At 10:22 P.M. on the night of October 28, 2011, a muscular, six-foot-four left-handed batter and devout Christian, David Murphy of the Texas Rangers, took a swift hack at a 97-mile-per-hour fastball and launched a long fly ball to left field. Red-jacketed fans in the St. Louis crowd of 47,399 were already on their feet yelling, waving white "Rally Squirrel" towels in honor of the American gray squirrel whose repeated dashes across the field had prophesied the Cardinals' improbable upset of the Philadelphia Phillies in the Division Series playoffs three weeks earlier. As the ball soared into the night, Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig sprinted hard, turned around, and, backpedaling, thrust up his left arm, framed by the wall's giant picture of the Cards' legendary pitcher and showman Dizzy Dean, star of the Depression-era champions known as the Gashouse Gang. Fans fixed their eyes on the dying arc, bracing to bellow ear-splitting screams. When Craig's glove swallowed the ball, they jumped up and down, slapped backs, shook hands, hugged, laughed, wept. Ecstatic young athletes in white and red uniforms swarmed over the field, forming a mound atop closer Jason Motte. Fireworks boomed over the stadium, splashing piercing colors into the sky that were reflected beyond center field on the Gateway Arch, symbol of the city's critical role in America's bold westward expansion. Another splendid page in St. Louis history had been written.
It was one of those unthinkable finishes that make baseball so magical. On August 27, the St. Louis Cardinals had languished in third place in the wildcard race, ten and a half games behind, written off by everyone but themselves. They fought back frantically and, with a win on the last day of the regular season, actually snuck into the playoffs. They then pushed aside the highly touted Phillies and the hard-hitting Milwaukee Brewers to make it all the way to the World Series, where they would be up against the heavily favored Texas Rangers. Twice in Game Six, they had been on the brink of elimination, down to their last strike, but the stars spectacularly aligned in their favor, and they survived, somehow, to triumph in the eleventh inning. And now they were World Champions, sending millions of Cardinals fans across America into paroxysms of joy. Gushing with pride, General Manager John Mozeliak declared: "We have the greatest fans in the world." The people of St. Louis seemed determined to prove it. Two days later they filled Busch Stadium and lined downtown streets for a parade celebrating their baseball miracle. A team of eight massive Clydesdale steeds pulled a scarlet red Budweiser beer wagon, symbol of Anheuser-Busch's longtime association with the team and St. Louis's love for the amber beverage that had been made internationally famous by the city's German immigrant brewers. Manager Tony La Russa smiled and waved from the seat of honor atop the wagon, alongside green-clad liverymen.
But few, if any, of the hundreds of thousands celebrating that afternoon paused to reflect on the founder of their beloved team, the shrewd and amusing man to whom they owed a good deal of their joy this day. Most in the crowd had never even heard the name of Chris Von der Ahe, let alone his story. This immigrant grocer and saloonkeeper dived into baseball even before he thoroughly mastered the English language. With cheap tickets, Sunday ball, and beer, he grabbed control of the dying game in St. Louis and, in a turnaround at least as improbable and dramatic as the one engineered by the 2011 Cardinals, infused it with new life and popularity—while perhaps saving all of professional baseball in the bargain. Von der Ahe also played a role in founding a flamboyant new major league, whose influence echoes loudly through Major League Baseball tothis day.
Von der Ahe did not act alone, of course. He was one of a gang of owners and players who revived the game by creating a dazzlingly colorful professional sports league known as the American Association. This book tells their tale—the tale of how baseball, under their guidance, extended its reach to fans of all classes and became more truly America's game. It tells of the extraordinary passion for baseball they helped to ignite in cities such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Louisville, and Columbus. Our vehicle to reconnect with this fascinating world will be the cycle that is the essence of baseball—a single season, from April's soaring expectations to September's aching sorrows.
To be sure, the American Association's summer of 1883 has been utterly foreign to all but the most intrepid baseball historians. But in many ways it transformed and even saved the game, dramatically increasing its popularity and demonstrating that, however unpredictable professional baseball might be, it could be played honestly. It was the year America went baseball mad—a season of struggle and passions featuring a wild pennant race. It was filled with memorable characters—and often hilarious twists and turns, so wonderful that only baseball could have invented them. It is a season that marvelously opens a window, as baseball always does, into the culture of America of its time—the harsh struggle, the cruel and mocking racism, the heavy drinking, and the triumphant, glorious spirit of individual achievement of the day.
To get oriented, it might be helpful to know something about the American Association, the major league that functioned alongside the National League from 1882 through 1891. It was not the progenitor of today's American League, which became a major league in 1901, though it did demonstrate that there was good money to be made in a competing league. Formally in existence for just nine years, the American Association might seem short-lived—long gone and long forgotten. But in a very real sense, it is still thriving today. In 1892, the Association merged with the National League, which had been founded in 1876, much as the upstart American Football League merged with the more venerable National Football League in 1970. Four former American Association teams became keystone National League franchises: Pittsburgh (today's Pirates), St. Louis (today's Cardinals), Cincinnati (today's Reds), and Brooklyn (today's Los Angeles Dodgers). The newly merged league was called the National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs—a real mouthful, understandably shortened in common usage to National League, though perhaps unfortunately so, since the Association and its great contribution to baseball were thereby largely forgotten.
The franchise that became known as the Cardinals—and plays one of the starring roles in this book—was originally called the St. Louis Browns. This club is not to be confused with the St. Louis Browns of the American League, 1901–1953, who moved to Baltimore and became today's Orioles. Those Browns simply borrowed the name, by then no longer in use, of the storied franchise founded by Von der Ahe.
Big-league baseball imported much more than ball clubs from the American Association. The Association powerfully transformed baseball, making it more open and accessible. Decades before Jackie Robinson, it featured two black ballplayers, breaking the color line for a time in Jim Crow America. The big leagues also eventually adopted the Association's Sunday ball, ballpark beer, and spirit of reckless fun that was at the heart of the organization from the beginning—qualities that, to one degree or another, live on to this day, just like the St. Louis Cardinals.
From The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game by Edward Achorn. Copyright 2013 by Edward Achorn. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.