Interview: Modern Drunkard Magazine’s Rich English

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.”




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


22 Responses to “Interview: Modern Drunkard Magazine’s Rich English”

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  1. anon says:

    wait this isn’t a notgraphs post?

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    • adam says:

      Babe Ruth’s Drunken Bar Fight KO/BB ratio is an important part of sabermetric history.

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    • Jack Nugent says:

      I was gonna say– perhaps this shoulda been a NotGraphs thing. Not that I really care, or that it matters all that much, because the point of this post is well-taken. I completely agree with English– athletes are human beings, and personally, I don’t really think they owe it to anyone to be saints off the field.

      Unfortunately we live in the SoapCenter era where athletes are glorified/vilified by the powers that be in Bristol at their will. Sucks really. There’s just so much demand for sports these days that these people create stories out of thin air.

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      • HRB says:

        I know, right? The next prospect on my team could be the reincarnation of Ty Cobb and I’d be happy as long as he brought the WINZ.

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  2. Al Dimond says:

    Hell of a troll there, Mssrs. Remmington and English.

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  3. Kevin says:

    Some more anecdotal evidence:
    Nobody drinks for fun anymore on TV. It’s always either the irresponsible frat-boy douche-iness English refers to, or someone drinking as a symbol of some pyschological problem. Occasionally you’ll get a toast at some fancy event…but almost all drinking is portrayed as a character flaw or lapse in judgement. I’ve been streaming old Cheers episodes on Netflix the last week or two. And of the many, MANY things about that show that have not aged well, the way characters drink (Norm esp.) could not be pulled off today.

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    • @3_2count says:

      I don’t know, they are constantly on a bar in How I Met Your Mother and drinking and it is rarely mentioned. And, hell, in a lot of cable dramas people are pretty much drinking constantly.

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  4. My echo and bunnymen says:

    I know people who drink and don’t. On both ends there are horrible sobers and horrible drunks. Drinking itself is obviously not the problem but the individual, alcohol just gives both the good and bad drunks occasion to act an ass. So unfairly or not, it looks like a character flaw. For some it is a character flaw, the drinking, for VERY few individuals it is just a part of who they are. I must emphasize the very few. Because I bet there’s more drunks working minimum than drunks living well-off. However, I love Hefeweizen and Wheat Ales.

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  5. BillWallace says:

    Alex is kind of the Notgraphs on Fangraphs author. Interesting article, I never heard of MDM and I enjoyed the articles you linked.

    Alex, one minor writing criticism though, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re playing reporter (just reporting someone else’s viewpoint) or commentator (adding your own viewpoint). Either is fine, but I think because of the way you structure your writing it’s not clear whether your just giving their viewpoint or giving their viewpoint that you also agree with. And sometimes it seems like you switch back between the two.

    I think picking one (commentary would be more interesting) and sticking with it would be better. And I say this as someone who disagrees with most of what you’ve written. But I agree with this one, drinking has an undeserved bad rap.

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    • Bill, I’d say that it’s both, and I do switch between the two. When I quote someone I want to be as accurate to their opinion as possible — but I certainly have an opinion. When I don’t express it, that generally means that I agree with the quote. I think of myself as an opinion writer who does reporting.

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  6. madwoman says:

    Welcome back Modern Drunkard. We’ve missed you boys.

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  7. Jason says:

    Notgraphs.

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  8. Kyle says:

    Okay I agree with most of this article but I think maybe some specification on what he means by failing a urine test is worse than doing something done drunk. Maybe if it is something hardcore like heroin, but it is generally accepted that people frown when you destruct your own body, but are on a whole other level of pissed off when you put someone else in danger with your idiocy i.e. Drunk Driving.

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  9. TheGrandSlamwich says:

    Hooray! The Modern Drunkard was probably my favorite publication years ago! I even own the book. I was frustrated when they stopped coming out with more material. Glad to hear it’s back.

    To quote Futurama: “Wade Boggs… goes down smooth.”

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  10. BRIAN says:

    Problem is that people can’t just mind their own fucking business in this country. Brain washed by the retarded media.

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    • I think that there’s a natural pruriency in many people which the media — and television in particular — can exacerbate and exploit. I don’t think they created it. I think they just profit off it by pandering to our worst hypocrisy, our puritanical desire to condemn in others what we permit in ourselves. That goes back to the beginnings of our country. It’s just a lot easier to do on cable.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        How many people actually permit themselves to get in drunken bar fights? How is it hypocritical for most people to condemn that behavior?

        Are drunks known for their judgment and thoughtfulness? Do violent drunks limit themselves to punching out other violent drunks or do many of them take their violence home?

        Splashing pictures of drunk celebrities on the TV probably doesn’t help. Teetotaling campaigns probably don’t help (they likely do for binge drinking and drunk driving what heavy-handed abstinence campaigns do for teen pregnancy and STDs). Neither does accepting and even celebrating binge-drinking and drunken violence. Which is what your interview subject does. He even let himself celebrate drunk driving for a second before he caught himself. What a waste of space.

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      • I thought it was important to leave that in. He clearly doesn’t want to encourage drunk driving — but he probably doesn’t believe it’s as big a deal as some might think. (I’m guessing, he didn’t tell me that directly.) And he thinks that getting intoxicated in public is a fine thing, and that getting into a drunken bar fight is nothing to be ashamed of — insofar as the participants are all the sort of people who like to go to a bar, get drunk, and occasionally get into fights, then wake up the next morning with neither memory nor hard feelings. He would certainly condemn acts of violence abetted by drunkenness, but I think he believes that most people who drink aren’t violent. Speaking for myself, I don’t get violent when I drink and I’m horrified by those who do, but overall I do think he may overly minimize the bad effects of alcohol.

        However, English would probably say that many drunks ARE known for their judgment and thoughtfulness, in that many of the greatest novelists, artists, actors, and other creative types in the history of the world have also been legendary drinkers (as well as legendary users of other types of intoxicants).

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  11. stratobill says:

    I never bought into the whole, “getting drunk is fun” idea. I enjoy a beer with a pizza or spicy food, but the idea that it’s fun to drink so much that you’re slurring your words, falling down, throwing up and generally making an ass out of yourself just seems ridiculous to me.

    My first job out of college I had a boss who came in to work very hung-over one morning. He felt awful and admitted that it was because he had drunk too much the night before. He ended up going home very early that day. But a couple days later when he re-told the story of that evening and morning after, he made it sound like the greatest thing in the world. He didn’t sound the least bit regretful, he was proud of himself!

    My point is, a lot of people seem to brag about how much ‘fun’ they have drinking, but I think they have very selective memories and are conveniently forgetting how miserable they actually felt. I have little doubt that the guys from the “Modern Drunkard” website are the same way.

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    • Blackouts occur the night of, not the morning after. If your boss had selective memory of his hangovers, that wasn’t the alcohol’s fault — that means that he was the kind of drinker who couldn’t own up to the way alcohol worked on him.

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