Mark Richardson —
The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, a riveting history of the early days of professional baseball, tells the story of the American Association, an early league, founded in 1883, which came to be called The Beer and Whiskey League as a result of the daring policy adopted by the club owners of being the first league ever to allow the sale of beer and whiskey to the game’s patrons. They pushed the envelope even further by testing the laws, first in St. Louis (where the league’s entry was owned by beer baron Chris Von Der Ahe, a German immigrant who lived to defy rules), and then in the league’s other cities prohibiting the playing of baseball on Sundays. The blow to the status quo seems tame today, but in 1883, baseball on Sunday with a group of fans drinking beer and whiskey was enough to shock the sensibilities of the even most liberal citizens. The jails in these cities featured a revolving door of entering and exiting players, club officials and fans, brought up on charges of public indecency, flaunting the liquor laws, and taking the playing field on the Sabbath.
The telling of the story centers around Von Der Ahe, one of the truly significant figures in early baseball, and his impact on, not only the established rules of the game, but also on the laws then in effect throughout America. He was a maverick, and his ideas had never been voiced before, let alone tried. But he revitalized a game that had grown staid. The league’s players were largely a group of rogues, too, but they captured the crowds like no players ever had, going from renegades who were scoffed at to a revered status in one short season.
Everything about this book is wonderful. There is a charm which radiates from the characters right on through the pages, and it is a fun, fun look at a sometimes forgotten piece of Americana. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you are a baseball fan, it is a don’t miss. But I don’t think you have to be a baseball fan to find it thoroughly enjoyable.
Too many of today’s younger people don’t know who Curt Flood was. Those of us who grew up as baseball fans in the 1960s and ’70s will never forget him, or the controversy that surrounded him. Flood, the centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was pretty universally regarded as the best defensive outfielder in the game. He was a good consistent hitter, but his real area of excellence was his outfield play. He was the leadoff hitter and offensive catalyst for a Cardinal team that won National League pennants in 1964, 1967, and 1968. Then, after 12 years as a Cardinal, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He refused to report to them, saying that he felt that he ought to have the right to decide who he was going to play for.
The standard baseball contract between teams and players had, for well over 100 years, contained a “reserve clause,” a clause which reserved the players’ rights to the team which held his contract or to a team of their choosing if they decided to trade the contract to another club. The player had no say in the matter. He could play for the team that held his contract, or he could quit and go home. This reserve clause carried over into perpetuity, binding the player year after year. Flood decided to sue baseball, challenging the validity of the reserve clause, and requesting that the court grant him the status of a free agent, able to negotiate for the sale of his services to whomever he wished.
Players–his own teammates as well as opponents–failed to see the value in what he was doing, and he became a complete pariah within the game. Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who had stepped down from the court in order to pursue a political career which never materialized, wanted to regain his seat on the Court, and he thought that representing Flood would give him the foothold he needed to gain reappointment. Goldberg made mistake after mistake throughout the court proceedings, and Flood lost. His career was over. But the legal points he had attempted to make provided the new head of the Players’ Association, the players labor union, Marvin Miller, with the impetus he would need two years later to launch a successful challenge to the reserve clause, and open the door to free agency. In the ensuing years, basketball, hockey, football, and virtually all other team sports followed suit and free agency is today the way players locate themselves on teams. Flood is the movement’s forgotten man, but he is the one, without whom, players might still find themselves “well-paid slaves.” A great read, replete with labor history.