In honor of Philly Beer Week, we have an article from local quizmaster Johnny Goodtimes on the history of beer in Philadelphia ballparks. Most of this info comes from this excellent piece on the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society as well as Beer and Whiskey League and Baseball Hall of Shame 4.)
William Hulbert, the man who helped form the National League in 1876 and served as 2nd president, enforced harsh anti-drinking rules right off the bat. He wanted “classy” people to come to baseball games, not drunks, so he made drinking illegal at the ballpark. This didn’t go over well in some cities, particularly Cincinnati. They had a large German population that enjoyed drinking beer at the ballpark, and in 1880 they broke league rules and started serving brews. They were subsequently kicked out of the NL.
In 1882, 6 cities started playing in a new league called the American Association, including Cincinnati and a team in Philadelphia called the Athletics (below, not affiliated with the current A’s). Several of the early owners were brewers who were happy to serve booze at the ballpark. The haughty-taughty National League saw baseball as more like polo, with rich d-bag fans wearing popped collars to the games, drinking sparkling water, and talking about their stock portfolios. They referred condescendingly to this new league as the “Beer and Whiskey League”. The fans of the AA didn’t seem to mind.
However, fans in Philadelphia weren’t allowed to have the fun their counterparts in Cincy, Baltimore, and St. Louis, among others, were having at their brewery-run ballparks. Blue laws made drinking illegal at Athletics games.
The AA broke up in the early 1890s, but a new league, the American League, started play in 1901. They let each city make its own decision when it came to booze, but the Athletics had no decision to make. Again, thanks to the PA blue laws, the A’s (like the Phillies) simply could not serve booze at the ballpark. At least Philadelphia fans weren’t as upset as fans in other cities when Prohibition came around.
Connie Mack, despite the fact that he was a teetotaller, tried desperately to get beer in the ballpark in the 1930s after Prohibition got repealed, as baseball suffered along with everyone else in the throes of the Great Depression. His pleas went unheeded by the powers that be (See my interview with Bruce Kuklick for more info on Mack’s battle with local politicians and rural Protestants over beer sales.)
The Philadelphia fans offered quite an impetus to make beer drinking in the ballpark legal. They smuggled in bottles and cans of beer by the boatload, and there were a number of instances where fans would then hurl full cans at umpires and players. Once, in 1949, Richie Ashburn made a spectacular shoestring catch, but the umpire botched the call and called it a hit. Phillies fans went nuts. They launched cans onto the field for 15 full minutes, and the umpires finally called the game a forfeit.
The A’s and Phils tried to make the case that they would serve beer in paper cups, taking projectiles out of the crowd. Their opponents were the unlikely allies of temperance leaders and local bar owners, who were happy selling beer before the games for people to smuggle in.
Finally, in 1961, 7 years after the A’s left town, a couple more ugly instances involving beer cans and umpires in Philadelphia caused a public outcry, and the two Pennsylvania teams (the Pirates and the Phillies) both announced that money raised by beer sales would go towards building new stadiums (with Shibe and Forbes Field both on their last legs.) The powers that be saw this as a safety issue and relented. Finally, almost 80 years since MLB baseball began in Philadelphia, fans could drink at the ballpark. But the blue laws would not go w/o a fight. The sale of beer on Sundays would not occur until 1972, after the Phillies moved to the Vet and the A’s were a dynasty in Oakland.
So next time you are at a ballgame enjoying a cold one, give a cheers to the obnoxious Phillies fans who came before you. By acting like belligerent jackasses, they helped ensure that beer could be served at ballgames in Philadelphia. I’ll drink to that.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy the following:
Searching for Simon Nicholls. The remarkably tragic tale of a turn of the century player on the Philadelphia A’s.
An interview with Author Steve Bucci about Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season, when he won 27 games for a Phillies team that won 59 games all year.