For a baseball fan growing up around New York, the Sixties was an enchanted era. On summer nights, the radio filled my room with the sounds of epic pitchers’ duels, bench-clearing brawls, and late-inning heroics. And, of course, beer commercials. Thousands of them. Long before they could serve me at the corner tavern, I knew that Schaefer was “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one”; Rheingold was “not bitter, not sweet”; and the Ballantine rings stood for “purity, body and flavor.”
The beer still flows at major league parks. But it’s not the same beer our fathers drank.
My formative years weren’t unique. A college buddy from Pittsburgh cracked me up with his impression of Pirates announcer Bob Prince telling fans to “Pour on the Iron,” referring, of course, to Iron City beer. A White Sox fan swore to me she’d once seen Harry Carey downing a few with the Comiskey Park bleacher creatures—this while broadcasting the game. And my Michigan neighbors fondly recall Ernie Harwell imploring them to “hang on to your Stroh’s” when the Tigers called on their bullpen to save a close game.
Beer is not only part of baseball’s lore but also a tradition older than the National Anthem, the seventh-inning stretch, and even the World Series. It began in 1882, when saloon owner Chris Van der Ahe bought the bankrupt St. Louis ball club, renamed it the Browns, and joined the upstart American Association. Van der Ahe was the Charlie O. Finley of his era. Part of his marketing strategy was to cut the price of admission to a quarter. Smart move: he made his money back and then some, in profits from his beer garden. It wasn’t long before the Browns became a powerhouse, both on the field and at the bank.
Beer and Baseball Barons
Van der Ahe wasn’t the only beer baron to own a baseball team. Colonel Jacob Ruppert bought the New York Yankees and launched the greatest dynasty in sports history; ironically, he did so during Prohibition. Augie Busch shook up the baseball establishment when he acquired the St. Louis Cardinals; later, he made the Budweiser Clydesdales part of the game-day entertainment. For a while, the Labatt Brewing Co. owned the Toronto Blue Jays. And while Miller and Coors don’t own teams, their names can be found on the marquees of major league parks.
While baseball has changed over the years—we now have the designated hitter rule, dancing mascots, and month-long playoffs—the beer still flows at major league parks. But it’s not the same beer our fathers drank. The breweries whose jingles filled the airwaves became casualties of post-World War II consolidation, giving way to national brands that came to dominate the industry. But recently, ballpark beer has come full circle. Local beer is back.
Updated and Upgraded
Thanks to a bit of planning, some stored-up frequent flyer miles, and an indulgent wife, I’ve seen a game in almost every major league ballpark. While roaming the new generation of parks, I noticed a number of improvements: they’re cleaner and cheerier; employees make an effort to welcome fans; and concession stands have updated—and upgraded—their food and drink.
Take Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, one of two new parks that opened this season. Responding to suggestions by fan focus groups, the Phillies decided to offer local food—we’re not just talking cheese steaks—and craftbrewed beer at their new home. They’ll be serving Dock Street, Flying Fish, Iron Hill, Manayunk, Victory, Yards, and Yuengling; bringing back two “ballpark classics,” Ortlieb’s and Ballantine; and pouring a seasonal ale or two as the summer unfolds.
The Phillies is one of many clubs that are hopping onto the local brew bandwagon. You’ll find Penn Brewing’s German-inspired beers at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, Great Lakes Brewing’s Dortmunder Gold at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, and Shiner Bock at both Houston’s Minute Maid Park and the Ballpark in Arlington. Several parks in California offer Gordon Biersch beers, along with the pub chain’s signature garlic fries. The beer lineup at Toronto’s SkyDome includes Canadian regionals Sleeman and Alexander Keith’s. And on my last visit to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, I spotted a stand devoted to Maryland microbrews.
Baseball doesn’t keep stats in the tap-handle category, but Seattle’s Safeco Field boasts the majors’ widest assortment of micros: more than 30, counting rotating draft selections. The menu includes Emerald City favorites Elysian, Mac & Jack’s, and Pike Place, along with craft brews from top breweries in Oregon, Alaska and Colorado. If that isn’t enough variety, the Pyramid Alehouse, Brewery and Restaurant is right across the street from the ballpark. It’s a perfect location for a pre- or post-game pint.
Craft beer has even invaded the macrobrewers’ strongholds. In St. Louis, the home of you know who, fans can get Schlafly Pale Ale and unfiltered Hefe-Weizen, O’Fallon Gold, and Boulevard, from Kansas City. This year, the Cardinals are also serving up something from their city’s storied brewing past. No, not Van der Ahe’s lager but a lager recipe once used by the Lemp Brewery. A century ago, Lemp was one of America’s largest breweries and a bitter cross-town rival of Anheuser-Busch—until a series of tragic deaths in the family led to Lemp’s eventual demise.
Coors: Inside the Park
And then there’s Coors Field, the home of the major leagues’ only inside-the-park brewery. SandLot Brewery, which was built by the Coors Brewing Co., turns out several beers for the ballpark’s concession stands—including Power Alley ESB, Right Field Red, Sluggers Stout, and Wild Pitch Hefeweizen. It also brews seasonal and experimental beers that are served at the pub, called Rounders. One SandLot specialty, Blue Moon Belgian White, proved so popular that Coors’s front office promoted it to the big leagues. Another favorite is pre-Prohibition-style Barmen Pilsner, which can be found at only a handful of establishments in the Denver area. The beer, named for Adolph Coors’s home town in Prussia, was described by a corporate spokeswoman as a “seven-minute pour.” In other words, it’s dispensed with the same patience as a proper pint of Guinness.
There are distinctive drinking venues elsewhere in the majors. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL, has a mini shopping mall with food from local eateries, a cigar bar, and the Budweiser Brewhouse, featuring brew kettles, a turn-of-the-century Budweiser label, and plenty of cold beer. Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark honors the great Reds teams of the Seventies with the Machine Room, an industrial-themed bar overlooking left field. It’s filled with memorabilia, including the AstroZamboni used to mop the artificial turf after rain delays at the old ballpark.
But my favorite place to drink ballpark beer is virtually in my backyard: the Millwrights and Carpenters Beer Hall at Detroit’s Comerica Park. The beer hall, which fuses German gemüchlichkeit and American sports bar ambience, is dominated by a 70-foot-long bar and filled with heavy wooden tables already covered with a patina of fans’ autographs. Overhead, there are dark wooden beams emblazoned with words of wisdom from baseball’s greats, along with plenty of strategically placed TV monitors. The menu offers sandwiches and snacks, and the baskets of peanuts are free. Fans have also discovered it’s a good place to cry in their beer. Last year, they had plenty of reasons to do so: the Tigers managed to lose an astounding 119 games.