Saturday, July 20, 2013

More baseball: "Propriety was downplayed, tickets were inexpensive, and alcohol was freely available."

The approaching vintage baseball event in New Albany got me to thinking about beer.

The most recent incarnation of baseball's American Association came to an end in 1997, with teams from the disbanded league moving west to the Pacific Coast League, or east to the International League. Among the latter was Louisville's AAA team, then the Redbirds, now the Bats.

In 2010, I contributed a column to LEO on the topic of baseball and beer. At the time, Browning's Brewery (now Against the Grain) was up and running, and there was an optimistic "Prague Spring" feeling afoot that the Bats and Centerplate might finally see the light with regard to craft beer. So much for that, but as excerpts from the LEO article illustrate, baseball and beer go together like Bob Caesar and political ineptitude.


 ... It is with the American Association, albeit an older version, that beer comes back into the picture.

The original American Association was a major league. It came into being in 1882, and lasted for a decade before folding. During its brief time of operation, the Association was widely known as the Beer and Whiskey League, in part because its founders numbered more than a few brewing and distilling magnates eager to move product, but more so owing to their brilliant marketing plan.

Their aim was to upend the staid, hidebound conservatism of organized professional baseball by making the experience of attending games affordable and fun for spectators. Propriety was downplayed, tickets were inexpensive, and alcohol was freely available.

Verily, it was the sort of “AA” that a thinking drinker like me can enthusiastically support.

Louisville’s existing team, the Eclipse, became a charter member of the Association, and changed its name to the Colonels. Its finest player was a native Louisvillian, Pete Browning, who was an outstanding hitter, a famously incompetent fielder, but a genuine larger-than-life personality. Browning was afflicted with lifelong pain from mastoiditis, which compelled self-medication through inebriation. He is reputed to have said that he could not be expected to hit the ball without first hitting the bottle.

Browning later competed in the National League, and he died in 1905 at the age of 44. As a player, his early patronage of a small, artisanal baseball bat maker led to the very name of Louisville Slugger, Hillerich & Bradsby’s iconic brand, which now adorns Louisville’s ballpark, where his namesake Browning’s Brewery & Restaurant is located. It remains the ideal choice for local beer and food before, during and after Louisville Bats games.

Of course, most fans will have progressed through the turnstiles by the time the National Anthem is sung, and last season, Centerplate (the ballpark concessionaire) had a rotating Browning’s beer available during most home games. A source tells me that again this year, aficionados of fresh, locally brewed beer will be able to drink a Browning’s brew while watching the Bats – and, intriguingly, that other local micros might be available in the park, too, pending negotiations on terms.

Ah, those terms. Baseball as sport, and beer as art, share a timelessness of social cohesion, substantial existential beauty, and a chronology that runs through the nation’s long history. Both reward diligence, deliberation and patience. Alas, both baseball and beer often have been given over to the harsh realities of modern capitalism, and these imperatives of profit sometimes obscure the simple perfection of a surprise drag bunt to the right side, or a firm, piney India Pale Ale joyfully washing down a mustard-laden ballpark brat.

From Pete Browning’s slugging in the 1880’s, to the craftsmanship of Brian Reymiller at Browning’s today, baseball and beer in Louisville should be inseparable in locality and spirit. It cannot be unassisted, but it is the perfect double play: Beer brewed here, and baseball played here. Let’s hope for the best at the ballpark this summer.

No comments: