First-Draft Follies: Budweiser, Baseball and . . . Communism. Part 1 of 4

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Welcome to First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification. The excerpt is long, so I’m breaking it into manageable bits and posting those bits over the next few days.

This edition of the Follies concerns Gus Busch and the fallout from his purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals. __________________________________

All told, 1954 was not a particularly good year for Gus Busch, and not just because of his pricing blunder. [He’d raised the prices of his beer; sales plunged.] He spent part of that year wondering if he’d made a mistake investing in baseball, [namely] the St. Louis Cardinals, which he had bought in 1953.

This was a risky move. Baseball attendance nationwide had suffered in recent years, another victim of [the new technology of] television as viewers chose to stay home and watch rather than take themselves out to the ballpark. In theory at any rate, a corporate parent like Anheuser-Busch could suffer empty seats with more patience than other owners: the advertising would reach consumers whether they were sitting in easy chairs at home or hard seats back of the outfield.

Gus Busch scoffed at the notion that he’d bought the team only for its sales-pitch potential, but he and everyone else knew that it wouldn’t hurt to have Anheuser-Busch signs plastered all over the infield and scoreboard. The new owner knew little about baseball but he dived into this new adventure with the same gusto with which he grabbed everything else in life; this was a man, after all, who hated to lose.

“‘We hope to make the Cardinals one of the greatest baseball teams of all time,'” he assured St. Louisans and anyone who cared. (*1)

Never mind that Griesedieck Western Brewing (cousins of the Falstaff Griesedieck) owned the radio and TV contract for the 1953 season. Never mind that state laws banned the sale of beer at the ball parks where the Cards’ farm teams played. (Four months later the Texas legislature legalized the sale of beer at that state’s ballparks.)

Minor details, those, and not enough to dampen Gus’s enthusiasm. He even traveled up to Milwaukee in April to enjoy a joint celebration with Fred Miller, whose company had just helped negotiate (and pay for) the purchase of the Boston Braves. Miller had been named to the new Milwaukee Braves board of directors and he hosted a luncheon for city officials, Braves president Lou Perini; Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball; Warren Giles, president of the National Baseball League, and Miller’s good buddy Gus Busch.

A bemused Gus posed for pictures with the group, standing behind the seated Fred and with his hands on Miller’s shoulders, as if to say “Down, boy, down!” In the center of the luncheon table sat a cake decorated with small figures of two baseball players, one in a Cards’ uniform, another dressed as a Brave, foreheads touching, leaning into an imaginary shouting match as a tiny “impassive” umpire stood nearby. (*2)

________________________________________

Sources: *1: “‘Sporting Venture,'” Time 61 (March 2, 1953): 46.

*2: “Welcome Braves to Beer Capital,” Modern Brewery Age 49 (May 1953): 14.

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