Boos and Beer: Baseball Fans' Pitch to End Prohibition
Seventy years ago today, with his team trailing 4-2 in the 9th inning against the New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder Richie Ashburn made a spectacular diving catch on a line drive from Giants first baseman Joe Lafata -- or at least Ashburn thought he did.
Neither team was in contention at the time, the National League pennant race that year being a two-team race between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Nor was there any particular rivalry between Ashburn and Lafata. The former was a budding 22-year-old star at the dawn of a Hall of Fame career. Lafata was a 28-year-old journeyman in his second (and last) season in the major leagues. The game of baseball is egalitarian that way. Even though Ashburn was a brilliant defensive outfielder and Lafata couldn’t hit a lick, on this day in this inning, the centerfielder couldn’t quite get his glove under the ball.
I must quickly add that Ashburn vehemently disagreed. He thought he made the play. First base umpire George Barr didn’t see it that way: He ruled it a trap, not a catch. Although Ashburn’s coaches and teammates sided with their centerfielder, in the days long before instant replay the only opinion that carried any weight was the umpire’s. This being Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, fans joined the debate. A soda bottle came flying from the stands. Then another. And another. The bottles were soon joined by cans, newspapers, even vegetables. The umps put up with the barrage for about 15 minutes until crew chief Al Barlick had enough. He called the game, awarding a forfeit to the Giants, which means the official score of the Aug. 21, 1949 game in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park was 9-0.
Strange as it may first seem, this is all relevant to participatory democracy, as I'll explain in a moment.
It’s easy to make fun of Philadelphia sports fans. I’ve done it myself. Where else are the hometown stars routinely booed? Phillies fans jeered at America’s first hand transplant recipient while he was throwing out a ceremonial first pitch. Eagles fans pelted Santa Claus with snowballs and cheered when a Dallas Cowboys player lay on the turf with a career-ending neck injury. The ugliest incident I know of was the drunken Phillies fan who deliberately vomited on an 11-year-old girl and punched her father.
It sounds like a joke, but it’s literally true: In surveys gauging the worst fans in professional sports, the City of Brotherly Love holds both the No. 1 and No. 2 spots -- Phillies fans followed by Eagles fans. “Some of those people,” Pete Rose once quipped, “would boo the crack in the Liberty Bell.”
It’s a good line, but I’m not going to let it be the last word. “City of Brotherly Love” may seem like an overreach on the part of civic marketers, but that’s actually what “Philadelphia” means in Greek. It was William Penn’s aspiration more than his promise. But Philadelphia as the “cradle of liberty” -- or, rather, the creator of our imperfect but always evolving democracy – is a historic fact. Philly fans might well boo the crack in the Liberty Bell. Hell, they might boo the bell itself. But who ever said democracy wasn’t messy? Philadelphians know that more than most, which is why two decades ago Mayor Ed Rendell approved “Eagles Court,” staffed by an actual municipal court judge in the bowels of Veteran Stadium to adjudicate fan hooliganism in real-time.
Philadelphians also know that democracy requires citizens to be vigilant. The man who was punched and his daughter puked on? He was a local police chief from Easton, Pa., who was trying to show restraint. But when it became clear that his family’s burly assailant had to be subdued, four or five men from Philadelphia came to his aid. And the thug went to jail.
And sometimes the people just need to be heard. I’m not talking about fans booing Philly’s pricey new slugger, Bryce Harper. I’m referring to the time they booed President Herbert Hoover.
The occasion was the 1931 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Athletics. Game 3 of the Series was held at Shibe Park, where fans anticipated a pitchers duel between Burleigh Grimes and Lefty Grove. Meanwhile, President Hoover was struggling to keep a lid on things. The Great Depression was spiraling out of control and the night before Hoover had met with banking and insurance executives searching for answers to the tight credit that was choking an already failing economy.
Hoover loved baseball, but he wasn’t looking forward to the next day’s game. He went, he revealed in his memoirs, only because the White House had already announced the trip and the president felt that canceling it would be seen as a sign of panic. So he kept his date with destiny, first lady Lou Hoover by his side, attending a baseball game in the 12th year of Prohibition in a city already known for rowdy fans. What happened next, as the First Couple entered the stands, was captured nicely by William B. Mead and Paul Dickson in their excellent book on presidents and baseball:
Mrs. Hoover looked smart in a burgundy outfit and an orchid corsage. Hoover waved his gray hat and smiled. Light applause swept the stands. Then a few boos. More boos. The booing became almost a roar, and evolved into a chant. Economics might have been on Hoover’s mind, but the fans made their feelings known: “We want beer! We want beer! We want beer!”
The following year the Democrats put repealing Prohibition in the party platform at their Chicago convention. It was a good summer in the Windy City. The Cubs won the pennant and Franklin Roosevelt would win the White House. Baseball fans in every major league city got their beer. So maybe the next time you have a cold one at the ballpark you should take a few seconds and toast the Philly phanatics who helped make it happen.