AA: The Beer & Whiskey League

A nosebleed seat.  A Bud Light in one hand, a hot dog in the other.  And the latest version of Royals Baseball Insider tucked under one armpit.  This is my typical routine whenever I settle in for a game at Kauffman Stadium.  I only have to sit back and watch other fans going about their business to know that I am not the only one who appreciates the now-cliche experiences that going to the ballpark brings.

It’s hard to imagine today, but once upon a time, the idea of drinking a beer at the ballpark was not only frowned upon — it was prohibited.  Early baseball owners were determined that baseball remain a dignified sport, catering to the middle- and upper-classes and imposing almost-puritanical codes of conduct on their players and their fans.  However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that these practices were doomed to end.

Created in 1882, the American Base Ball Association (AA) was born in response to the National League (NL), which had become the dominant professional baseball organization in America during the late nineteenth century.  The AA lasted for ten seasons, until 1891, and during that period, early versions of the World Series were played between the champions of the AA and the NL seven times.  Although the American Association did not manage to break the monopoly that the National League held over the sport, its impact on professional baseball continues to show itself in ballparks across America today.

The American Association marked the beginning of the connection between beer and sports that continues to exist today.  As one historian cleverly points out, it is only fitting that the initials for the organization known for bringing alcohol to sports were “AA.”  Nicknamed the “Beer and Whiskey League” or the “Beer Ball League” by the NL, team owners created the American Association over the issue of beer sales.  While the National League went out of its way to ban drinking at games, beer barons viewed baseball as means through which to sell their products to thirsty fans.  In fact, six of the clubs in the AA had brewery owners on their board of directors.

At only 25 cents a seat, American Association tickets sold for half the price of National League tickets.  In addition, liquor was sold at games and Sunday baseball was allowed — both of which were banned practices in the National League.  As a result, AA baseball became particularly popular with the common man.  What had once been known as a “gentleman’s game” now drew rowdier crowds, including immigrants and working class Americans.

In spite of its popularity with blue-collar workers, the American Association never became as profitable as the National League.  Over time, the AA gradually grew weaker and weaker.  Players often jumped leagues, seeking to join the better performing teams of the NL.   Eventually, the American Association faded out, and some of the teams of the AA were absorbed into the NL.

Following the merger between the two leagues in 1891, each team was permitted to determine for itself whether to allow Sunday baseball.  Additionally, while the basic ticket price remained at fifty cents, teams were allowed to sell twenty-five-cent seats if they so chose.  Naturally, the “cheap seats” were often the farthest from the playing field and in bad condition.  Furthermore, the association between beer and baseball had been established, and as beer sales continued to grow in America, so did the efforts of brewery owners to sell their products through sport.  In spite of hiccups such as Prohibition, the two industries became inseparable.  The impact of the American Association persisted, and to this day, baseball fans continue to enjoy the privilege of having their beer and drinking it too.

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Sources:

Frommer, Harvey.  Old-Time Baseball: America’s Pastime in the Gilded Age.  Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.

Riess, Steven A.  Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood P, 1980.

Saethre, Steinar.  Baseball and beer: An independent study.  SUNY Cortland, 2008.  Web.  Accessed 9 March 2013.  http://www.academia.edu/442586/Baseball_and_beer

Sullivan, Dean A., ed.  Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.


6 Comments on “AA: The Beer & Whiskey League”

  1. Burly says:

    Was the American Association suffering financially before the player rebellion that led to the Players League in 1890?

    The American Association usually had a couple of clubs playing in small markets, but the National League usually did too in that period. The AA was also generally unable to field winning teams in New York or Philadelphia which, along with Chicago where the AA had no team, were the largest markets in the country at the time. The AA might also have been hurt by the fact that the St. Louis Browns ran away with the pennant in the first three of the four consecutive years it won the pennant between 1885 and 1888.

    However, as you mention, many of the teams were owned by brewers, distillers or distributors, and made money not only by selling beer inside the ballparks, a highly profitable endeavor, but also by running saloons next to or across the street from the ballparks. Also, AA games were often better attended than NL games because the ticket prices were half as expensive and games were played on Sundays, traditionally the best day of the week for attendance.

    It’s always been my understanding that the AA suffered the biggest drop in talent in 1890 with both the Players League and the better funded NL poaching talent, not to mention the fact that two of the AA’s strongest franchises, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, jumped lock, stock and barrel to the NL that year. The AA fielded teams in tiny markets like Columbus, Toledo, Rochester and Syracuse that year, and overall league attendance was probably dreadful. The NL had the financial backing to weather a season like 1890 when everyone involved in major league baseball lost a pile of money, but the AA was not.

    • Good point. The Players League did have a huge financial impact upon the AA. When the PL was formed, a lot of talented players that would have played in the AA opted to join the Players League instead. It also impacted AA ticket sales. Yes, due to the relative cheapness of admission, the AA drew larger crowds. But the lower ticket prices also affected profits, and in this situation, attendance wasn’t enough to make up for it. The PL only served to negatively impact that attendance and, therefore, the AA’s profits. Throughout its existence, the AA was at a financial disadvantage to the NL, and the formation of the PL is what delivered the ultimate crippling blow. As you mention, the AA simply found itself unable to survive financial hardships.

  2. […] Wrigley Field is located within walking distance of a game day party for Chicagoans.  After all, baseball and beer have a long history together as well.  It kind of takes away from the romanticism of the die-hard Cubs fan, but it could very […]

  3. […] Weakened by the tendency of teams and players to jump to the National League, as well as by the formation of the Players’ League, the American Association disbanded on December 17, 1891.  Several AA teams, including the Baltimore Orioles, the St. Louis Browns, and the Washington Senators, joined the NL following the collapse of the American Association.  You can read more about the American Association here. […]

  4. mrbill7474 says:

    While the nosebleed section is confined to the upper deck, these days the wallet-bleed section encompasses the entire park. 😒


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