April 2, 2006

Baseball '06: Frankfurter, she wrote: Hot dog shrouded in mystery

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

ST. LOUIS — Many of the dead at Bellefontaine Cemetery have statues erected in front of their graves. Some honor the Virgin Mary, some honor Jesus Christ and some honor the great artists of our time.

But only one man decided to honor himself.

Here lies Chris Von der Ahe, the man who married baseball and the hot dog way back in 1893. This statue, stretching 25 feet high, is a testament to his foresight. How could he ever have known that the love shared between baseball and the hot dog would never wane?

Even today, Von der Ahe’s frock coat and Rollie Fingers mustache present an air of invulnerability. Only a man like this could have sold the first hot sausage at a ballgame.

Von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns baseball team in the 1890s, originally had the statue built in front of Sportsman’s Park. A German immigrant, Von der Ahe was the George Steinbrenner of his day, even making his employees call him “Der Boss.”

Von der Ahe did many things for baseball. He was one of the first owners to introduce the formerly wine-and-cheese sport to the masses.

The owner of a brewery near Sportsman’s Park, he sold his beer at the ballpark, bringing in a rowdier group of fans. He built an amusement park next door, creating a “Coney Island of the West.”

Well, you can’t have a Coney Island without hot dogs, right? Turns out, Von der Ahe may have done just that, according to noted hot-dog historians.

J. Thomas Hetrick, author of Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, read every St. Louis newspaper and magazine during the years in question and saw no mention of hot dogs at Sportsman’s Park. And Gerald Cohen of the University of Missouri-Rolla has found that hot dogs weren’t sold at sporting events until 1906.

But, whom to believe? Bruce Kraig, a food historian at Roosevelt University in Chicago, doesn’t discount the Von der Ahe theory. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” Kraig says.

Ever since the New York World published a series called “The Great Hot Dog Mystery” in 1931, men have been searching for answers about the mystery meat. For Cohen, an etymologist, the mystery is embedded deep in the words. For Kraig, who has loved hot dogs since he was a child in Brooklyn, it’s in the dog itself. He wonders how the one-time grilled delicacy became a boiled wiener in a bun.

Unfortunately, Von der Ahe’s gravesite provides no clues about the hot dog, only that he was one.

***

Gerald Cohen spent more than one-third of his life doing research on the hot dog and finally published a book on it in 2004. Surprisingly, he doesn’t like them at all. In fact, there is no sign of a hot dog-obsessed man inside his Rolla home, just a grandfather of three wearing a cardigan sweater.

“I had hot dogs once in my life, and they made me sick,” Cohen says. “It was at a Yankee game, at a place across the street from the ballpark. But I never had another hot dog again after that.”

Cohen, 65, grew up in Manhattan and moved to the small college town of Rolla to teach foreign languages in the 1970s. He soon became captivated with the origin of English words like “eureka,” “dude” and “shyster” and started publishing articles on such topics. In 1978, the term “hot dog” crossed his path, and it consumed his life.

“What else am I going to do with my time?” Cohen asks in his thick, squeaky New York accent. “Skiing in Vail, Colo.? I’ll probably get hurt.”

On this afternoon, Cohen is surrounded by stacks of papers. He offers a copy of his book, The Origin of the Term ‘Hot Dog.’ Cohen printed only 60 copies, and 39 of them have been sold.

“It’s not Harry Potter,” he says. “I sometimes think that the closest a man can get to giving birth is writing a book.”

After a 26-year pregnancy, you’d think Cohen would be sick of talking hot-dog history. But he wants the record to be set straight. Too many publications have gotten it wrong for too long, he says.

He clears his throat and begins telling the accepted story with a sarcastic, bard-like tone.

“It was a chilly day in April at the Polo Grounds, about 1900,” he says, clearly enjoying this. “A food concessionaire named Harry Stevens realized that people were not going to buy his ice cream on this chilly day. So, he decides to sell hot sausages. There’s a cartoonist up in the stands by the name of T.A. Dorgan, and he drew the cartoon, which showed little sausages running around with legs. He wanted to refer to them as dachshund sausages, but he didn’t know how to spell dachshund. Since he didn’t know how to spell it, he said ‘hot dog,’ and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Cohen spent years trying to refute the story and even offered $100 to any etymologist who could find Dorgan’s cartoon. Nobody could find it, and Cohen discovered that Dorgan didn’t even move to New York until 1903.

For many years, Cohen believed a conspiracy theory that said the Polo Grounds story was made up to take the credit away from Brooklyn, where the hot dog originated in Coney Island in the 1870s.

“You have to forgive me for a pun,” Cohen says, “but I barked up the wrong tree several times on this.”

With the help of etymologists Barry Popik and David Shulman, he found out that the term hot dog was first used not at the Polo Grounds in 1900, but as college slang at Yale in 1895. Cohen finally had his answer.

But what about baseball? If it’s not Von der Ahe, and it’s not Harry Stevens and the Polo Grounds in 1900, then what is it?

As Cohen’s research was coming to a close, he came across an article from 1926 that quoted Stevens telling a new story.

“I have been given credit,” Stevens said in the article, “for introducing the hot dog to America. Well, I don’t deserve it. In fact, at first I couldn’t see the idea. It was my son, Frank, who first got the idea and wanted to try it on one of the early six-day bicycle crowds at Madison Square Garden. I told Frank that the bike fans preferred ham and cheese. He insisted that we try it out for a few days, and at last I consented. His insistence has all Americans eating hot dogs.”

Turns out, the first cartoons found from Dorgan with those little sausages running around are from December 1906 at a six-day bike race.

“As far as involvement with baseball,” Cohen says, “it would have been post-1906. If it was popular at the ballparks, then Harry Stevens would not have said the fans don’t want to eat it. This was a new way of thinking.”

Cohen sits back, satisfied. But he knows his limitations. He doesn’t know anything about why baseball fans actually love eating hot dogs.

“There’s a fellow named Bruce Kraig,” Cohen says. “He might know that.”

***

Most professors protect their weekends with their lives. But Bruce Kraig is happy to open his Chicago brownstone apartment on a Saturday afternoon and talk hot dogs.

Kraig, who grew up in Brooklyn loving the Dodgers and New York-style hot dogs, agrees with Cohen that the Polo Grounds story is untrue, that the six-day bicycle race is correct.

But, unlike Cohen and the word-hunters, Kraig gives credence to the Von der Ahe theory, despite the fact it isn’t documented.

“Von der Ahe was German,” explains Kraig, president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “He was a brewery owner. There was a beer garden there. You serve sausages and beer. It just may not have been mentioned because it’s just so ordinary. It appeared in ballparks, but you can’t prove it.

“Purists who want the exact date, it doesn’t matter.”

Nobody loves hot dogs more than Kraig. He salivates talking about the Chicago-style dog and breaks down the ingredients for you: Mustard, sweet neon-green relish, spears of pickle, hot peppers, raw chopped onions, slices of tomato and celery salt.

“Ethnic America is on that hot dog!” Kraig says.

Notice, no ketchup. Don’t even get Kraig started on the ketchup people.

“Anyone who does it,” Kraig says, “should be shot!”

Kraig is in the middle of one of his laughing fits on the couch. He doesn’t mean to be a hot-dog snob, but he can’t help it. He thinks America is losing its “hot-dog culture” because adults are eating “kid dogs” from brands like Oscar Mayer.

“People who make sausages are craftsmen,” Kraig says. “They have to know what they’re doing.”

Kraig blames baseball, the sport that made the hot dog a national phenomenon back in the 1930s. He believes that being clumped into the ballpark junk-food group with nachos and the like has hurt America’s perception of the hot dog. America should expect more of its dogs, he says.

Most ballpark hot dogs are boiled or steamed, not grilled, to cut down on costs.

“I think it’s awful,” Kraig says. “Ballpark franks are Armour dogs kids love to bite. Since the late 1940s, I’ve been to a lot of ballparks, and I can’t even remember eating a good hot dog. I can taste the hot dogs from Old Shibe Park in Philadelphia right now. They’re like cardboard.”

Kraig issues a challenge to the dog-challenged vendors at ballparks across the country.

“We need a revival,” Kraig says. “Get good hot dogs. Charge one dollar more than the competitor. Make a commitment to selling better food.”

***

As a general rule, people like to know what’s in their food. With the hot dog, it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

You should skip the next two paragraphs if you’d rather stay in the dark. Or if reading Upton Sinclair makes you queasy.

The hot dog is made from skeletal meat, which is 30 percent fat, according to Kraig. It is transformed — after the bones are put through a sieve with intense pressure — into a pink, pasty hot dog filling that has drawn comparisons to canine meat since the 1890s.

The bottom line is that, despite Kraig’s protest and the dog’s perception, America still eats hot dogs more than any other concession food. Ballparks have tried to mix in pizza and barbecue and sushi, but when fans are in the seats on a steamy July afternoon or a cold October night, most go for the hot dog.

The Dodger Dog has been the highest-selling ballpark hot dog in the country for many years. The Dodger Dog is unique because it’s grilled and its 10½-inch body pokes out of each end of the bun.

“Going to a Dodger game and having a grilled Dodger Dog is a Southern California rite of passage,” says Marty Greenspun, executive vice president of the Dodgers. “I’ve heard stories of pregnant women who come to a Dodger game just because they’re craving Dodger Dogs.”

At some point in the early ’90s, the Dodgers tried to pull a fast one and started boiling their dogs. The fans were outraged, and within weeks, the dogs were being grilled again.

“Now,” Greenspun says, “we have more grill stands than we’ve ever had.”

Most fans aren’t so lucky, but they eat the dogs anyway. They eat them because it’s in their genes.

Kraig takes it all the way back to the massive Southern and Eastern European immigration of the early 1900s. Immigrants were flooding into U.S. cities, and the government was scrambling to integrate them into American culture. Baseball gave them something to connect with.

“It was socially leveling,” Kraig says. “There were brilliant people coming to America keen on shirking their old-world ways. In lots of cultures, you don’t eat in public. You shield your face. It was considered crude.”

Nothing was more American than devouring hot dogs at the ballpark and sharing a beer with their new countrymen.

“Eating in public bonds you with your fellow fans,” Kraig says. “Food is a social cement.”

Kraig would argue that ballpark hot dogs taste like cement these days. But as the lines fill up in stadiums across America, does anyone really care?

To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4363 or send e-mail to jmccollough@kcstar.com


 

 

 


J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)