A few weeks ago, I heard some welcome news from the world of journalism, which doesn’t happen very often these days. The years-dormant Modern Drunkard Magazine, a Denver-based bimonthly paean to the joys of libation, has finally resumed publication. Speaking for myself, the web edition of the magazine helped get me through college, as I read articles like “You Don’t Know Jack Daniel,” “Andre the Giant: The Greatest Drunk on Earth,” and their most famous article, “The 86 Rules of Boozing.” Most everything is written by editor Frank Kelly Rich — author of the 86 Rules — or writer Rich English, author of the pieces on Andre and Jack. Yesterday evening, I spoke to English about alcohol, sports, and society. He’d like to see Americans loosen up about imbibing, particularly when it comes to their favorite athletes.
English and his colleagues are serious, even when they’re joking. In answer to a Frequently Asked Question on the website, editor Frank Kelly Rich explains, “While there is some satire involved, we believe to the very core of our souls every word we write.” In a 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Rich revealed just how serious he was:
“I drink about eight drinks a day and maybe 30 on a heavy day,” he said cheerfully. “But as long as I remain healthy and happy, I have no intention of slowing down. I mean, when you have something good going, you stick with it, right?”
On the phone, English was as good as their word. “We try to show that it’s a really good time and you shouldn’t be ashamed, even if you are hung over and you swear to all you hold holy that you will never drink vodka again.” He wouldn’t have wanted me to mistake him for a man who was stone sober. “Not sure I’m making any sense right now,” he interrupted himself to say. “Maybe I should have only had two beers with dinner.”
Beer is certainly an important part of the national pastime. But English argues that the connection between alcohol and organized sports may back to the very beginning of both. “Alcohol and sports goes back to the ancient Greeks. Wine played a big part in the Olympic Games,” he said. “Alcohol can fuel a competitive spirit.” But he was less interested in stoking the competitive spirit than with the simple fun of drinking. “From a fan’s standpoint,” he said, “is there anything better than sitting in the stadium, whatever your sport of choice — particularly baseball, on a beautiful summer afternoon, with a nice tall glass of beer, and just yelling your head off?”
English believes that society’s priorities have been misallocated. “I think if Player A comes out and fails his urine test… people are going to be less annoyed than if Player A is caught parading through the streets at 120 miles an hour with an open bottle of Jim Beam between his legs,” he told me. Then he clarified. “Drinking and driving, sure, it’s a bad thing,” he said. “But if we’re talking about intoxication generally, without the added element of driving while drunk, then I think our priorities are a little bit out of whack.” This strikes him as a double standard. “We can be a tad hypocritical about Ballplayer A gets in the news because he got all liquored up at a restaurant and punched somebody, but lots and lots of us have done that too,” he said. “So why is it necessarily so awful when Ballplayer A does it?”
The magazine has long fought against what it considers neo-prohibitionism, and no organization has come in for more of their ire than Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “In the process of doing a good deed, educating Americans about drunk driving, they demonized alcohol,” English said. “You had programs like DARE, so now you’ve got kids who are going to college, going to a frat party, and they’ve never tasted alcohol in their lives, and they do 36 shots of Vanilla Stoli and die. Is that alcohol’s fault, or is that our fault? I prefer to blame culture.”
English and Modern Drunkard rarely blame alcohol for the sins men do while under its influence. But they often praise alcohol whenever drinkers succeed. “Babe Ruth might have told you that alcohol was a performance enhancing drug,” English said. In 2005, he wrote an article about the World Champion 1986 Mets, largely condensed from the book “The Bad Guys Won” by Jeff Pearlman, whom he acknowledged, and ended his piece with a Keith Hernandez line: “You don’t win a World Series drinking milk.” (The Pearlman book attributes the quote to reliever Doug Sisk.)
He and the magazine are both nostalgic for the Mad Men era in American society. “Work and play and life went along together for a little while. And then the ’60s ended, and alcohol was something your stuffy parents did, you were much better with some mushrooms or some grass, and then in the ’80s you had the upsurge of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
To English, part of the problem is the prevalence of the disapproving eye of the mass media. “We take a lot more interest because it feeds news cycles,” English said, noting that it didn’t used to be that way. “If you read the old sports columnists, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, they paid less attention to what happened off the field,” he recalled. “I’ve read biograpies where they said what players did off the field was none of our business.”
But the main problem, English believes, is that athletes are held to a different standard of behavior. He doesn’t believe athletes are role models. He believes that they’re just like us. “I had my favorite athletes when I was a kid, I have my favorite athletes now,” he said. “But if one of them got liquored up and slugged somebody in a bar, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, eh, that happened to me once.’ Everybody, take a deep breath. He’s not out murdering babies.”
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.