Old Man Booze at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium

By Bob Warrington


Baseball has always had an uneasy relationship with alcohol. In the last quarter of the 19th century when organized baseball was struggling to become established, sharply different views existed about alcohol’s place in the sport. William Hulbert, who championed the idea of forming the National League and served as its second president, was adamantly opposed to any association between baseball and alcohol.


Attempts at organizing baseball into a formal alliance prior to the National League’s formation in 1876 had foundered in part because of drunkenness and rowdy behavior among fans and players. Achieving respectability and attracting well-heeled patrons to ballparks, Hulbert believed, would legitimize baseball and instill confidence among fans that games were honest and could be attended without imperiling one’s Victorian-era probity.


Hulbert acted on his beliefs in organizing the National League. David Nemec in his classic work, “The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball,” describes those edicts that were intended to reform the game and raise its stature as a sporting event worth paying to attend. Nemec writes, “Hulbert imposed what were almost Draconian measures for a coalition trying to attract a sporting crowd: no beer or whiskey allowed in the ballpark, no Sunday games, no cursing on the field or public drunkenness by its players.”


Other baseball officials, however, were far from convinced that baseball and alcohol at a ballpark were incompatible. Indeed, they viewed the sale of alcohol during games (and playing Sunday games) as necessary for at least some franchises to be financially profitable. Owners of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, for example, refused to abide by Hulbert’s demands that clubs in the National League not play on Sunday and forbid the sale or even consumption of intoxicating spirits in their ballparks. As Nemec notes, “Cincinnati’s owners (believed) the franchise could not survive without the economic support of the city’s German population, which fancied the Continental Sabbath and craved a schooner or two of beer on a hot summer afternoon at the ballpark.” For its disobedience, Cincinnati was expelled from the National League after the 1880 season and replaced by the Detroit Wolverines. The move had far-reaching effects for baseball and its relationship with alcohol.


The Beer and Whiskey League

By the spring of 1882, Cincinnati had joined forces with five other cities that, for a variety of reasons, were unrepresented in the National League. The six clubs formed a rival league—called the American Association—aimed at challenging the National League’s monopoly on Major League status. The American Association did not hesitate to distance itself from the elder circuit by adopting rules that represented radical departures from the National League’s way of doing business. Among the measures adopted were playing Sunday baseball games and selling intoxicating spirits to spectators in cities where local law permitted these activities to take place. Since the money backing several of the American Association teams—most notably St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati—came from beer breweries and alcohol distilleries, it’s not surprising that club owners eagerly adopted liquor sales at ballparks.


National League adherents immediately dubbed the new coalition, “The Beer and Whisky League,” to reflect its less-than-saintly financial backing and sale of intoxicating beverages at ballparks. Fans in the cities represented in the American Association were far less bothered by the presence of alcohol at ballparks than the National League’s condescending attitude would suggest. David Nemec describes one example in his book. “In 1887, a ticket to a (Baltimore) Orioles’ game was a scarce commodity, particularly on holidays when owner Henry Von der Horst (a local brewer) would present each fan with a picnic lunch, a schooner of his Eagle beer, and an invitation to linger after the game and dance under the stars on a platform set up on the field in Oriole Park.”


The American Association’s “local option” for teams to sell alcohol at the ballpark did not aid the league’s Philadelphia entry—the Athletics—a team not to be confused with the club of that same name which came on the scene later as part of the American League. The Pennsylvania Blue Laws that prohibited playing Major League baseball games in the state on Sundays also forbid entirely the sale of intoxicating spirits at ballparks.


A Changing Perspective


The American Association lasted from 1882 until 1891. Although eclipsed by the National League, the Association left an indelible stamp on the game. One of the lasting legacies of the Association was the National League’s adoption of the “local option” in allowing teams to play games on Sunday and to serve alcoholic beverages at ballparks. The now-dead Hulbert’s 1876 prohibition on both activities had given way to club owners’ financial imperatives to increase their profits and cover the escalating costs of running baseball organizations. This changing attitude reflected the evolution of club ownership from its earliest beginnings as a luxury item for the upper-class sportsman—comparable to having yachts and polo ponies—to entrepreneurs who regarded Major League teams as potentially lucrative businesses.


The new breed of club owners who invested considerable sums to build classic ballparks of concrete and steel in the early 20th century—Shibe Park being one of them—did so for several reasons. First, previous wooden structures had shown their susceptibility to fire and decay. Second, baseball’s popularity was growing and clubs required strong double-decked or even triple-decked ballparks to hold expanding crowds. Third, and of most relevance for this article, baseball clubs held the prospect of being solid business enterprises that would earn a profit. In assessing principal team owners of the period, G. Edward White, in his book, “Creating The National Pastime,” notes, “They were not interested in owning a baseball club in order to demonstrate that they were members of the idle rich. On the contrary, they were interested in owning a baseball club in order that they might someday become members of the idle rich, and social lions in the process.”


Toward this end, loftier notions of baseball’s contribution to societal morality—restraining from playing games on the Christian Sabbath and forbidding the sale of alcohol at ballparks—receded as league magnates embraced the profit-maximizing “local option,” which allowed clubs to do either or both if permitted by applicable laws. For Philadelphia ball clubs, however, the “local option” didn’t provide much freedom of choice.


Connie Mack and Alcohol

In describing the odyssey surrounding the sale of intoxicating spirits at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, it is necessary to draw a sharp distinction between Philadelphia Athletics’ manager Connie Mack’s personal views on consuming alcohol, and the club’s perspective on selling it to fans at the ballpark.


Connie Mack, of course, did not drink alcohol. In his autobiography, “My 66 Years in the Big Leagues,” Mack tells readers of the origin of his decision to avoid intoxicating beverages. When he decided to leave home and embark on his baseball career as a member of the Meriden team in the Eastern League in 1884, Mack had a conversation with his mother to inform her of his plans. While reluctant to see him go, Mary consented with one caveat, according to Mack. “Promise me one thing,” she said. “Promise me that you won’t let them get you into bad habits. I’ve brought you up to be a good boy. Promise me that you won’t drink.” As Mack recalled in his book 66 years after that conversation, “I promised her, and that promise I shall keep to the end of my life.”


Returning to the subject of alcohol and baseball later in his autobiography, Connie Mack wrote that he had received thousands of letters over the years containing many questions about him. He used the opportunity provided by his book to answer some of the most prominent of them, including whether he consumed intoxicating spirits. Mack stated in his response, “No! I have seen the abuse of alcohol do too much damage to otherwise great players. Moreover, as I told you at the beginning of this book, I made a promise to my mother to let intoxicants alone.”


There is no doubt that Mack had been a dismayed observer on a number of occasions when a player’s career had been shortened or otherwise degraded by alcoholism. This included members of his own Philadelphia Athletics. Mack’s widely known abstinence from alcohol, moreover, made him a favorite of those seeking to outlaw the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating beverages altogether. The Temperance Movement would attain its greatest victory in the second decade of the 20th century, and that success would impact baseball along with the rest of the country.


The Prohibition Pause

When the American League was founded in 1901, it adopted the “local option” for clubs to sell alcohol at their ballparks and play games on Sundays. Those that could did so, but that did not include the Philadelphia Athletics. As noted, the state’s Blue Laws forbid either endeavor by the Athletics or the Philadelphia Phillies. The A’s were not content, however, to sit idle on potentially the best day of the week to draw crowds to Shibe Park, and as Bruce Kuklick in his book, “To Every Thing A Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976,” records, “From 1911 on the franchise tried to legalize such (Sunday) games.”


It is not clear if the Athletics had an additional aspiration during the same period to overturn the Blue Laws that forbid alcohol to be sold at their ballpark. If it did, those hopes were put on hold by a development that superseded state-level regulations governing the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating beverages. In January 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into force. It decreed as the law of the land that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”


The Temperance Movement—dedicated to abstinence from the use of intoxicating drink—pushed for adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. The handbill accompanying this story that contains the quotation from Connie Mack about “Old Man Booze” calling out more players than all the umpires put together was distributed by the Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Harrisburg, Pa. As noted, Mack’s refusal to imbibe, disapproval of players drinking excessively, and celebrity status as a successful Major League manager made him a most quotable figure for the Temperance Movement to use in publicizing its cause. The handbill probably dates from the mid-to-late teens.

Of course, Prohibition was a disaster, and casual, widespread disregard of the law by those wishing to enjoy alcohol was a harbinger of its failure. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution, which came into effect in December 1933, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending America’s “noble experiment,” and turning the taps back on at ballparks where it was legal to do so.


“Hey! Get Your Cold Beer”: The Long Path

Despite Prohibition’s end, the stultifying Blue Laws still forbade the sale of intoxicating beverages at Shibe Park. With America “wet” again, nevertheless, the Athletics moved immediately to get a beer permit for the ballpark. Although Mack personally did not drink, the club saw no difficulty in serving alcohol to fans who wanted to enjoy a beer or two while cheering on the hometown crew. The financial imperative to increase revenue by selling intoxicating beverages at Shibe Park was clearly understood by the Athletics. The country in 1933 was in the throes of the Great Depression. Baseball attendance suffered grievously, including in Philadelphia, and Mack was already dismantling his 1929-31 dynasty to cut payroll costs and generate funds by selling star players to other teams for cash.


The Athletics’ long-term effort to amend the Blue Laws and make Sunday games legal in Pennsylvania finally paid off in 1934. Getting permission to sell alcohol at Shibe Park remained an elusive goal, however. Like making Sunday games legal, obtaining a permit to sell alcoholic beverages at Shibe Park required changing the Blue Laws, which entailed having a bill passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature and signed by the governor.


The Athletics’ campaign beginning in the mid-1930s to obtain a permit to sell beer at Shibe Park was wholly unsuccessful and became moribund. In the late 1940s, according to Kuklick, the Athletics renewed their efforts with greater vigor, and the movement seemed to gain some momentum. A’s officials pointed out that even if the club did not sell beer at the ballpark, many fans brought bottles (later cans) of intoxicating beverages with them to games. Occasionally, the club would take preventative measures—searching fans as they entered Shibe Park for alcohol—but such efforts were sporadic and half-hearted. As Kuklick notes, many fans had stories of the way they could smuggle bottles inside the ballpark.


The fact that fans brought their own alcohol to the ballpark formed one of the arguments the Athletics—and later the Phillies—used to argue for beer sales by the club. The bottles and cans made nasty missiles to hurl at players and umpires, and there were a number of ugly incidents at Shibe Park and elsewhere involving drunken fans throwing bottles and cans on the field and engaging in brawls in the stands—all precipitated by alcohol brought into the ballpark The A’s and Phillies both argued that by selling beer in paper cups at the ballpark—all beverages sold at Shibe Park were dispensed in paper cups—dangerous projectiles would be taken out of the hands of drunken fans, and obviously intoxicated patrons could be refused additional drinks by workers at concession stands. Left unsaid but clearly implied in these arguments was the realization that if permitted to sell beer within Shibe Park, the clubs would be much more vigilant in preventing fans from bringing alcohol in bottles and cans into the ballpark. Any alcohol smuggled in by fans would hurt the clubs’ own sales of intoxicating beverages, so it was to the Athletics’ and Phillies’ advantage to discourage the practice.

The clubs, however, faced powerful—if somewhat unlikely—opposition from an alliance of temperance leaders and bar owners in the neighborhood around Shibe Park. Temperance leaders, of course, opposed all alcoholic consumption, while local bar owners worried that sales of intoxicating spirits inside the ballpark would hurt their own profits. Fans would no longer stop by to purchase beer to take to the game, or be as inclined to visit after a game to quench their thirst while reliving the drama of the game.


This opposition proved formidable, and the Philadelphia Athletics were ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining permission to sell beer at Shibe Park. By the time Pennsylvania legalized ballpark beer sales, the Athletics were long gone from Philadelphia and Shibe Park had a new name.


When the Athletics left town after the 1954 season, the Phillies carried on the quest to sell beer at what by then had been re-christened Connie Mack Stadium. Resistance continued to prove tenacious. In April 1961, for example, Pennsylvania state legislators voted 118-77 against granting the Phillies a permit to sell beer at their stadium.


Despite the continuing prohibition on selling beer at Connie Mack Stadium, drunken incidents in the stands persisted and some fans were punished for their offenses. In an April 1961 game at Connie Mack Stadium between the Phillies and Chicago Cubs, John McKeogh tossed an empty beer can from the stands onto the field. He was arrested by police, hauled before a magistrate, and fined $7.50 for disorderly conduct. (A $5.00 fine and $2.50 in court costs.) A far uglier scene occurred in June during a twilight doubleheader between the Phillies and San Francisco Giants. In the sixth inning of the second game, Phillies catcher Jim Coker was ejected from the game for protesting an umpire’s call. At least 100 beer cans were tossed onto the field by irate fans. (The Giants won both ends of the doubleheader.)


In late 1961, as Kuklick relates, beer sold in paper cups finally became legal at Shibe Park—as well as at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh—except on Sunday. Approval reflected the recognition that preventing fans from bringing their own intoxicating spirits into ballparks was hopeless, and the desire to take harmful projectiles (bottles and cans) out of the hands of rowdy fans. What may have pushed the measure over the top in the legislature, as Kuklick notes, was the decision to link beer licensing to the larger plan to raise money for new stadiums in both cities. (Connie Mack Stadium and Forbes Field were reaching the end of their long and illustrious careers.)


The sale of beer on Sundays at the Phillies’ stadium did not occur until 1972, when 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue was no longer the address of the place the team called home.




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