Beer and baseball are thoroughly intertwined. The game’s modern (read: post-1901) history provides plenty of examples of this symbiosis, from breweries owning major league ball clubs to the fact that a team called the Milwaukee Brewers exists. This synergy extends to the bleachers and box seats, where watching a game with a beer in hand can enhance the fan experience. It’s a relationship that feels so natural — so right — it’s easily taken for granted.
It shouldn’t be. Beer is deeply important to baseball’s history, and digging into the game’s 19th-century roots reveals enough information to build a fascinating argument: Without beer, professional baseball as we know it today may not exist.
New League, New Rules
Beer’s story as pro baseball’s savior starts in an unlikely way. In 1876, the game had a serious problem. Its first-ever pro league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA), had collapsed the previous year after four corrupt, structurally inept years. Several of the league’s players were known as reckless degenerates prone to excessive drinking and throwing games for gamblers, behaviors fueled by the NA’s lack of disciplinary rules. Their actions caused attendance to dwindle. It also provided further fuel to stoke the flames of anti-alcohol sentiment, which was gaining strength through the organized efforts of groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement.
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Enter a man named William Hulbert. The owner of the NA’s Chicago White Stockings, he pulled some of the wealthiest teams from the NA’s wreckage and formed a new organization called the National League. Disgusted by the NA’s lack of control, Hulbert implemented and enforced a strict set of rules to keep the new league’s players and teams in line — mandates that ultimately compelled Hulbert to kick corrupt players and even entire franchises out of the league. Hulbert’s interest in cleaning up the sport unofficially reached into the bleachers, as he implemented a loose honor system-type arrangement that forbade teams from selling beer to fans. The agreement also put the kibosh on scheduling games on Sundays in cities that didn’t already have blue laws prohibiting Sunday recreation. This gentleman’s agreement held firm until 1880. Then, all hell broke loose.
The Great Divide
The National League was in rough shape in 1880. League size and participating cities were in constant flux due to Hulbert’s ban hammer, and the six teams still standing on opening day were struggling for financial stability. One of those teams was the Cincinnati Reds, who would spend the season compiling a losing record on the diamond and in the accounting ledger. Thirsting for extra revenue, they started selling booze and scheduling Sunday games. The team’s actions weren’t a deliberate thumbing of the nose at Hulbert’s honor system — at least not officially. The Reds justified their actions by pointing to Cincinnati’s booming German immigrant population, citing their cultural influence on the city and the fact that most German workers only had Sundays off as reasons for breaking the league’s unwritten rules.
Hulbert and the National League brass ignored their actions at first — after all, the team wasn’t breaking any official laws. When clubs in the more puritanical East Coast cities started complaining, however, Hulbert had little choice but to spring into action. He attempted to force Reds owner W.H. Kennett to sign a pledge banning beer and Sunday baseball. Kennett refused, and Cincinnati’s press stood by his side. “Beer and Sunday amusements have become a popular necessity,” wrote O.P. Caylor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We drink beer in Cincinnati as freely as you used to drink milk, and it is not a mark of disgrace, either.” Hulbert did not take this response well — he expelled the Reds from the league at the end of the 1880 season. He also took his frustrations out on the fans by doubling the league-wide admission price to 50 cents, or $14.55 in 2022 dollars. He reasoned that the price hike would keep what he perceived to be riff raff from attending.
Undaunted, the Reds recruited a bunch of cities that had either gotten the boot from the National League or grew tired of Hulbert’s shenanigans and essentially pulled a Bender from “Futurama.” Rather than building a theme park with “blackjack and hookers,” the cities built a new league with beer and Sunday games. The American Association was formed in 1882, and beer played a key role in its infrastructure off the field of play. Most team owners had connections to the alcohol industry via brewery, distillery, or saloon ownership, and a healthy chunk of the teams played in cities with booming beer cultures, like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.
The American Association also aggressively pursued the fans run off by the National League’s price increase. Most teams charged 25 cents for their seats — half the price charged by their rivals. Initially, the National League’s owners blew off the upstart league, derisively calling it the “Beer and Whiskey League.” Such arrogance proved to be wrongheaded. The American Association’s combination of beers in the stands, Sunday ball, and half-price tickets allowed it to generate four times the profits of the stodgy, dry National League in its first year of operation.
The American Association’s gambit sparked a resurgence in baseball interest, but it ultimately did not benefit from this effort. The league floundered as the decade progressed, and the National League regained enough stability to eventually lead several American Association teams in bigger cities to cross over by 1890, including Cincinnati. The so-called Whiskey and Beer League walked off the mound in December. 1891, but it left behind an indelible impact. In 1892, the National League resumed selling beer and started playing ball on Sundays.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine going to any professional baseball game and not seeing something related to beer, be it a concession stand, the stadium’s name, or the patron clutching a cold one next to you. That’s because baseball and beer go together like a pitcher and a catcher — but without the American Association preserving beer’s link to baseball, the public’s interest in the game may have dwindled long ago.