There is no sport more closely associated with beer than America’s Pastime. And with today being National Beer Day, it’s an opportune time to look at how that relationship evolved.
Today, a brew or two is an accepted part of the modern ballpark experience, to the point where teams are adding beer taps and beer stands annually, and some teams, like the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Durham Bulls (Class AAA; International League), sporting microbreweries at their ballparks. (Yeah, we wonder why more teams don’t install microbreweries within the ballpark walls.) Other teams feature beers especially brewed for their ballpark, like Snaketail Ale from Fox River Brewing Company, brewed for Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Low A; Midwest League) games.
During professional baseball’s early days, there was an ambivalence among baseball team owners regarding beer and whiskey at the ballpark. The National League, setting itself as a paradigm of virtue at a time when saloons and alcohol were regarded as unsavory by many, barred the sale of alcohol at its ballparks, as well as Sunday play. In addition, the National League required 50 cent admissions. The Cincinnati Red Stockings sold beer, allowed a semi-pro team to play at its ballpark on Sundays and charged only 25 cents for admission, leading to the team’s expulsion from the National League in 1880.
By 1882, there were enough teams to form a league with the Red Stockings, explicitly embracing the sale of beer and whiskey at the ballpark. The upstart American Association also charged 25 cents for admission, as opposed to the National League’s 50 cents, and played Sunday games. Among those upstart owners: Chris von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns, who openly embraced the sale of beer at the original Sportsman’s Park and larger built a larger ballpark, opening as New Sportsman’s Park, featuring a large beer garden, horse-racing track and an artificial lake for wintertime ice skating, among other amusements.
To say von der Ahe was a larger-than-life character would be to understate his impact on the game. While baseball owners worked hard to establish respectability, von der Ahe embraced the things we love about the modern ballpark—and then some. He lowered admission prices and openly promoted his saloon as the perfect post-game destination. He installed a huge blackboard in the outfield to track other scores in the American Association, tallied via telegraph—the better for gamblers to track the efficacy of their bets.
In the end, the American Association went under and von der Ahe lost it all, but the influence of both lived on, with the National League eventually relenting on the issue of beer at the ballpark. Indeed, breweries ended up being a major source of revenue for professional baseball teams: besides the sale of beer at games, breweries were heavy spenders on the marketing front, both before World War II, when regional breweries dominated, and after World War II, when major consolidation created national breweries like Budweiser, Miller and Hamm’s.
Some brewery owners even went to the point of buying baseball teams. Col. Jacob Ruppert turned the New York Yankees from a cellar dweller to a championship juggernaut using the same corporate principles he laid down when running the Jacob Ruppert & Company brewery in New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood. In Seattle, Emil Sick extended his brewing empire with the purchase of the Seattle Indians in 1938 and adopted a Seattle Rainiers moniker to promote his flagship beer; he also opened Sick’s Stadium that same year. August “Gussie” Busch Jr. turned a St. Louis regional brewery, Anheuser-Busch, into a national giant and along the way bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953, putting it on solid financial ground, first by buying Sportsman’s Park and then pushing city leaders to build a new ballpark. All three Cardinals ballparks have been called Busch Stadium, though Busch did push the limits when he tried to name Sportsman’s Park Budweiser Stadium. At that time MLB rules prohibited corporate naming rights, so Busch circumvented those rules by creating a new brand, Busch Bavarian Beer, to leverage the Busch name in 1955. He bought Sportsman’s Park from Bill Veeck and the St. Louis Browns, who were sold to National Brewing Company owner Jerold Hoffberger and moved to Baltimore. National Bohemian Beer (popularly known as “Natty Boh”) became a natural major sponsor for both the newly minted Baltimore Orioles and the nearby Washington Senators—the price for letting the team move into the Sens’ territory. And most recently, Labatt Brewing Company was the original owner of the Toronto Blue Jays, selling to current owner Rogers Communications in 2000.
When WGN-TV began broadcasting Cubs and White Sox games in 1948, local sports personality Harry Creighton was on hand alongside Jack Brickhouse to promote beer advertisers—and even drinking their products on the air, something you’d never see today. (One reason why this would have been encouraged: in 1946, fully half the television sets sold in Chicago were sold to taverns. Many folks watching Creighton put one back probably would have been doing the same.) Sponsor placement were not subtle—Mel Allen, shown above, is known today for his Ballantine Blast home-run call—so folks who complain about the commercialization of baseball these days don’t remember that the same thing was going on 50 and 60 years ago.
But the relationship between beer and baseball really solidified in the 1950 and 1950s, when baseball advertising was a prime line item in brewery marketing budgets. In this article, we listed the many close relationships between breweries and baseball teams over the years.
Today, we’re in a Golden Age of beer at the ballpark. The downside of those relationships between huge brewers and baseball teams is that they tended to limit the selection of brews at the ballpark, as they encompassed pouring rights as well as marketing rights. Yes, you will still see major national breweries as sponsors in the ballpark, but they coexist with smaller breweries — and one MLB team, the Boston Red Sox, booted Bud in favor of the much smaller Boston Beer Company as their official ballpark beer sponsor. Let’s take Target Field as an example. Budweiser is still a major team partner at the ballpark, sponsoring the right-field Budweiser Terrace area. Twenty years ago it was hard to find a non-macrobrew at the Metrodome; insiders knew exactly what stands featured anything brewed locally. Today, Target Field is an oasis of craft brews, as you can see in our story on the press-day preview. Similarly, you’ll find a slew of non-MillerCoors brews at Miller Park, including a full selection of local beers at craft-beer stands. And many MiLB teams are rolling out beers crafted specifically for their ballparks. All of this is good news for consumers: choice is always good, which makes National Beer Day an even bigger holiday in the baseball world.
Image of Mel Allen courtesy Library of Congress.