The dog days of August are winding down. I’m taking my ease at the picnic table on the deck during a sweltering evening, admiring the pale golden hue of homebrewed vanilla cream ale in a tapered pilsner glass, illuminated in the slanted rays of the sunset. From outdoor speakers come the soothing intonations of a baseball play-by-play broadcaster narrating a game that has just started. With the first cold sip, my cares suddenly melt away like ice cubes in the humidity as a two-hour escape to the virtual ballpark in my mind begins.
Whether it’s at the ballpark, watching from a tavern, or listening at home on the deck with friends while grilling, baseball and beer have been companions for nearly 150 years. Craft beer at a ballpark concession stand or the game night discounted draughts at the bar across town are now commonplace, but it wasn’t always this way. The story of how beer and baseball’s partnership began is a tale of social history, economics, and marketing.
A little history
Between 1830 and 1880, Germans were the largest ethnic group to enter the United States, fleeing wars, revolutions, despotic rulers, taxes, and bad harvests. They brought the cultural concept of gemutlichkeit, loosely translated as a combination of camaraderie, conviviality, and love of celebration – all of which were fueled by bottomless kegs of lager beer. This came into direct conflict with evangelical Protestant churches and Temperance Movement members who encountered immigrants as they entered Eastern ports and actively tried to force the “rowdies” to abandon their drinking culture. Since the end of the Civil War, these social activists gained influence nationwide through pressure politics and were successful in having Blue Laws passed and closing a number of saloons.
This social dynamic was also part of an era, later called “Victorian America,” that was noted for its rigid social class distinctions (especially in the South and New England), and emphasis on proper manners, restrained behavior, and religious devotion. Arriving German immigrants, who faced discrimination and hostility from native-born Americans of all economic groups, found little opportunity and trekked into the Midwest. Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis had substantial German populations, and here the new migrants could practice their customs in peace. While saloons were shuttered back East, beer gardens flourished in German communities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
The rise of professional baseball
The rise of professional baseball also occurred during this period and reflected the aesthetics of the time. Founded in 1876, the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (NL), primarily located in the Northeast, catered to the tastes of Old Money patrons. To ensure that only “proper” spectators attended, clubs charged 75 cents for grandstand admission and 50 cents for bleachers. Influenced by the Temperance Movement, NL ballparks did not serve alcohol.
The NL’s setup left a huge unaddressed market of working-class immigrants throughout the Midwest that clamored for cheap entertainment. Into this void stepped a self-made Prussian beer garden owner, Chris Von der Ahe, who came to St. Louis from New York, and started his career as a grocery clerk at a store on the corner of Grand and St. Louis Avenues. He eventually bought the business and converted it into a beer garden. Soon, Von der Ahe noticed that many of his patrons dropped by the saloon after attending baseball games. In 1882, he risked his savings, $1,800, to purchase the floundering St. Louis Brown Stockings. Recruiting brewers and whiskey distillers as team owners, Von der Ahe helped charter the American Association (AA) to challenge the NL.
The AA’s business strategy included the following elements: placing teams in other Midwestern river cities (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville) and going head-to-head with the NL in the Philadelphia and New York markets, selling beer and whiskey at all games, and charging discounted ticket prices of 25 cents for bleacher seats and 50 cents for grandstand so that even the poorest laborers could afford to attend. Because most laborers toiled in six-day work weeks, the AA scheduled many of its games on Sunday to accommodate its fan base, a move that was considered outrageous in the more affluent Northeast.
The NL owners quickly dismissed its new rival as “the Beer and Whiskey League,” a term embraced by the AA owners, who made no bones about owning teams solely for increasing alcohol sales. Unlike staid NL crowds who merely reacted with polite applause, AA games were rowdy affairs in which workingmen blew off steam after leaving harsh factory conditions. Ten-cent beer and whiskey shots added gasoline to the fire, and ballparks teetered on the verge of riots. To the NL’s horror, beer and whiskey sales proved popular even in more sophisticated Philadelphia and New York, where the AA’s Athletics and Metropolitans consistently outdrew the NL’s Quakers and Gothams, respectively, by a wide margin.
The AA’s 1883 pennant race was a wild affair that would not be decided until the next to the last day when the Philadelphia Athletics defeated the Louisville Eclipse 7-6 to clinch the title one game ahead of the Brown Stockings. The beer sales, cheap tickets, and thrilling pennant race ensured that the upstart league would return to fight the NL in 1884.
The war for the soul of baseball
The ensuing decade was a war for the soul of baseball: whether it would remain an exclusive property of the wealthy like cricket and lawn tennis or become a pastime for all Americans regardless of social class. Despite its initial success, the AA did not have the resources to compete long term. The NL, recognizing the value of the larger Midwestern markets, began stealing AA teams. The short-lived rival Players League in 1890 siphoned off so much of the AA’s talent that it folded after the 1891 season.
By now, the NL owners also realized the value of the additional revenue stream from beer sales and lifted prohibition at its ballparks. The four AA teams absorbed by the NL became its most profitable: the Pittsburgh Alleghenies (Pirates), Cincinnati Red Stockings (Reds), Brooklyn Bridegrooms (LA Dodgers), and St. Louis Brown Stockings (Cardinals). The NL’s expansion into the Midwest markets with large immigrant populations determined that baseball was, in fact, America’s pastime and not restricted to the wealthy.
Sadly, Von der Ahe became a tragic figure due to his stubbornness. Like George Steinbrenner, he quarreled with his managers and meddled in day-to-day operations. Despite winning four straight league pennants from 1885-88, Brown Stockings manager and future Chicago White Sox founder Charles Comiskey tired of his boss and quit. The team subsequently finished in last place the following season and attendance dropped. To pay the bills, Von der Ahe was forced to sell off his most talented players, continuing a vicious downward cycle.
Despite making $500,000 by the peak of the team’s success, Von der Ahe went deeply into debt and lost the team to creditors after a court battle. His wife divorced him, and he was briefly kidnapped by a bondsman for failure to repay a debt. Impoverished, Von der Ahe sustained himself on the meager wages of a bartender in a tiny saloon, supplemented by regular private donations wired from Comiskey who, although managing rival Cincinnati, still had affection for the man who had given him his first break in professional baseball in 1883 as a first baseman. Chris Von der Ahe died from cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1913, aged 64.
Von der Ahe was a visionary, akin to Bill Veeck or Charlie Finley, and the first owner to consider the entire fan gameday experience. When he moved the Brown Stockings to Sportsman’s Park in 1892, Von der Ahe added other attractions to the facility, including a beer garden, horseracing track in the outfield (short-lived due to baseball gambling restrictions), an amusement park with water slides, and an artificial lake – all of which the newspapers mockingly named “Cooney Island West.” Two other firsts he is credited with are selling hotdogs at the ballpark and creating the first farm club, the St. Louis Whites.
Let’s raise a glass to Chris Von der Ahe, who helped make beer and baseball together a part of Americana. Speaking of which, the beer in my glass, a cream ale, is a classic American style developed by ale brewers in the 1880s (during the AA’s heyday) to compete against German lager brewers who were taking over the American commercial beer market. It’s an easy-drinking beer on a hot day while watching a ballgame or relaxing after mowing the lawn.
My recipe for Bleacher Bum Vanilla Cream Ale
My recipe includes traditional ingredients for this style: six-row barley, flaked corn, and Cluster hops. The hint of vanilla highlights the sweetness of the corn. While purists may scoff at adding vanilla, cream ale’s very light profile makes it an inviting canvas to customize with a variety of sweet, fruity, or spicy flavors for adventurous brewers.
I use the middle-of-the-road cream ale yeast, a hybrid of ale and lager, but cream ale is versatile enough that lager or any German ale yeast can be used. The key to making this style is fermenting it at ale temperatures then cold conditioning so that fruity esters are diminished, and the beer has a clean taste.
BLEACHER BUM VANILLA CREAM ALE
7 lbs Pale Malt (6-Row)
2 lbs Flaked Corn
8 oz Flaked Barley
8 oz Cara-Pils/Dextrine
8 oz Munich Malt
.5 oz Cluster @ 60
.25 oz Williamette @ 10
.25 tsp Irish Moss @ 10
.25 oz Williamette @ flameout
Cream Ale Yeast (WLP 080)
7.94 gal Water (Cincinnati Profile)
Ca: 40, Mg: 7, Na: 27, Cl: 32, SO4: 63, HCO3: 86, pH: 8
Vanilla Extract (2 split, scraped beans soaked in vodka)
- Mash at 148 for 90 Minutes, mashout at 168 10 minutes. Boil 60 minutes.
- Ferment 10-14 days in primary at the recommended yeast temperatures and fermentation schedules. Rack to secondary over 2 oz vanilla extract for 10 days.
- Keg with 4.2 oz corn sugar. Cold condition for 30 days. Transport in pressurized growler.
OG:1.048, FG: 1.008, ABV: 5.4%, IBU: 15, SRM: 4