Bourbon, Baseball & Barney!

“Cold beer, getcha cold beer here!” If you’ve been to a ball game, you’ve heard this shouted from every corner of the stadium. Beer and baseball are just as synonymous with baseball as hot dogs and apple pie, but there is more to baseball than just beer, hot dogs, and apple pie; there is also Kentucky Bourbon … the spirit that baseball needed.

This story begins in 1867 when Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, at 19 years old, decided to leave his hometown of Schmieheim, Germany, for the big city lights of New York City. After losing his job in New York, he bought a horse and became a successful traveling salesman. The horse’s name was unknown, but the unthinkable happened … the horse with no name died!

Isaac moved on to Paducah, Ky. Apparently, he had relatives that had previously lived in Paducah, so he started working for a wholesale liquor store, working hard and saving enough money to bring his brother, Bernard, to Paducah. Together they opened Bernheim Brothers wholesale whiskey company in 1872. Through hard work and determination, their company continued to grow, all the while mixing and blending their whiskeys and eventually settling on a blend they named and registered as I. W. Harper Bourbon Whiskey.

As their business grew, the brothers realized they needed help managing their operations, and Isaac convinced their 19-year-old cousin from Germany to move to Paducah, so in 1885 Barney Dreyfuss became the bookkeeper of Bernheim Brothers. Barney quickly became a fan of baseball in Paducah, where he began playing on the company team. Barney eventually realized his skills were in management and not in “turning-two” … he simply gained more enjoyment in organizing and managing the team instead of playing on the team. Barney started two amateur teams in Paducah before Isaac made a life-altering decision.

The success of Bernheim Brothers and the desire to expand their company lead Isaac and his brother to move their operations from Paducah to Louisville, Ky, in 1888, taking Barney with them. Barney was a hard worker, a valuable and trusted leader of the company, so much so that Isaac gave Barney a small ownership interest in their business. This small interest in the distillery business would prove to be lucrative with their three distilleries and other firms earning millions of dollars every year. Within a year of being in Louisville, Barney became the President of the City Industrial Baseball League, and by the late 1890s, he had become a stakeholder in the Louisville Colonels Baseball team of the National League, the predominant baseball league in America.  The turning point in Barney’s baseball life was in 1899. At the age of 34, Barney sold his interest in the Bernheim Brothers whiskey business and used the proceeds to purchase the majority interest of the Colonels and became President of the Louisville Colonels baseball club.

The Louisville Colonels were members of the National League, and the Louisville Colonels was a team struggling to stay in the league and out of bankruptcy. Even though the team struggled for wins, many of the players on this team would go on to become stars in the Major Leagues, some gaining Hall of Fame status. Honus Wagner, an all-time great shortstop, was one of the first five inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936. Fred Clarke, starting left-fielder AND winningest Manager of the Louisville Colonels was elected in 1945 and Rube Waddell in 1946. For the Western Ky readers, you may find it interesting that, in the winter of 1911, Rube lived in Hickman, Ky, at his Manager’s farm on the Mississippi River. As was the case for this region, floodwaters threatened to wash the town away, and Rube worked for hours, standing in the icy waters, stacking sandbags on the levee. He developed pneumonia and soon contracted tuberculosis, dying two years later, at the age of 37.

If you’ve read anything about the early days of baseball, you know there were a lot of shady, under-the-table deals made, and the 1899 National League season was no exception. To get the Louisville ballclub out of the league, several of the team owners had colluded to change up the league schedule, eliminating the Colonels Sunday games and costing the team over twenty thousand dollars in revenue, a large enough sum that would financially cripple the team. Through some shrewd negotiating, Barney survived the uprising brought against him by the other team owners. By the end of the 1900 season, Barney had turned the tables on the other league owners, and he became the club President and the majority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His negotiating also enabled him to handpick the best players from the Louisville Colonels team for the Pirates that immediately built them into a dynasty of the early days of modern baseball.

Barney Dreyfuss continued as the club President and owner until his death in 1932. Just a few of his accomplishments include; suggesting and then organizing the first Baseball World Series in 1903, winner of two World Series, pushing for the creation of the office of the Commissioner after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, builder of Forbes Field and election into Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

So, is bourbon as much about baseball as beer, hot dogs, apple pie? Well, maybe not, but if it wasn’t for bourbon, Barney Dreyfuss would have never moved to Paducah, fell in love with baseball, and in the process, became an innovator of the sport. Barney had the foresight to propose to the baseball owners the importance of organizing a final playoff series between the National and American Leagues, calling it the World Series. He also designed and built Forbes Field. A design that completely changed the baseball fan’s game experience.

If you’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan and are proud of the team’s championship achievements, you must raise a ‘neat’ glass of I. W. Harper in Barney Dreyfuss’s honor.

References for this story include …

Honus Wagner-A Biography by Dennis DeValeria & Jeanne Burke Devaleria – Fred Clarke – Rube Waddell

My taste buds!