April 24, 2013
When Brewers and Beer Clash
The Milwaukee Brewers media guide gives only the briefest of mentions for how the club got its name:
1970: The team is renamed the 'Milwaukee Brewers' as a tribute to the city's long association with the brewing industry.
It may be brief, but it is enough. The city of Milwaukee has been associated with beer and brewing almost since its founding, which is as good of a reason as any to name a ballclub. But when that name starts interfering with the brew in the common fan's mug? That's when things start to get unpredictable. This was definitely true in the early 1980s, when the Brewers caused a major stir by making only the slightest change to the beer menu at County Stadium.
Wikipedia describes the relationship between Milwaukee and beer this way:
Milwaukee became synonymous with Germans and beer beginning in the 1850s. The Germans had long enjoyed beer and set up breweries when they arrived in Milwaukee. By 1856, there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, most of them German-owned and -operated. Besides making beer for the rest of the nation, Milwaukeeans enjoyed consuming the various beers produced in the city's breweries. As early as 1843, pioneer historian James Buck recorded 138 taverns in Milwaukee, an average of one per forty residents.
The first Milwaukee ball club to take the name Brewers was founded in 1884, with many incarnations of the Milwaukee Brewers coming along throughout the 19th century as the city leapt between the various professional leagues. Eventually, the American Association Brewers arrived in 1902 and remained for half a century. In the early 1950s, the city of Milwaukee built Milwaukee County Stadium. Though it was said to be a replacement for the Brewers' ailing Borchert Field, the real reason for the new big league-caliber park was to attract a big league club. It worked almost immediately, with the Boston Braves agreeing to relocate in 1953 (the minor league Brewers then moved to Toledo, Ohio). At the time, four of the nation's ten largest breweries were located in the city's limits. It didn't seem out of the blue then for the county to impose a rule on the new ballclub that would only allow the sale of Milwaukee-based beer in the park.
Less than twenty years later, the Braves were out of Milwaukee and the brewing industry was changing. When Bud Selig and his partners wrestled the Pilots away from Seattle on the eve of the 1970 season, the city still held three of the US's top ten breweries (with the Milwaukee-based Pabst, number four in 1950, having purchased number nine, the Milwaukee-based Blatz, in 1959). Beer was in Milwaukee's blood and Selig tapped into this by re-claiming the name that had been synonymous with Milwaukee baseball for fifty years.
For the next decade, things carried on as you might expect. The Brewers worked at gaining respectability by bringing up the likes of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor while fans came out to the ballpark to support their club. Bernie Brewer, the mustachioed mascot, appeared in 1973. Every time a Brewers player hit a home run, Bernie would slide down a 40-foot slide into a fake stein of beer. Fans loved it, cheering on his antics from the stands with their own cups of brew, which, much like the Braves fans from a generation before, were all locally based. Though not required as a condition of their lease, the Brewers served only Schlitz, Miller, and Pabst at County Stadium. With three world-class breweries only a stone's throw away, why would they do anything else?
But the industry was still changing. Though Pabst and Schlitz remained in the nation's top five breweries in 1980, other brewers were up and coming, including Stroh Brewery and Olympia Brewing. Taking advantage of the shifting landscape, Brewers owner Bud Selig signed an agreement before the 1980 season to offer a new choice to County Stadium patrons. Beginning Opening Day, Hamm's beer - a Minnesota-based beer owned by Washington-based Olympia - joined the three Milwaukee brewers on the County Stadium menu to compete for fans' beer dollars.
County supervisors immediately came out against the club's announcement, saying that the Brewers used "very poor judgment" and "poor taste." One supervisor called it a "double cross." A resolution was proposed asking the team to reconsider the proposal while county and labor heads met with the club to see if there were any legal options available to keep the plan from going ahead. To top it off, a tape recorded session from only a few months earlier showed Gabe Paul, a club vice-president, telling city leaders that the team's support of Milwaukee-based beer was a sign of investment in the city. "We sell only Milwaukee beers because we've got to live here."
On Opening Day, members of local unions picketed County Stadium, handing out pamphlets and other information about the Brewers' grab at a "foreign beer." Forty-thousand pamphlets were expected to be given out that day. Labor leaders were claiming that the new policy could harm the 4,200 brewery employees in the city. The crowd was mostly supportive of the picketers, gladly taking their pamphlets and vowing not to drink any outside beers.
A few people who come by will talk about "private enterprise" ... but most are like the man who refuses a leaflet, then puts a hand on [the picketer's] shoulder and says:
"I don't need to read it - I'm not drinking any out-of-state beer."
But when push came to shove, the crowd still bought the beer, foreign or not.
An inning later, another vendor tells fans that they are all out of Pabst and all that is left is Hamm's and Schlitz. The fans, oblivious to another vendor three feet away with a case full of Pabst, buy his pitch and the beer.
It's no surprise then that, despite the uproar caused that week, nothing ever came of the pickets or the council meetings. Hamm's was still sold at County Stadium and life went on. In 1983, Hamm's was replaced on the menu with Old Style, a beer brewed by G. Heilemen Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Again, this upset the local union heads, though it never reached the same fervor as the Hamm's news three years before. Not only was Old Style a Wisconsin beer, it also happened to be a part of the Pabst family. Only months before, Pabst and Heileman merged as the industry continued its shake-up. The two Wisconsin brewers were following the trend set early in '82 when another major Milwaukee brewer, the Schlitz company, was bought out by Detroit-based Stroh.
The brewing industry was changing in a big way, and no city was more affected by it than Milwaukee. What else could County Stadium and the Brewers do but try to give their fans some options at the tap? Fans didn't have to like it, but it was certainly better than taking their beer away from them entirely.
Time and big business continued to march on. Today, the Brewers still play in the shadow of the Miller brewery, now in a stadium called Miller Park, but little else is the same. When Milwaukee faced St. Louis in the 1982 World Series, for example, the towns' two brewers were the two largest in the country, giving rise to the nickname "the Suds Series." That moniker today would describe an entirely European affair. The largest Milwaukee brewer is now owned by SABMiller, an international company founded in South Africa and headquartered in London, England. They have partnered with the Molson Coors Brewing Company to create MillerCoors, a joint venture designed to compete with Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest brewer in the world. AB InBev is the result of a merger between Belgian-based InBev and St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch and is headquartered in Belgium. (Got all that?) For a fan base once worried about "foreign beer" arriving from across state lines, it's a scenario that would have been truly impossible to predict even thirty years ago.
Things aren't done changing in the world of beer. The rise in craft breweries has reinvigorated the American beer connoisseur, leading to a wider selection of beer at the bar and in the stadium. This new market hasn't gone unnoticed by Miller and the like. Earlier this year, Miller unveiled "Craft Beer Destination" stands at a few ballparks, a transparent attempt to cash in on the new craze. Instead of selling true craft beers, however, these stands were stocked with premium label Miller beers. While this caused some uproar among beer snobs around the country, it was far from the reaction found in Milwaukee in 1980 when the Brewers had the audacity to bring a Minnesota beer into a Wisconsin venue. No protests were lined up, no pamphlets handed out, no council meetings convened. In today's game, the biggest concern about beer and baseball is how the one will affect the other on the field.
This, as they say, is progress.