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The Beer Necessities

Dec. 23, 2002
Dec. 23, 2002

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 2002

Pro Basketball

The Beer Necessities

When I was 16, my father, with Wite-Out, rolled forward the
odometer on my birth certificate so that I could sell beer at
Minnesota Twins games, where the official brand was Schmidt,
whose brewery, in St. Paul, bore enormous, electrified letters
that lit up at night. On those unfortunate evenings when every
second letter failed to illuminate, you could drive by and see,
like a beacon on the side of the brewery, a brazenly honest bit
of beer advertising: ScHmIdT.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2002 issue Original Layout

From my boyhood bedroom in Bloomington, Minn., I could see the
Hotel Sofitel, in whose bar a tanked-up New York Yankees manager,
Billy Martin, punched out a marshmallow salesman.

In Bloomington, 27 years ago this week, Minnesota Vikings safety
Nate Wright was pushed to the ground by Dallas Cowboys receiver
Drew Pearson, who caught a touchdown pass from Roger Staubach
that the quarterback afterward called a Hail Mary. The game
brought that phrase into the sports lexicon, killed the father of
Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton (whose name was Dallas and who
died of a heart attack in front of his TV in Savannah) and sent
the Cowboys on their way to the Super Bowl. But we remember it
today primarily because referee Armen Terzian--as he stood in the
end zone, oblivious to Pearson's pass interference--was brained
by a whiskey bottle. (That toss is still regarded, in the Twin
Cities, as the game's true Hail Mary.)

I attended college in Milwaukee, where the baseball team is the
Brewers, who were additionally nicknamed, at the time, after a
cocktail: Harvey's Wallbangers. Whenever a Wallbanger hit a home
run, a lederhosened Bernie Brewer slid out of a giant beer keg in
centerfield and splashed down into a beer mug. Between innings
the public address system would play that polka paean to binge
drinking, Roll Out the Barrel.

Until I was 21, I thought that Colt .45 was a malt liquor named
for a baseball team, and I'd never heard of the handgun, though
that is, when you think about it, a quintessentially American
trifecta: baseball, firearms and malted beverages.

So last week, when Harvard researchers released a study (of
14,000 college students) concluding that sports fans are more apt
to be binge drinkers than are nonfans, I thought to myself, No
Schmidt! Of course we are. Indeed, who can say any longer if
drinking exists to serve sports or if sports exist to serve
drinking?

Have there ever been two words more symbiotic than sports bar? As
a kid collecting beer cans--the Cincinnati Reds were on cans of
Hudepohl, the Pittsburgh Steelers on cans of Iron City--I assumed
that beer coursed through the very veins of athletes. And, in so
many cases, it did.

Beer is the alpha and the omega of the Babe Ruth story, which is
in turn the archetypal story of American sport. So I knew, from a
young age, that Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert bought Babe Ruth from
the Boston Red Sox with $100,000 he'd tapped from his Ruppert
Beer & Ale empire, and that Ruth was said to have drunk beer
between innings at McCuddy's bar across from Comiskey Park in
Chicago, and that his funeral was on a sweltering day in August
1948 at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where--in the pallbearers'
pew--his old teammate Joe Dugan whispered, "I'd give a hundred
dollars for a cold beer." To which Waite Hoyt replied, "So would
the Babe."

The voice of baseball, Mel Allen, called every Yankees home run a
Ballantine Blast, after the beer that sponsored the broadcasts,
and in the decades since, beer vendors themselves have achieved a
minor celebrity. You may have received a sodden single as change
from Wally the Beerman in Minneapolis (who has his own bobblehead
doll and Coors Light commercials), Bob the Beerman in Denver (who
has published his professional memoirs) or Scooter the Beerguy,
who has slung suds conspicuously at several ballparks. Each of
these vendors is beermarked for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As a sportswriter, in countless locker rooms I have been sprayed
with champagne in the manner of a firehosed civil disobedient.
And I have interviewed tailgaters for whom beer was almost
literally like oxygen, conveyed into the body by twin plastic
tubes attached to cans attached to a construction hard hat.

We build ballparks named Coors and Miller and Busch. At the same
time, as in the disapproving Harvard report, we express all
manner of beer and loathing toward sport fans, who are taken for
drunken, goalpost-pillaging louts. City officials in Tempe,
Ariz., last week complained that the Fiesta Bowl will, for the
first time, allow beer sales, presumably necessitating increased
security. Iona basketball coach Jeff Ruland last week issued a
public apology for offering to provide students of legal drinking
age a couple of kegs to fire them up before home games. "To
alcohol," as Homer Simpson put it. "The cause of, and solution
to, all of life's problems."

As in life, so in sports. And so the question remains: Do we
drink because we're at the game, are we at the game to drink, or
are drink and spectator sports now so codependent that we're
simply emulating W.C. Fields, who advised, "Always carry a flagon
of whiskey in case of snakebite. And, furthermore, always carry a
small snake"?

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
In studies and stadiums, sports fans are taken for drunken,
goalpost-pillaging louts.