Issue April 7, 2010

Mug Shots: Local baseball, local beer

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.” —Mary McGrory

“The age of American industrial brewing is over. And the people who once thought the craft brewing movement was a fad can now see it for what it really is — a welcome return to normality.” —Garrett Oliver

 

The measured, thoughtful, leisurely pace of baseball makes it the preferred analogy when I contemplate spectator sports in the context of America’s expanding, indigenous and creative craft beer ethos.

Not coincidentally, and in soothingly traditionalist terms, only baseball’s annual return truly can signal a harsh winter’s end, the coming of glorious springtime and all the many metaphorical possibilities inherent in rebirth, renewal and the frequent refilling of one’s beer glass.

Spring training has ended, and the Louisville Bats open on the road before coming home to face Indianapolis on Wednesday, April 14. As most readers probably know, the Bats are an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and belong to the International League, itself considered Triple-A, or just one step below the majors. As currently constituted, the International League includes a handful of teams that once were members of the now-defunct Triple-A American Association.

It is with the American Association, albeit an older version, that beer comes back into the picture.

The original American Association was a major league. It came into being in 1882 and lasted for a decade before folding. During its brief time of operation, it was widely known as the Beer and Whiskey League, in part because its founders numbered more than a few brewing and distilling magnates eager to move product, but more so owing to their brilliant marketing plan.

Their aim was to upend the staid, hidebound conservatism of organized baseball by making the experience of attending games affordable and fun for spectators. Propriety was downplayed, tickets were inexpensive, and alcohol was freely available.

Verily, it was the sort of “AA” that a thinking drinker like me can enthusiastically support.

Louisville’s existing team, the Eclipse, became a charter member and changed its name to the Colonels. Its finest player was a native Louisvillian, Pete Browning, who was an outstanding hitter, a famously incompetent fielder, but a genuine larger-than-life personality. Browning was afflicted with lifelong pain from mastoiditis, an infection of the skull that compelled self-medication through inebriation. He is reputed to have said that he could not be expected to hit the ball without first hitting the bottle.

Browning later competed in the National League, and he died in 1905 at the age of 44. As a player, his early patronage of a small, artisanal baseball bat maker led to the very name of Louisville Slugger, Hillerich & Bradsby’s iconic brand, which now adorns Louisville’s ballpark, where his namesake Browning’s Brewery & Restaurant is located. It remains the ideal choice for local beer and food before, during and after Louisville Bats games.

Of course, most fans will have progressed through the turnstiles by the time the national anthem is sung, and last season, Centerplate (the ballpark concessionaire) had a rotating Browning’s beer available during most home games. A source tells me that again this year, aficionados of fresh, locally brewed beer will be able to drink a Browning’s brew while watching the Bats — and, intriguingly, that other local micros might be available in the park, too, pending negotiations on terms.

Ah, those terms. Baseball as sport and beer as art share a timelessness of social cohesion, substantial existential beauty, and a chronology that runs through the nation’s long history. Both reward diligence, deliberation and patience. Alas, both baseball and beer often have been given over to the harsh realities of modern capitalism, and these imperatives of profit sometimes obscure the simple perfection of a surprise drag bunt to the right side, or a firm, piney India Pale Ale washing down a mustard-laden brat.

From Pete Browning’s slugging in the 1880s, to the craftsmanship of Brian Reymiller at Browning’s today, baseball and beer in Louisville should be inseparable in locality and spirit. It cannot be unassisted, but it is the perfect double play: beer brewed here, and baseball played here. Let’s hope for the best at the ballpark this summer.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.