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Hard Hits, Hard Liquor In 'The Summer of Beer and Whiskey'

The summer of 1883 proved to be a pivotal time for American baseball.

A brash German immigrant and beer garden owner, Chris Von der Ahe strode onto the scene to found a new franchise, the St. Louis Browns — a team that would later become the St. Louis Cardinals.

His motivation? To sell more beer. And while he made a fortune, he also changed the sport forever.

Von der Ahe would go on to help found a new league called the American Association, providing a stark contrast to the buttoned-up National League. Tickets were cheaper, games were held on Sunday and the booze flowed freely.

"This greatly expanded the reach of baseball and made it a much more popular game," Edward Achorn tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.

For the first time, baseball was opened up to "people who traditionally couldn't go to ball games, including immigrants and working people," Achorn says.

Achorn tells the story of baseball's early days in his new book, The Summer of Beer And Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game.

Interview Highlights:

On Chris Von der Ahe
"He's just a wonderfully colorful character. He would go into the clubhouse after games and sort of yell at players, 'Vy did you drop dat ball?' — You know, as if they did it on purpose. He didn't really understand all the finer points of the game. But he was a brilliant man. And he just made baseball honest, he made it fun, and he just made the game boom."

On the risks players faced in the 1880s
"Just like America it was a very tough time. You had to be a rugged individual. And it was dangerous, especially for catchers. Catchers had no covering on their fingertips. Foul tips could hit their fingers and there were just grotesque and painful descriptions in the newspapers of the time about some of the injuries, I mean, exposed bones and blood dripping all over the place. The rest of the fielders played bare-handed. If you catch a hard-hit ball by a professional hitter with a bare hand, you'll know what that means."

On rowdy fans
"Fans would drink heavily. They would scream at the umpires. They would go out onto the field after games if they were upset, and try to attack him. I mean, 'Kill the umpire,' was not just a saying ... Baseball was this highly cathartic thing and people could go to the games and let out their emotions that were so repressed in America's Victorian society."

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