Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beer and Whiskey: There Used to be a Ballpark Part II

We left our tour of major league ballparks past and present at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, a team named after the industry that made its home town famous, playing in a ballpark named for one of the biggest companies in that industry. It's entirely appropriate that this should be so. While it's not mentioned in either the refrain or any of the twelve or so verses of the game's official anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame",  beer has been an integral part of baseball for all, well almost all of the game's history. Here it might be prudent to have a brief refresher in beer and baseball.

The first major league, the National League was founded in 1876 when William Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, decided to put together a serious league of professional ballplayers rather than what already existed, a loosely held together association of teams with erratic schedules, no system in place to keep players from jumping teams, and perhaps most important, no discipline in regard to player or fan conduct.

In that respect we must remember that back then, baseball had to compete with sports like dog fighting and rat baiting for the public's attention and what made those activities popular, beyond their obvious artistic value, was wagering. In that sense, baseball was no different; back then it was a tough sell to convince a workingman to spend his hard eared money and one day off watching grown men in knickers playing a children's game, just for the fun of it. Gambling was the reason baseball became a spectator sport in the first place, as it emerged from the pastoral game played by elite clubs like the New York Knickerbockers in the Elysian Fields of New Jersey, to the more rambunctious game played in places like rough and tumble Brooklyn, and ultimately our "national pastime", the game we know today.

Beyond more than occasional lapses of honesty on the part of players not necessarily trying their best to win games, all the gambling that went on in the open lent a certain air of disreputability to the game of baseball. And what should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever attended a ballgame, so did drinking to excess which believe it or not, people did every once in a while when they got the chance back in the day. William Hulbert wanted no part of any of that.

To make his new league respectable in that particularly rowdy era, drinking and gambling would be strictly prohibited at all National League games. In order to assure players would be paid well enough to resist the temptation of being bought off by gamblers who still plied their trade, just not in the open, the admission price to every ballgame would be fifty cents, steep for those days. Oh and one more thing, there would be no games played on Sunday.

All those restrictions did indeed attract the clientele that Hulbert desired for his new league. Those haughty, mid to upper-crust early National League fans were just as happy not to have to rub shoulders with the working stiffs who were kept away in droves because Sunday was their only day off, they couldn't afford the steep price of admission, and last but far from least, they liked their beer.

Enter the American Association (no relation to the current American League) which was founded in 1881 and began play the following year. The charter franchises of this new league represented big cities, mostly old river towns like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, whose shall we say, "worldly values" set them apart from the rest of Puritan America. One of those cities was Cincinnati whose team, the Red Stockings, was expelled from the National League for defying its ban on beer and Sunday ball. Most of the sponsors of this new league were brewers and distillers which inspired the pejorative term "Beer and Whiskey League", imposed on them by National League owners. As has happened so often in the game of baseball, a term intended to be a slam against a team or in this case an entire league, became a symbol of pride for the offended party. The American Association made no bones about being the league of the working man, who was free to drink all he wanted at their games, especially on Sunday. It should be noted that in those days, fans or "cranks" as they were called, were almost always men.

One of those members of the imbibing industry who entered a team into the American Association was a fellow by the name of Chris von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns. Von der Ahe, an immigrant from Prussia, owned a saloon on the north side of town. He knew virtually nothing about the game of baseball except that beer sales at his bar rose considerably whenever the team located down the street at the corner of Grand and Dodier played ball. So he bought the team.

By either sheer brilliance or just dumb luck, von der Ahe signed Charles Comiskey to play first base as well as manage his newly acquired team. Comiskey who today is better known as the founder and long time owner of the Chicago White Sox as well as one of the founding fathers of today's American League, turned the struggling Browns into the powerhouse of the AA, winning four championships out of the ten seasons the league was in existence. The two men had a great run together, Comiskey's brilliance as a baseball man brought success on the field while von der Ahe's talent for promotion, showmanship and giving the customers what they wanted, brought fans into the stands in record numbers.

For starters, von der Ahe charged a quarter to get in to his park, half the going rate of the National League. Not only did he allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages in his ballpark, he set up concession stands to sell the stuff, further advancing his bottom line. Without question, games would be played on Sunday, although open gambling was still verboten. Above all, Chris von der Ahe understood that sometimes it took more than a good team on the field to bring in the crowds. Always the master showman, in the days before there were clubhouses at ballparks, he would have his team dress in his saloon, or their hotel if  they were on the road. Wearing a silk hat and accompanied by his two greyhounds, Snoozer and Schnauzer, he proudly lead his team like a Prussian general as they walked in parade formation to the ballpark. Von der Ahe was the first baseball owner to offer promotions and creating a carnival atmosphere at the ballpark, the true forebear of baseball impresarios such as Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley.

Von der Ahe also believed it was prudent to have AA teams participate in exhibition games outside of officially sanctioned league games, something the National League frowned upon. One exhibition series the  NL could not turn up its nose at was a championship between between its pennant winner, and that of the renegade league. The first of these "World Series" took place in 1884 when the NL Providence Grays defeated the AA New York Metropolitans three games to none. The next two of these championship series pitted von der Ahe's Browns (today's Cardinals) against the White Stockings (today's Cubs), starting what would become one of the most enduring rivalries in all of sports. If you're interested in bragging rights, the first series ended in a tie when Comiskey pulled his team from the field after a disputed call with the series ties at three games. St. Louis won the second series four games to two.

The final resting place of Chris von der Ahe
as well as the statue he had cast of himself
which once stood at the entrance of his
St. Louis ballpark.
Part maverick and part buffoon, von der Ahe didn't know when to leave well enough alone. He became subject to ridicule when he had a statue of himself placed in front of his ballpark. A sportswriter sardonically dubbed the it, "von der Ehe discovers Illinois." His constant meddling with the team exasperated Comiskey who eventually left for the Cincinnati Reds, sending the St. Louis nine into a tailspin from which they wouldn't recover for thirty years. Von der Ahe may have known how to make money but he didn't know how to keep it. He ended up losing his personal fortune and spent the last years of his life tending other people's bars and depending on the kindness of friends, including Charlie Comiskey who sent him a monthly sustenance check until his death in 1913. He is buried in Bellafonte Cemetery in St. Louis underneath the statue he had built for himself.

Despite the early success of the AA, in the end the owners of the NL had deeper pockets and were better able to endure difficult economic times and threats from another league that formed in 1890, the Players' League. The AA folded in 1891. Four of its teams, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Cincinnati were absorbed into the  National League, where they remain today respectively as the Cardinals, the Pirates, the LA Dodgers and the Reds.

As I mentioned above, von der Ahe's Browns didn't fare too well after Comiskey's departure. Hoping for a fresh start, the team exchanged their brown stockings for those of a crimson hue. Not long after that, someone connected the color with the red bird known commonly as the Eastern Cardinal and the name stuck. Alas the team's color and name changed but its fortunes did not.

In 1901, yet another major league was formed, the American League. Ironically it was billed as a respectable alternative to the National League which with Hulbert having been dead for two decades, had degenerated into everything its founder tried to avoid. One of its original members was a team from Milwaukee, nicknamed the Brewers. That team lasted all of one year in Brewtown before it moved to St. Louis where they picked up another traditional name, the Browns. These Browns are known for one thing, they were the most God-awful team in major league history. The three most famous players in AL St. Louis Browns history were a bona-fide Hall of Famer, (first baseman George Sisler), a one armed outfielder, and a midget who had one major league at bat.

The AL Browns moved into the old ballpark at Grand and Dodier, a site where baseball had been played in one form or other since the 1860s. Chris von der Ahe had moved his team away from that site to a facility he built next to an amusement park in 1890. In 1909 the Browns rebuilt their ballpark up to the same standards as other major league ballparks of that era, using steel and concrete as the primary structural components rather than wood. As such, Sportsmans Park became one of the classic ballparks in the major leagues, along with Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in New York, Fenway Park in Boston, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field both in Chicago. The Cardinals continued to play in their dilapidated old wooden ballpark until 1920 when they moved to Sportsmans Park and became tenants of the Browns.

In the 1920s, the Cardinals' fortunes began to change because of the fruits of the labor of one man, Branch Rickey. Rickey, the general manager of the team understood that the woefully underfunded Cardinals could not compete against the likes of the New York Giants or the Cubs when it came to attracting established talented players to their team. So Rickey came up with the brilliant idea of buying up minor league clubs in order to develop talent from the ground up. It took several years but eventually Rickey's implementation of the farm system paid off and in 1926, the Cardinals won their first modern day World Series, defeating the mighty Yankees in seven games. They have been a force to be reckoned with ever since; as far as championships go, they are the most successful club in National League history, and second only to the Yankees in MLB history.

As for the Browns, well not so much. They spent most of their existence in the second division of the American League. Despite the disparity of talent, the Browns held their own with the Cardinals in terms of fan support. When the time of reckoning came and it became obvious in the fifties that St. Louis couldn't support two teams, it was a virtual coin toss which team would leave. Once again, beer played a pivotal role in history as the brewing company Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals. Bill Veeck who owned the Browns knew he couldn't compete with Budweiser and threw in the towel, even though the Browns owned the ballpark and the Cardinals were their tenants. The Browns headed east, without Veeck to become the Baltimore Orioles. Once the Cards were the only game in town, they purchased the ballpark and renamed it after their owner, but the name never stuck with the fans.

Sportsmans Park or Busch Stadium I if you prefer, lasted until 1966 when the Cardinals moved into what would become Busch Stadium II, a downtown multi-purpose stadium, the first of the "cookie cutter" bowl shaped stadiums built in the sixties and seventies for both football and baseball. That stadium lasted less than forty years when it was replaced by the current retro style, baseball only ballpark with the fabulous view of Downtown St. Louis and the Eero Saarinen's iconic Gateway Memorial Arch pictured below.

Busch Stadium III, current home of the St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball has been played at this site continuously for 150 years
and counting. That must be some kind of record.
The last game at Sportsmans Park took place on May 8th, 1966. After the game, home plate was dug up, placed aboard a helicopter and flown to the new stadium downtown. That might have ended one hundred years of continuous baseball at Grand and Dodier but not quite. The Busch family donated the land to charity to become the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. The club continues to maintain the field for baseball and other sports meaning that baseball has continuously been played on that site going on 150 years and counting.

One would be hard pressed to pick one out of the many memorable events that took place at the Corner of Grand and Dodier in North St. Louis. Ten modern World Series were played at Sportsmans Park, as well as four nineteenth American Association/National League championship series in its predecessor. Dozens of baseball immortals played on that field, you can read some of their names on the plaque marking the site of the old ballpark below. Two names not on the plaque are Pete Gray, the one armed right fielder who played for the Browns in 1945 during the closing years of WWII, and Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7" midget Bill Veeck sent up to the plate as a gag in a meaningless game on August 19, 1951.

A few of the stats about Sportsmans Park as noted on the
plaque posted on the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club
of St. Louis, the site of old Sportsmans Park.
Giving it considerable thought, my choice for the most memorable moment in Sportsmans Park would be the 1944 World Series which pitted the Cardinals against the Browns, an all St. Louis World Series. In a year where just about all the good ballplayers were off fighting a war, the Browns fielded a team of senior citizens, featuring an all 4F infield. But doggone it, they had the best, old, mentally unstable, half blind, flat footed players in the league that year and they won their one and only American League pennant. The Cards did have one legitimate major leaguer who would´t enlist until the following year, Stan Musial. He and the Cardinals took the Series in six from the once and future hapless Browns. Regardless of the circumstances, for a brief moment in the fall of 1944, St. Louis was truly the center of the baseball world.


Sportsmans Park was not the only ballpark to host a World Series all by itself. From 1913 to 1922, the Polo Grounds in New York City was the home to both the Giants and the Yankees, and in the last two of those years, the National League Giants played the American League Yankees in the World Series, the Giants winning them both.

Today the words New York City and baseball when combined, are so synonymous with the Yankees, it's hard to imagine that the Bronx Bombers were Johnny-come-lateliess when it comes to baseball in the Big Apple. William Hulbert's original National League included a New York team, The Mutuals who were around almost as long as organized baseball itself. They played in 1857 as amateurs (as all ball clubs were at the time) against the Knickerbockers in the storied Elysian Fields of Hoboken, mentioned above. The Mutuals would re-locate to Brooklyn and came along with Hulbert when he created his new league. But things didn't go so well for the Natioanl League Muts as Hulbert's team the Chicago White Stockings dominated the league on the field. The New York club and the Philadelphia Athletics who were in the same predicament, decided it wasn't worth the time, money or effort to play out the remainder of their season on the road. For this affront, the imperious Hulbert banished the teams from the league. Amazingly, the three most populous cities in the US including Brooklyn, an independent city at the time, would not have representatives in the major leagues for six years, until the American Association was formed six years later. They and the National League desperately wanted a New York franchise to join their ranks and both leagues made offers to an independent club called the Metropolitans. The owners of the Mets said yes, to both offers.

With a little slight of hand, they produced two teams, the Mets would enter the AA, while an existing National League team from Troy, NY disbanded, and most of their players, and the team's space in the league, became the New York Gothams, who ultimately became the Giants. That team won the NL pennant in 1889 and played the AA champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms (today's LA Dodgers), in the early incarnation of the World Series, marking the beginning of the second oldest extant rivalry in baseball.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Giants were firmly established as New York's team. Such was their clout, they were able to use their leverage to prevent the fledgling American League from establishing a team in New York City. So the team intended for the city of New York ended up in a different city but with a very familiar name, the Baltimore Orioles. That situation only lasted a couple of years and the team ended up back in the town which it was intended, playing in a ballpark in Washington Heights, the highest point in Manhattan. Appropriately enough, they were originally called the Highlanders.

The New York American League team had a promising start but never finished better than second place in their first five years of existence. Then that old ennui set in with the owners who were more interested in other activities and rarely invested in their team. In 1915, the team, now known as the Yankees was sold to the man with the most improbable of baseball names, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, along with his partner, Jacob Ruppert who was in the (you guessed it) brewing business. It was this pair of well to do businessmen, genuinely interested in baseball who were able to make the deal that would forever change the course of Yankee and indeed baseball history, and would make the name Harry Frazee, the most reviled name in Boston since Benedict Arnold.

You probably know the story. Frazee, a theatrical impressario who moonlighted as the owner of the Boston Red Sox, needed cash for a theatrical production. So he sold his incorrigible star pitcher who was also pretty good with the bat to the Yankees. The player's name was George Herman (Babe) Ruth. 

As they say, the rest is history...

It's a bit of a minomer to call the era before Ruth's, the "Deadball Era." The assumption that home runs were scarce because the balls were less lively in those days has been overstated, There were actually fewer home runs during that era because batters weren't  trying to hit them. The approach they took could be summed up in the words of Wee Willie Keeler, an early Yankee star who famously described his approach to hitting this way: "you gotta hit 'em where they ain't" The greatest hitter of the Deadball Era was Ty Cobb who to this day holds the record for greatest lifetime batting average. His scientific approach to hitting enabled him to take advantage of weaknesses in the defense, and his take no prisoners style of base running made him the most dangerous offensive player of his time.  Babe Ruth, the most dangerous offensive player of all time, had a different approach, he swung the bat as hard as he could every time he came to the plate.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Babe Ruth single-handedly changed the game of baseball. What was once a game of small ball played mostly on the base paths featuring daring base running, sacrifice bunts, the hit and run and spikes flying in the air, became the game at the plate with sluggers trying to do it all with one swing of the bat. Old timers like Cobb and longtime Giants manager John McGraw may have berated the new style, but the fans loved it. When the acrimony between the Giants and the Yankees became unbearable, the Yanks built themselves a new ballpark just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds less than a half mile away. It was nicknamed "the House that Ruth Built", but the great Bambino was just as responsible for the expansion of many American League ballparks, including Chicago's Comiskey Park, whose outfield grandstands were built specifically to accommodate the crowds that Babe Rut drew when the Yankees came to town.

Yankee Stadium was both the last of the classic ballpark, and the forerunner of the modern baseball stadium. It was completed in time for the start of the 1923 season, and in its first year hosted the World Series, same two teams as the two previous years, however the outcome was reversed. The torch had been passed. It was the definitive blow to the deadball era, Baseball for better or worse, would never be the same.

Like the Cardinals, the Yankees developed players in their farm system and became the most successful franchise in major league history. The Stadium with its distinctive arch motif fascia witnessed several Yankee dynasties. Their single greatest era took place between 1947 and 1964 when they appeared in fifteen World Series and won ten of them. During that time they won an unprecedented five consecutive championships. That record more than likely will stand for eternity.

It's from that era of gaudy glory, when the Yankees were expected to win it all every year, that I'll pick my memorable moment at old Yankee Stadium. In a game that took place on October 4th, 1955, Yank catcher Elston Howard faced Johnny Podres and grounded out to Pee Wee Reese, thrilling Yankee haters the world over as the Bombers lost the World Series that year to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It would be dem Bums' (as the Dodgers were known affectionately by their fans) only championship. They would pack their bags, along with the Giants, and head for the west coast three years later leaving a void in that town some people believe (the Mets notwithstanding) has never been filled.

My boy and I didn't make it to the sites of Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds on our recent visit to New York this summer. Much to his chagrin, we didn't make it to Citi Field, home of the Mets either. There is a housing project named after Jackie Robinson where Ebbets Field once stood at 55 Sullivan Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The old stairway in Harlem where fans would descend Coogans Bluff to get to the Polo Grounds is still there. Other than that from what I can tell, save for a few plaques, there is little indication of all the glorious summers that took place on those sites, hardly anything to remind us of Willie Mays's Catch in the '54 Series, the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, or the time three Brooklyn Dodger runners all ended up on third base. 

Heritage Field, left and new Yankee Stadium. If you squint hard enough, you can almost imagine...

The same can't be said for the site of old Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. The original house that Ruth built was demolished after New Yankee Stadium was built across the street. The new park looks more like Yankee Stadium than the old one did after it was defaced during its unfortunate renovation in the seventies. In the biggest most expensive city in the country, the most successful team in baseball could have built a parking lot for its fans on the site of the baseball shrine, or sold the property for a fortune to developers. Instead they outdid every other ball club when it came to honoring the site of their old ballpark. They built a public park on the site accessible to all, day and night. Fragments of the old fascia are mounted to a wall where center field once was, making you realize exactly where you are. Of course the main feature of the park are ballfields where kids from the neighborhood gather to play the game in the footsteps of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson and Jeter.

Kids of all ages play baseball on the field where immortals once trod.
Perhaps one day they will join them in that Pantheon.

Baseball, our national pastime is as alive and well as ever on that hallowed ground. It's almost enough to make an old Yankee hater fall in love with the team.


Next up, Saving the best for last, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

There Used to be a Ballpark Part I

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