pennants or finishes far behind the pack. Along the way are sprinkled those great anecdotes, many of them featuring the newspaper prose that you just don't see anymore. Fellow AA Founder Opie Caylor: "Von der Ahe may not have paresis, but there is something abnormal about his brain."
Here's Caylor again, describing pitcher Toad Ramsey: "He is not to be pitied. A man upon whom fortune thrusts success and who repulses it or abuses fortune does not deserve the compassion of his fellow man." Giving in to "the temptations of a life of debauchery" ended Ramsey's life at age 41.
Many ballplayers died young back then, but so did many miners, factory workers, and Americans in many other professions. Nor were ballplayers the only ones who struggled with alcohol -- if they were, there may not have been a temperance movement. To live a while with Nemec in 1882-1891 is to get a feel for how baseball was morphing into a stable business. Owners did not always make money, and whether teams charged fifty cents or just a quarter at the gate, made a big difference. So did the ability to play games on Sundays (Bevis' book Sunday Baseball examines that issue in great depth). The country itself was struggling with its identity. Should blacks be allowed to play baseball on major league fields? The AA said yes, for a while, then we can watch the color line being drawn; it would remain until Jackie. We see Americans fighting hard -- one Civil war over, the new front is over the Sabbath (will the country tolerate baseball on Sundays?), over alcohol (it took its toll ... but baseball sold beer very well, and many brewers got into the act), over authority (how long would one umpire be acceptable? And who settled disputes, when pennants were at stake? Forfeits were not uncommon, nor were stalling tactics when the sun was setting). It was baseball, all right, Ray, that "one constant" -- but it had a somewhat different look, and wore slightly baggy clothes, even compared to the version we know from 1900-1910.
TB&WL serves up snapshots of a decade of evolution. Pitchers carry heavier loads, and these early workhorses sometimes throw their arms out in a single flash season. Tony Mullane ("The Count," and "The Apollo of the Box"), born in Ireland, chalked up 203 of his 285 wins in the AA, for four different teams, usually starting and finishing 40 to 60 games a season, averaging nearly 490 innings pitched in one five-year span. We see pitchers test the new distances, and new deliveries, to stretch their careers. There are just a few .400 hitters, but should a walk literally count as much as a hit, in calculating averages? The Dead Ball Era was big on innovations in strategy, in uniforms, equipment, and in scheduling. Not one could accuse baseball of being too stodgy and set in its ways.
Even in the 1880s, dynasties were a problem. If you were Chris Von der Ahe and owned the dynastic St Louis franchise, you might ask, "What problem?" His team would survive, to play next year, but the weak teams dropped out, and were replaced. There was true competition among the largest American cities, to field teams in the top leagues. And when rival leagues started up (1884, 1890), the established leagues had to scramble to retain their players, and their favored position in their city or state.
Nagging at the game underneath all the hoopla about new leagues, new uniforms, new rules, and the rest, is the question about fair pay. Even in the 1880s, owners argued for salary caps, and players argued for the right to play for the highest bidder. When things were going right, baseball made money -- big crowds meant bigger bucks. The pie was growing, and the owners and players knew it, and wanted bigger pieces. It's still the same old story. Again, baseball was hardly unique, workers were uniting and organizing all over the world ... or being crushed for trying. Could any league last very long without that old reserve clause, binding players to their teams? Yet most players gladly re-signed, year after year -- hey, it beats real work. I've been to the mines. Shortstop is better. The pay was OK, baseball was still fun, and competitive, and besides, the players became minor celebrities in the countries biggest newspapers and towns.
Nemec's book is a somewhat familiar story -- but worth reading, even for the historians. His focus, with a nice assist from Mark Rucker's editing of the pictures, entertains and instructs, and you can draw as many morals as you want as you work your way through the decade. No steroids, but damn that beer and whiskey! No astronomical player salaries, but pay is a big issue. It's a fascinating era -- maybe they all are -- full of growing pains and of many delights. A no-hitter glows in any league; so does the last-ditch rally, or the pennant charge. The characters of TB&WL seem like caricatures at times, cartoonish, but they were real, and Nemec brings them to life.