Just like the bunt and the intentional walk, baseball wouldn’t be baseball without a cold beer.
In fact, there are few drinking traditions in America as time honored as sipping a cold one while cheering (or jeering) on the home team. At the stadium, without leaving our seats, we buy oversized cups of frothy beer from old-timey hawkers and have even built into the game a pause, the seventh inning stretch, to refuel at the snack stand.
And Take Me Out to the Ballgame is as close to a national drinking song as we have in this country—especially Harry Caray’s legendary singalong rendition at Wrigley Field. No doubt the millions of Americans who will be watching Tuesday evening’s All-Star Game at San Diego’s (depressingly named) Petco Park will be enjoying a brewski and snacking on peanuts as the action unfolds late into the night.
The connection between the two American pastimes isn’t a coincidence, and actually goes back to the early days of the sport.
A number of the league’s teams were owned by beer barons at some point in their histories. Jacob Ruppert, whose eponymous family brewery stretched over a large swath of New York’s Upper East Side and a four-term Congressman, bought the Yankees in 1915 and was the man who engineered the acquisition of star slugger Babe Ruth from his Boston rivals—in addition to winning seven World Series titles and building Yankee Stadium.
The St. Louis Cardinals were owned by Anheuser-Busch and the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles also had ties to large beer brands. That’s not to mention the Milwaukee Brewers who, of course, honor the city’s beer industry, including the team’s mascot Bernie Brewer.
But it’s not just the owners but also the players who have a beer history. “Practically all ball players I have known have drunk,” wrote famed sports journalist Hugh Fullerton in an interview with Hall of Famer Ty Cobb about drinking in a 1924 issue of Liberty Magazine. “In fact, the list of teetotalers would be smaller than the number of .300 hitters. And most of them were great ball players, too.”
While Cobb, who was a notoriously tough person and a tenacious player, didn’t drink for enjoyment, he did so as a means to stay strong and prevent what he called “staleness.”
According to Fullerton and Cobb this was a pretty common belief in the big leagues, which was shared by stars including Christy Mathewson and Grover Alexander. “Good beer and ale were fine for ball players, taken in moderation, when they were going stale, and staleness is the most dangerous thing baseball players have to contend with,” said Cobb.
However, not all baseball greats were hard drinkers or even drinkers at all. In 1908, ahead of national Prohibition, the Southern Baseball League, according to a story in The New York Times, prohibited “intoxicating drinks” and was going to stop “spectators to pass out of the grounds to quench their thirst and then return to the grounds.”
Branch Rickey, who will go down in history as the general manager who broke MLB’s color line by giving Jackie Robinson a chance to play second base for his Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was also a staunch proponent of temperance and gave speeches supporting Prohibition.
Ultimately, even Rickey saw the problems with America’s dry period and the way the Prohibition act was enforced. Breslin found an interesting quote from a speech Rickey gave to the Brooklyn Rotary Club: “The cause of prohibition, a most worthy one, was thrown back a hundred years by the Volstead Act [the informal name of the National Prohibition Act of 1919].”
As you can imagine, America’s experiment with temperance was particularly tough one for the game of baseball and its fans.
During the 1921 World Series between Big Apple rivals the Giants and the Yankees, a pack of 15 Prohibition agents tried to push their way into the Polo Grounds without tickets to see if “prohibition laws were being violated by spectators at the world’s series games,” stated a story in the Times about the incident.
They also “intended searching the fans to see if they had anything on their “hips.” Fortunately for the crowd that day, the ticket agents were able to turn away the Prohibition agents but there was nearly a riot.
However, that wasn’t the only drinking incident at the stadium. In the spring of 1925, New York cops were trying to catch a “walking speak-easy” who sold drinks near the Polo Grounds on game day.
He wore a harness, according to a Times article, that was “designed like a Mexican cartridge belt,” which held between 100 and 200 pre-mixed highballs that he sold for a quarter. “When his rotund figure is silhouetted against the green foliage of the park in view of a select number of customers down under the hill it has the same effect as the beacon lights used in Revolutionary day [sic] to signal troops to storm some lofty fortification.”
How were his drinks? Undrinkable. “The quality of the liquor is said to be so poor that several customers have been knocked out by the first drink,” cautioned the newspaper.
Fortunately, things changed quite drastically in 1933. While the Prohibition repeal amendment was being ratified President Franklin Delano Roosevelt legalized the sale of low-proof beer just in time for the start of the 1933 baseball season, which is also coincidently the first year an all-star game was ever held.