Beer League

April 29, 2010

In 1881 baseball’s National League was six years old and, being still too young to know better, put in place strict mandates controlling its players’ on- and off-field antics. Its president, William Hulbert, was a Victorian of the dustiest and most boring caliber.

Hulbert knew the nation looked to his league as exemplar of the game and its reputation was certainly not going to be tarnished on his watch. Ball players’ dress and language were moderated, drinking was outlawed during the season, and National League ballparks were forbidden to sell alcohol of any type.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings (precursors to the Red Sox) were promptly expelled from the League after Hulbert got wind of beer sales at their games; St. Louis, Louisville, and Hartford clubs were next. A half-dozen others were similarly booted, or quit the League in protest on behalf of beer.

The handful of rogue clubs banded together under the American Association banner, setting themselves sternly in opposition to Hulbert’s Puritan frumpery. The Association became quickly known for its eagerness to sell beer at, and its athletes’ eagerness to drink beer during, baseball games. Fans re-christened it The Beer & Whiskey League and games began to sell out.

Chief among the upstart league’s proponents was outfielder Curt Welch, of the St. Louis Browns. Welch kept his own beer in the Browns dugout during games and ran back there to drink it as often as he could: between innings, between outs in the middle of innings, when pitchers were being changed, and whenever he wasn’t busy with anything else. Welch frequently took bottles with him out to the field, carrying one each in the two back pockets of his uniform.

Pat “Diesel” Deasley, also a Brown, was another formidable boozer; so were pitcher Elmer Smith and Louisville’s Toad Ramsey, who was once fined $50.00 for “cavorting with scarlet women.” George “Rube” Waddell, who tallied 349 career strikeouts and made money in the off-season wrestling alligators, spent all of his first signing bonus on beer in one weekend. Often low on cash after games, Waddell would steal that day’s game ball and trade it for drinks that evening. Connie Mack, who managed Waddell’s team, tried once to curtail the pitcher’s drinking by dropping a worm in his whiskey, pointing out how it wriggled in pain and died.

“Do you know what that means?” Mack asked Waddell.

“Sure,” said the pitcher. “It means I won’t get worms.”

The American Association lasted only nine years; it disbanded in 1891 and its players either retired, were re-absorbed by the National League, or hung up their spikes and pursued beer elsewhere.