The author: Edward Achorn
The vital stats: Public Affairs New York/Perseus Book Group, 318 pages, $26.99
The pitch: If Achorn wrote it, it’s A-league material. In this case, American Association quality. And 130 years to let it all ferment.
Based on the success of his 2011 entry, “Fifty-nine in ’84” and the tale of Old Hoss Radbourn’s remarkable season in Providence, R.I., Achorn backpedals in his historic research a year earlier and focuses on the championship race of the 1883 American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns.
And such a surprise: The guy who owns the franchise that would end up as the St. Louis Cardinals was a beer baron. If history is to repeat itself, it has to start somewhere, and that’s where Achorn decides to plant his stein, a character profile of the life and times of Chris Von der Ahe, a German immigrant grocer and saloon keeper who got into the baseball business in order to sell more beer. In Achorn’s analysis, Von der Ahe was a combination of George Steinbrenner, Charley Finley and Bill Veeck for the way he meddled with roster decisions, innovated and had fun with doing things big. Womanizing, including.
The key players of the time? A St. Louis first baseman named Charlie Comiskey. Philadelphia pitchers Jumping Jack Jones and Bobby “The Shrimp” Matthews. And sportswriters, of course, like Henry Chadwick o the New York Clippers, David L. Reid of the Missouri Republican (also the secretary of Von der Ahe’s team) and the Spink brothers from Missouri who did their share of arranging games to be played — so as to keep their jobs relevant.
Achorn has a way of hooking even the historian into caring about baseball created a social status in the post Civil War times, where gambling and unruliness had plenty of say in how things went.
This was a time when baseball rose and fell on its perception, and the American Association was created in competition with the National League and immediately dubbed, as the title implies, a “Beer and Whiskey Circuit,” based on the unruly players as well as the ownership that had financial stakes in the liquor industry. As a way to make their game more American-immigrant friendly, they offered games on Sundays and charged just 25-cent admission — both of which were against the NL philosophy of catering to those more financially advantaged.
“If it sells beer, I’m all for it,” Von der Ahe is quoted on page 14 as he spiffed up Sportsman’s Park for his team’s games, then tried to test the NL’s reserve clause in hiring away their best players.
Radbourn even makes a brief appearance here — no doubt from Achorn’s previous research. Von der Ahe’s manager, Ted Sullivan, actually signed him away from the NL’s Providence team to come to St. Louis as well as some other stars. Eventually, a “peace agreement” was reached as the Browns returned him to the NL.
Achorn’s research more than implies that the AA was not just “utterly forgotten” but in many ways, it also “transformed and even saved the game” because of its marketing ways and populist appeal. Four franchise of the AA eventually became NL icons — including Brooklyn’s Dodgers.
That in itself is worth a frothy toast.
More to know:
== An excerpt at Achorn’s website