When cult Danish brewer Mikkeller opened its first NYC brewery in March 2018, the city’s craft beer community fired up Untappd and hopped on the subway. The site of Mikkeller’s first East Coast operation? Citi Field, the Queens stadium of the New York Mets.
(Mikkeller’s wasn’t the first craft stadium brewery in baseball, either. Terrapin Brewing has had an outpost at Atlanta’s SunTrust Park, home of the Braves, since 2017.)
Beer and baseball have always been linked. A certain type of American pastoral involves chasing stadium hot dogs with ice-cold beers as the home team wins the pennant. In the real-life major leagues, players celebrate victories with Bud Light showers and will soon star in beer ads. Television announcers chortle enthusiastically as flats of Champagne — or cans of Sam Adams if you’re in Boston — glide into winning locker rooms.
Baseball’s relationship with alcohol evolves in tandem with American ideals. From the early days of saloon owners, to Budweiser’s league-wide arrival during the boom-boom ’80s, baseball’s boozy operations reflect the mores of the day.
Now, conscientious consumption is on the rise, and Big Beer is investing in kombucha and spiked sodas. Are Bud Light and Champagne showers on their way out? Is it even possible to separate baseball from booze?
In 1882, saloon owner Chris von der Ahe purchased the St. Louis Browns. His motivation? “To assure he would have the lucrative beer concessions,” according to Peter Morris’s book, “A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball.”
Von der Ahe wasn’t alone. Long before Coors purchased naming rights to Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, in 1995, Anheuser-Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957. Baltimore’s National Brewing Company was the official sponsor of its hometown Orioles until they could no longer sustain themselves independently and joined forces with Carling Brewery, in 1975.
In the National League, pre-Major League Baseball (MLB), Cincinnati’s ball club made so much money from beer that, when the league president banned beer sales, the team refused to stop. It was kicked out of the league and ultimately disbanded. A new Cincinnati team, the Reds, joined the American Association, which existed until 1891. Eventually the team rejoined the National League (the puritanical president who kicked them out in the first place had passed away).
Today, there are several official partnerships. In addition to Coors in Colorado, Miller Brewing Company will hold title sponsorship for Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, through 2020.
In 2017, Sam Adams ousted Budweiser in the Green Monster, making Boston Beer the official sponsor of Red Sox baseball. Sam Adams signage replaced Budweiser’s in right field; it’s now called the “Sam Deck.” When the Red Sox clinched a World Series berth on Oct. 18, the players drenched one another in Sam ‘76.
Budweiser has been the official beer of Major League Baseball since the 1980s, but Bud Light showers, which appear on official team Instagram stories post-victory, have origins that certainly predate both the sponsorship and Bud Light, which debuted in 1982.
The origins of post-game beer showers are unclear. According to a 2015 ESPN.com article by Arash Markazi, even the Hall of Fame can’t determine their birthplace. Matt Rothenberg, manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, tells Markazi he fields the question occasionally. Rothenberg says he “tried to do a little digging and was unable to come up with much” by way of answers.
There are some early indications. A New York Times article on the 1946 champs, the St. Louis Cardinals, mentions beer being present in the postgame celebration, but no further details are given. It is admittedly difficult to imagine Stan Musial, the series MVP who was honorably discharged from military duty earlier that year, and ultimately given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, leading a booze-fueled locker room bacchanal.
More concrete evidence comes nine years later. When the Dodgers triumphed over the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, they celebrated with Schaefer Beer, the Dodgers’ beer sponsor at the time. Schaefer is immortalized in a photograph of Duke Snider and Don Newcombe pouring the drink over each other’s heads.
Markazi reports that the first mention of Champagne in the locker room is 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves captured of the World Series crown. The first Champagne shower on record, however, was documented after the Pittsburgh Pirates won in 1960. The postseason shower solidified itself in that era as teams kept the tradition alive.
“That’s around the time when it started to be a regular occurrence,” Tommy Lasorda, who was a scout for the ‘65 Dodgers championship team, told Markazi. “You knew if you won you were going to get some Champagne on you.”
In a 2010 New York Times article, Yogi Berra claimed that, despite evidence to the contrary, Yankees title-winning teams weren’t “as wild as today” as they had been in previous years. Berra claimed the team would have a couple beers back at the Biltmore Hotel and call it a night.
As part of that same article on Berra, former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent called the postseason Champagne celebrations “unattractive because they involve alcohol. It’s ritualized, and I think it’s silly,” he said.
But Champagne celebrations are not just some performative ritual. Achieving a World Series title is a remarkable achievement. Americans like to raise a glass of something bubbly to celebrate major milestones, be it a sports championship or a wedding.
What is worth examining, however, is the frequency of these boozy locker-room celebrations. The baseball season is the longest in American professional sports, with 162 games per season. Playoff expansion includes a Wild Card playoff, Divisional and Championship Series, and the World Series. That means there are as many as five occasions in which to bust out the plastic locker room tarps.
It can start to seem excessive. Do we need to celebrate a playoff berth just because another team lost? Should we spray Champagne over someone who isn’t even part of the team, but just happens to be standing nearby?
Two sports writers I spoke to admitted to wearing second-rate clothes, old golf pullovers, and shoes they didn’t mind ruining when they cover games after which there might be a Champagne shower. Goggles have become a popular party prop at locker room celebrations, akin to wearing a lampshade but with the very pragmatic goal of protecting one’s eyes from boozy spray.
When Berra was playing, the Champagne baths and beer guzzling mostly occurred out of the public eye. Perhaps a picture or two appeared in the newspaper the following day, but the scene wasn’t consumed by the masses. These days, we have access to it all via the networks and social media of everyone from the players to the coaches to beat reporters.
Also, while the median age in MLB has remained between 27 and 29 years for the past century, the drinking age of 21 has only been uniform across the United States since 1988. When Mickey Mantle celebrated his first World Series title at 19, he was legal to drink in New York. In 2012, when the Washington Nationals won the NL East, 20-year-old star player Bryce Harper couldn’t legally imbibe. For some viewers, America’s alcohol litigation affixes a dark lens to public consumption, regardless of circumstance or corporate sponsor.
To that end, MLB has put rules in place to ensure vaguely conscientious consumption. One clause decrees that non-alcoholic beverages be made available to those are who under age or have struggled with alcohol in the past, such as Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera.
League policies set guidelines for the number of bottles allowed in the locker room (two bottles of Champagne per player), type of alcohol served (beer and Champagne), and behavior (no bringing the alcohol onto the field or spraying it into the stands). Teams are responsible for getting the players we see drenched in beer, Champagne, and victory home safely.
Of course, baseball is not real life. It’s an escapist leisure activity for most of us, a grueling sport for a talented few, and a $10 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) business.
It reflects reality, though. Baseball can shed light on racial and socioeconomic inequities, say, or demonstrate values American sports fans hold dear.
How we watch games, mourn losses, and celebrate victories tells us a lot about who we are and where we’re at. That’s true whether we’re on the mound, in the stands, or sitting at home, on the couch, with a perfectly cold beer all to ourselves.