Drunk Heroes: Baseball’s Love Affair with Booze

baseball and booze illustration jen kruch

The 1990s were a strange time to be plunked down into a stadium as a freshly minted baseball fan—especially as an eight-year-old girl.

With a John Smoltz-signed glove perched on my bookshelf next to the Chronicles of Narnia series, I wanted to talk batting averages and RBI stats with anyone who could stomach my passion for numbers-based nerdiness.

On long summer afternoons, I’d splay out in front of the television and stuff my jowls with wads of Big League Chew, imagining that I was just like manager Bobby Cox in the Atlanta Braves dugout: alternating between calling people up from the bullpen and contemplating fresh new ways to get ejected from Fulton County Stadium. When the Braves won the World Series against the Cleveland Indians in 1995, I refused to take off my Greg Maddux jersey for a week.

While all this may seem like an innocent rite of childhood passage, a major shift was underway at the time in how the sport of baseball—and its heroes—were presented in the national spotlight. The 1994 player’s strike caused a rash of ill will among longtime fans, while personal lives of players—good, bad and ugly—were increasingly splashed across front pages of the grocery store check-out aisle.

Mostly, though, the shadow cast on baseball in the late 1990s centered on steroids.

At the height of the 1998 race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record, rumors began to swirl that both big-swinging players were taking performance-enhancing drugs. McGuire admitted that year to making use of the steroid Androstenedione (which was banned by Major League Baseball in 2004), with Sosa also testing positive for PEDs in 2003. Since then, a slew of baseball’s chief talents from the 1990s have been exposed as dopers, tarnishing the legacies of many “steroid era” stars and dashing hopes of entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It’s well-known that an extraordinary number of the game’s heroes were (or are) voracious boozers, creating the kind of larger-than-life personas both on and off the field that helped to mold legacies far beyond simply putting up the stats. Baseball is a sport that’s long been unique not only its permissiveness—but out and out celebration—of unhealthy habits. Can you imagine LeBron James chewing a glob of nicotine while sitting on the bench? Not quite.

The American public was understandably flabbergasted that baseball players would shoot hormones into their bodies, but it’s not the only substance that that’s become part of baseball’s pop culture narrative.

Baseball and drinking have fit together like (wait for it) hand in glove for the better part of a century, whether you’re a fan reclining in the cheap seats with an ice cold beer or a minor league recruit shaking off the at-bat jitters with a nip from a flask. It’s well-known that an extraordinary number of the game’s heroes were (or are) voracious boozers, creating the kind of larger-than-life personas both on and off the field that helped to mold legacies far beyond simply putting up the stats. Baseball is a sport that’s long been unique not only its permissiveness—but out and out celebration—of unhealthy habits. Can you imagine LeBron James chewing a glob of nicotine while sitting on the bench? Not quite.

People typically point to the granddaddy of them all—Babe Ruth—as the primary example of the baseball diamond’s liquor-soaked past. Ruth was a rapscallion of the first degree in the early part of the 20th century, often touting that his nickname “Babe” actually was an acronym for “Beer, Alcohol and Booze in Excess.” It’s difficult to assess what Ruth loved more: baseball, booze (especially dive bar beers and highballs) or women, whom he would bed by the dozen or, frequently, by the entire brothel.

Ruth’s complete embrace of the athlete-playboy stereotype habitually found him on the run from lovelorn ladies, but he was rarely far from a drink (in spite of Prohibition) and still unstoppable on the field. According to his daughter Dorothy, bootleggers would smuggle cases of liquor “wrapped in burlap bags and old newspaper” to Babe’s apartment in New York, and the Bambino frequently attended parties in New Orleans where beer “flowed freely”—even though they were hosted by the city’s chief of police.

In a tradition that continued until the later part of the 20th century, Ruth’s booze-fueled dalliances rarely if ever made the papers as a form of hush-hush professional courtesy to the player so roundly admired by children across the country.

The same turning of a blind eye was extended to the next generation of professional greats, including a trio of 1950s legends known as the “Whiskey Slicks”—Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle.

The infinite number of drunken fights and antics carried out by the threesome would make even the biggest modern day prankster blush. There was the time that Mantle and Ford went on a scotch-fueled firework spree, setting off roman candles all over the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Then there was that other time when they celebrated Billy Martin’s 29th birthday at the Copacabana alongside Yogi Berra, ending in a drunken brawl with men hurling racial slurs at Sammy Davis, Jr. And Mantle often admitted to consuming a self-styled “breakfast of champions” (brandy, Kahlua and cream in an oversized shot glass) for decades.

Even well after their baseball years, the three shilled on behalf of Miller Lite in a series of 1975 commercials.

“When Whitey and I played, we were known to have a beer or two on special occasions,” says a turtle neck-wearing Mantle in the ad.

“Yeah, like after every game,” Ford quips back.

As the decades rolled by, the World Series-winning 1986 New York Mets carried on the tradition as some of the hardest-drinking athletes to ever don gloves. Following closely in the footsteps of the Whiskey Slicks (high blood-alcohol level, high batting average), players like Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Keith Hernandez drunkenly trashed planes, got in fist fights with police officers outside of Houston night clubs and poured bottles of Champagne on one another to celebrate victories.

“The Mets just didn’t let loose, they bear hugged and gang tackled,” writes Jeff Pearlman in his book, The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing and Championship Baseball. “They were a fraternity without classes to attend, a rock and roll band without the instruments.”

When the team won the final game that sent them to the World Series, debauchery immediately ensued. “Perhaps it was inspired by the popping of a Champagne cork. Or the cracking open of a beer can. Whatever the stimulus, the message was clear and powerful: Before they went to the World Series, the Mets would party their fuckin’ brains out.”

Entering into early 1990s, though, the longstanding “boys will be boys” mentality was quietly taken down a notch both behind the scenes and in the public eye, likely precipitated by the 1989 loss of Billy Martin, who plunged 300 feet to his death in a car driven by an intoxicated friend.

Mantle entered rehab in 1994, and lamented his years spent in a drunken fog. “I still can’t remember much of the past 10 years, but from what I’ve been told, I don’t really want those memories,” the Hall of Famer mused three months into his sobriety.

Today, intense media scrutiny and tighter regulations surrounding player activity have largely squelched the boozing of the past, with athletes and managers alike concerned with keeping their names out of the dirt. In the wake of several player deaths from driving under the influence, alcohol has been banned in 19 MLB clubhouses—a trend seems likely to continue. The rise of social media means that scandalous snapshots easily spread like wildfire, causing a cross-franchise crackdown on the same kind of rambunctious behavior that’s so long defined many of the sport’s best players and biggest personalities. Even tobacco has come under fire, with the days of a pitcher taking a triumphant spit after throwing a third strike likely to become a thing of the past.

But even as players move towards a more balanced lifestyle, it’s difficult for baseball fans not to romanticize what it would’ve been like to share a beer (or three) with the Babe, or watch Ford and Mantle pull off a couple of unwieldy pranks. After all, bad boys—in all their enfant terrible glory—are about as American as baseball itself.

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