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Bob D’Angelo

Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.

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Baseball’s raw, unvarnished era

Posted Apr 30, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Apr 30, 2013 at 04:54 PM

On his website, author Edward Achorn describes himself as “passionate about baseball and history.”

That’s noble to begin with, but you have to admire a guy who admits he would have enjoyed being the fifth Beatle if he couldn’t be a writer.

There are enough “fifth Beatle” candidates already, like Brian Epstein, Stu Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Billy Preston or even the self-promoting disc jockey, Murray “the K” Kaufman. So Achorn wisely decided to skip singing and channeled his writing talents into describing an era of major-league baseball that remains murky to casual fans.

The result is the lovingly researched book, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game,” (Public Affairs; hardback, $26.99, 320 pages). Achorn pored through musty rolls of newspaper microfilm to reveal the rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred baseball of the American Association, a major league that existed from 1882 to 1891. The league challenged the established National League with cheaper ticket prices, Sunday baseball and the sale of beer.

Baseball in the 1880s was “a quick, nervous, dashing, brilliant kind of sport,” and it even had an owner who, in baseball genealogy, could be the direct ancestor of George Steinbrenner: Chris Von der Ahe, the immigrant grocer and saloonkeeper who owned the original St. Louis Browns, the forerunners of today’s Cardinals.

Von der Ahe “dived into baseball even before he thoroughly mastered the English language.” He was “haughty, temperamental, driven to win, wildly experimental, and madly in love with a dazzling show.” And, he loved to sell beer. Baseball games provided the perfect venue.

Achorn traces the exciting 1883 pennant race that heated up between the Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics, and peppers his prose with the names and exploits of some of the colorful characters who9 played. There was Jumping Jack Jones, a college student from Yale whose leaping style of pitching sounds eerily similar to a Tim Tebow jump pass near the goal line.

Or Cincinnati Reds pitcher Will White, who pitched 680 innings in 1879, going 43-31 with a 1.99 ERA. With 75 complete games, and he faced an incredible 2,906 batters. In 1883, he led the American Association with 43 wins and a 2.09 ERA in a “mere” 577 innings.

There is home run king Harry Stovey, who hit a staggering 14 round-trippers in 1883, and Ed “The Only” Nolan, a pitcher whose light shone brightly for one season (1877), but whose only claim to fame ultimately might have been his nickname. St. Louis had a star pitcher of its own: Tony Mullane, the “Apollo of the Box” who was “a great hand in frightening the batter” with his intimidating pitching tactic.

If Von der Ahe is going to evoke comparisons to Steinbrenner, then there must be a Billy Martin parallel. Achorn finds that model in Ted Sullivan, who managed the St. Louis squad until Von der Ahe’s meddling caused him to quit in a huff with a month remaining in the season.

There are many colorful and interesting characters from this era, and Achorn breathes life into names that are familiar and unknown to baseball fans. Some of them even seem as “informed” as players of today. One example Achorn uses is Pete Browning, whose reaction upon hearing of the death of President James A. Garfield was “no-o. What position did he play?”

OK, “informed” might be a bit harsh. Tunnel vision is perhaps a better description.

Achorn also devotes a chapter to Moses Fleetwood Walker, who helped integrate baseball during the 1880s but was ultimately drummed out of the game thanks to the efforts of Cap Anson, the game’s biggest star.

That Achorn is writing about this era of baseball is not due to a whim. He already has covered the time period well with “Fifty-Nine in ’84,” the story of Old Hoss Radbourn’s incredible 59-12 record with the Providence Grays, the 1884 National League champions. Providence is a natural subject for Achorn, who is editorial page editor for the Providence Journal. To emphasize his love for history, it should be noted that Achorn lives in a farmhouse built in 1840 on the outskirts of Providence.

Baseball always has been in his pedigree. His grandparents, both Boston Braves fanatics, attended Games 3 and 4 of the 1914 World Series (which were played at Fenway Park to accommodate larger crowds). Achorn also is a diehard Red Sox fan; he witnessed Carl Yastrzemski’s 3,000th hit at Fenway Park on Sept. 12, 1979 — an eighth-inning single against Jim Beattie of the New York Yankees. He also attended the 1967 World Series and saw all four games in Boston for the ’75 Series).

So, writing about colorful characters and bizarre pennant races seemed appropriate.

Von der Ahe made a profit of at least $50,000 in 1883 and actually bragged that he had cleared $70,000. Reportedly, his fortune reached $300,000 at one point. It didn’t last. Von der Ahe died nearly destitute; in 1908, his former club played a charity game to raise money for him.

“He may have driven them all half-crazy,” Achorn writes, “but in the end, they all loved and admired the German immigrant who had changed baseball forever.”

The American Association would merge with the National League in 1892. Four teams remain today: the Dodgers, the Pirates (known then as the Alleghenys), the Reds and the current-day Cardinals. Achorn asserts that the American Association was a necessary building block in laying the foundation for the success of the major leagues.

“The stability won in 1883 dramatically and permanently strengthened the game,” he writes.

“The Summer of Beer and Whiskey” strengthens the baseball fan’s understanding of that raw, unvarnished era of baseball 130 years ago that eventually evolved into the smooth product we see today. Achorn writes passionately and presents an excellent history lesson.

It certainly beats being the fifth Beatle.

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