A beer vendor at Nats Park
A beer vendor at Nats Park Credit: Adam Fagen/FLICKR

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Even the most cursory sports fans, who get all their baseball news off the side of a bus, know the World Series is in town. Today, for the first time in 86 years, the nation’s capital will host baseball’s biggest matchup as the Nats look to build their 2-0 series lead over the Houston Astros.

Washington is no stranger to the Fall Classic. The Senators, D.C.’s original baseball team, made it to the championship round in ‘24, ‘25 and ‘33. But it’s the first time, ever, that Washingtonians will be able to drink at the game. Those other three times were all during Prohibition, the constitutional ban on alcohol that began in 1920 and ended in 1933, just two months after D.C.’s last World Series bid came up short. 

Baseball and beer, a perennial couple, were kept apart like star-crossed lovers, while the Senators traced the highs and lows of America’s great national experiment with sobriety.

1924: Washington Senators versus New York Giants

By the time the Senators, riding the now legendary pitching of Walter “Big Train” Johnson made it to their first World Series the country had already been dry for four years. Nationwide Prohibition began on Jan. 1, 1920 but Washingtonians hadn’t been able to get a drink in this town for more than two years.

Then, as now, the denizens of D.C. had very little home rule. Local laws were dictated by Congress, and as Prohibition gained momentum on the national stage some legislating teetotalers got an idea. They would turn the capital into a dry city, a model of character and civility that would inevitably inspire others to follow. 

Congress banned alcohol in the District on Nov. 1, 1917 forcing Washington’s 267 bars to close or reinvent themselves as dry restaurants—at least as far as appearances go. The District’s four breweries shuttered as well. Brewing, once the second biggest employer in town after the federal government, vanished from the nation’s capital.

D.C.’s baseball team was in much better shape by the fall of 1924 than its bar scene. Future hall-of-famers Johnson and left fielder Goose Goslintook the New York Giants all the way to a pivotal Game 7 where Washington trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning. That was when a ground ball took a bad hop to Giants outfielder Fred Lindstrom, allowing the tying run to score in a style that must look eerily familiar to anyone who watched this year’s National League wild-card game. The two teams went four more innings before the Senators scored the championship winning run in the 12th inning, giving D.C. its first and only World Series win.

1925: Washington Senators versus Pittsburgh Pirates

Prohibition was already being derailed when the Senators began their bid for a second straight World Series title in 1925. D.C.’s drinking scene would eventually balloon from less than 300 legal bars to almost 3,000 illicit watering holes, according to author Garrett Peck’s 2011 book, “Prohibition in Washington D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t.” 

Bootleg operations were popping up across the country and in New York, reports were coming in of a one-man speakeasy outside the Polo Grounds, who walked around selling bottled highballs out of a bandolier under his coat. Meanwhile inside the stadium the Giants would go on to lose their first National League pennant in five years.

Around the same time, Capitol Hill police arrested a WWI veteran named George Cassiday with a suitcase full of liquor and a very distinctive fedora. The “man in the green hat” was bootlegging out of a basement office in the House of Representatives. By his estimate, he sold alcohol to about four out of every five lawmakers. 

Cassiday’s arrest earned him a lifelong ban from the House, but that didn’t set him back much. He simply moved his operation to the opposite side of Congress. For the next five years, he sold to Senators instead (the legislative body, not the baseball team.) Today you can buy a bottle of Green Hat Gin from New Columbia Distillers that’s named for Cassiday and his signature accessory. 

D.C.’s players however, were destined for heartbreak. After two quality starts from Johnson, they lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates and wouldn’t make it back to the Fall Classic for another eight years.

1933: Washington Senators versus New York Giants

In 1931, in an attempt to humiliate the dry lobby into surrender, a group of local activists drew up a map of all the speakeasies uncovered in the nation’s capital since Prohibition began. The results were damning. They showed thousands of sites all over the city, including a few dotting the area that would later become home field for the Washington Nationals. By the early 30s, it was clear: Prohibition was doomed. 

Less than a week before opening day in 1933, a newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Cullen–Harrison Act declaring all beer brewed at 3.2 percent alcohol or lower legal. It was a loophole that let Americans crush a few brews before nationwide repeal took effect that winter. 

But the good news didn’t apply to D.C. Once again Congress dragged its feet and wouldn’t legalize alcohol in the district until 1934, but that didn’t seem to stop the folks who lived here. The Post noted in its coverage of the 1933 World Series that beer wasn’t sold at the game because of the stadium’s proximity to the Soldiers’ Home and not because it was, you know, illegal.

Things didn’t go as well for the Senators that year. They faced the New York Giants again and lost in five games. By the fall of 1933, Washingtonians only had to wait a few more months to buy beer. But it would be another 86 years before they got another crack at the World Series.

Greg Benson is the host of Bar None, a cocktail history podcast that returns Dec. 1.

“Beer for $7.50”by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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