Beer is the mother's milk of sports, the engine that drives the enterprise. That was apparent during the Super Bowl broadcast, watched by over 100 million consumers. That is not surprising because alcohol has always been part of the game. Anheuser-Busch sponsored what seemed to be dozens of commercials (It wasn't that many; it only seemed that way.) All of its ads targeted the lowest common denominator of viewers and did so with appropriate glee.
During the nineteenth century, beer was more than a social lubricant. Drunk primarily by immigrants who did not have access to clean water in our growing urban slums, beer became a symbol of social division. Members of proper society associated their fear of immigrants with the overuse of alcohol. The National League banned the sale of the brew at baseball games, much to the dismay of brewers who owned clubs like the Cincinnati Redstockings, baseball's first professional team. The League was concerned that selling alcohol would attract the wrong type of crowd. Workingmen were not welcome, and neither were clubs that ignored the "no beer" edict. When Cincinnati refused to sign the "no beer" pledge, it was dropped from the League in 1881.
In order to sell their beer, brewer-owners formed their own rival league. The American Association was scorned by the magnates of the National League as the "Beer and Whiskey League." The Association fielded six teams that sought out the working class audience by offering both the sale of alcohol and play on Sunday - all at half the price charged by the National League. Four of the six club owners also owned breweries. Chris Von der Ahe, a German immigrant with a bulbous nose and a notable mustache who knew nothing about baseball, owned the St. Louis franchise and introduced sausages at his ballpark to complement his beer, forever linking hot dogs, beer and baseball. When the American Association folded in 1891, Von der Ahe's St. Louis club was allowed into the National League. He added a dance hall to Sportsmen's Park, amusement park rides, a racetrack and an all-female cornet band. Bill Veeck would have been proud.
Alcohol was not all fun-and-games, however. Players overindulged before, during and after games. The scourge of alcoholism consumed the game. Owners tried shadowing their players off the field by hiring Pinkerton detectives. Some offered bonuses to those players who quit. Beer and other spirits, however, took their toll.
Curt Welch, a centerfielder for the St. Louis Browns in the mid-1880s, hid a pint of whiskey in the outfield grass, and he would take nips between batters. Pete Browning, the "Gladiator," was normally drunk on and off the field. Nonetheless, he batted .341 for his career. Browning explained: "I can't hit the ball until I hit the bottle." There is a story about an intoxicated Browning taking a 15-foot lead off second base in 1887 and then falling asleep. The second baseman walked up and put him out.
The twentieth century had its share of alcoholics and their tragic stories of shortened careers and, sometimes, early deaths. Mickey Mantle was the most prominent example, who, on his deathbed urged youngsters not to follow his lead. It is difficult, however, to resist the pull of those dazzlings ads.
Americans have had a love affair with beer since colonial days, but only in the twentieth century did we learn how to mass produce and mass-market our favorite diversion. Sports became a platform for advertising, a part of the great entrepreneurial enterprise that is America. With so many choices available to consumers, brewers needed to inculcate brand loyalty. Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, print media and magazine ads promoted the product. In its early days, televisions were too expensive to purchase for the home and sets were located in neighborhood taverns. It was a natural setting for beer advertisements.
The Super Bowl is a great communal festival celebrated across the country in parties and events. You no longer need to go to a bar to watch the game and enjoy it with friends and alcohol. You can do that at home. The advertisements have become part of the entertainment. As the Budweiser Clydesdale commercial reminded us: "Nothing comes between friends . . . especially fences." Nothing comes between sports and beer, and there are no fences.
Oh, by the way, the Saints won.
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