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American Association remembered

American Association remembered

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CINCINNATI -- Beer at the ballpark and Major League games on Sundays?

It wasn't always so.

You can thank the American Association, which was formed as a rival to the more established National League and held its first games exactly 125 years ago on May 2, 1882. Serving alcohol and playing games on Sundays were at the root of its conception.

Following the 1880 season, the Cincinnati Red Stockings -- known today as the Reds -- were kicked out of the NL for trying to schedule non-league exhibitions on Sundays at their home ballpark, the Bank Street Grounds. Team ownership wanted to serve beer at these games as well.

"The National League, when it began, guaranteed its public that it would not play on Sunday and allowed no alcoholic beverages to be sold at its parks," said David Nemec, author of "The Beer and Whiskey League: The Illustrated History of the American Association -- Baseball's Renegade Major League."

"It was the Victorian age," Nemec continued. "It was very staid and proper. They tried to attract a very genteel, upper-class crowd. They succeeded in doing so by charging 50 cents admission, which was a pretty stiff price in those days."

A city with a heavy German population, with breweries and saloons littered across town, Cincinnati wanted no part of the more puritanical policy. Left out by the NL, the Red Stockings were a team without a league in 1881.

"The Reds said 'No, we're not going to do that.' They needed the revenue," said Reds Hall of Fame executive director and team historian Greg Rhodes.

By 1882, the Cincinnati club joined with five other cities in the American Association and played an 80-game season. Teams were also located in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Featuring pitcher Will White, second baseman Bid McPhee and third baseman Hick Carpenter, the Red Stockings played their first game against the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, featuring outfielder Ed Swartwood and catcher Billy Taylor. The Alleghenys later became known as the Pirates.

According to Retrosheet.org, Pittsburgh won the contest by a 10-9 score. However, Cincinnati finished the season 55-25 and claimed its, and the new league's, first championship. Pittsburgh finished with a 39-39 record.

The St. Louis Brown Stockings, now known in the modern era as the Cardinals, defeated the Louisville club by a 9-7 score in its first game.

Many of the American Association's owners also had interests in breweries or distilleries. The National League dismissed their venture and called it, "The Beer and Whiskey League."

But from the fans' point of view, the league had plenty to offer. They could order beer at the game, and astute owners -- who wore their rival NL's beer-and-whiskey slight proudly -- took advantage by opening saloons next door to the ballparks, starting the now time-honored tradition of fans enjoying food and drinks before and after ballgames.

Sure enough, the new league thrived quickly. But it wasn't just because of the booze.

"They had a pretty good population base to work from and were able to put together a group of much more like-minded owners," Rhodes said. "They were into cheaper tickets -- 25 cents -- having the working class at ballgames and serving beer. Baseball was more fun. They opened it to the masses, and didn't make it a game for the elite."

"They were family oriented," Nemec said. "Sometimes, kids got in for free, depending on age or size. The league really took off. It [recorded] larger attendance per team, and the National League got frightened and started making peace overtures as soon as the season ended."

Although the game itself was played in a cruder form, much of what went on back then is still happening on Major League fields today. Yet, there were some exceptions.

Instead of being the current 60 feet, six inches from home plate, the pitcher's mound was just 50 feet away. Overhand pitching was not legal. According to Rhodes, pitchers threw underhand and eventually migrated towards a sidearm delivery. There was only one umpire and when runners were on base, he would have to stand behind the pitcher's mound.

Players on the first American Association teams did not wear a common uniform.

"Instead of having everyone wear the same uniform, they had the players wear different colored jerseys," Rhodes said. "It was to help fans identify the player. They hadn't come up with numbers yet."

The experiment did not last long.

"It turned out to be confusing," Rhode said. "With both teams having guys run around in different colored jerseys, it was too hard sometimes to figure out who was with who."

American Association games were greeted with enthusiasm and the rivalries that formed among the clubs became intense. It wouldn't be uncommon for brawls to break out on the field. According to Nemec's research, the ballpark atmosphere was much more intimate since seating capacity was often limited to around 8,000 people. They often got their money's worth.

"The fans were closer to the field," Nemec said. "The players sat on open benches on either sideline. The benches were fairly close to the stands. Fans could hear the interaction among the players and engage in the interaction. The language was pretty stark. If you were sitting behind the players' bench, you could expect to hear everything going on."

You could forget about pitch counts and specialized relievers. It wasn't uncommon for starting pitchers to work in consecutive games. In 1882, White started 54 of Cincinnati's 80 games and completed 52. Offensively, the notion of the power hitter was decades away and home runs were scant. Cincinnati only hit five homers as a team in 1882. Pittsburgh led the league with 18.

The National League and American Association formed a truce after 1882 and enjoyed a peaceful coexistence from 1883-84. By 1885, the first formations of postseason play were created when the Association's St. Louis team played the Chicago Cubs of the NL.

Pittsburgh bolted for the National League after the 1886 season, and was dubbed the Pirates five years later. After the 1889 season, in-fighting over the election of a new league president prompted Cincinnati to return permanently to the NL for the 1890 season.

After the 1891 season ended, the American Association merged into the National League. The renegade league lasted for just 10 years, but has a legacy that's continued into the 21st century.

Only the Cubs and Braves have been continuously in the National League since its 1876 founding. The Reds, Cardinals and Pirates remain NL Central Division foes and have one of sport's longest-lasting rivalries. The Dodgers, who were formed in 1884 as the Atlantics, also started in the American Association. Like the Reds, Brooklyn joined the National League for the 1890 season.

"All of these teams have their roots in the American Association," Nemec said. "Really, the National League actually has stronger roots in the American Association in some ways than it does National League roots."

Eventually, the American Association was recognized as a full-fledged Major League and all of its players' statistics and career highlights are counted accordingly in the annals of Major League history.

And rightfully so, for the aptly named American Association -- which brought the game to the masses, let kids in free, served beer and played games on Sundays -- was a big reason baseball would later join motherhood and apple pie as staples of Americana.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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