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 Ahes 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 Sportsmans
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 Sportsmans 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 cant 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 Sportsmans Park. And Gerald Cohen of
the University of Missouri-Rolla has found that hot dogs
werent sold at sporting events until 1906.
But, whom to believe? Bruce Kraig, a food historian at Roosevelt
University in Chicago, doesnt discount the Von der Ahe
theory. I wouldnt 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, its
in the dog itself. He wonders how the one-time grilled delicacy
became a boiled wiener in a bun.
Unfortunately, Von der Ahes 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 doesnt 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
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.? Ill 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.
Its not Harry Potter, he says. I sometimes
think that the closest a man can get to giving birth is writing
After a 26-year pregnancy, youd 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. Theres 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 didnt know how
to spell dachshund. Since he didnt know how to spell
it, he said hot dog, and, as they say, the rest
Cohen spent years trying to refute the story and even offered
$100 to any etymologist who could find Dorgans cartoon.
Nobody could find it, and Cohen discovered that Dorgan didnt
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 its not Von der Ahe, and
its not Harry Stevens and the Polo Grounds in 1900, then
what is it?
As Cohens 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 dont deserve it. In fact, at first I couldnt
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
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 dont
want to eat it. This was a new way of thinking.
Cohen sits back, satisfied. But he knows his limitations.
He doesnt know anything about why baseball fans actually
love eating hot dogs.
Theres 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 isnt 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 its
just so ordinary. It appeared in ballparks, but you cant
Purists who want the exact date, it doesnt 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
Ethnic America is on that hot dog! Kraig says.
Notice, no ketchup. Dont even get Kraig started on the
Anyone who does it, Kraig says, should be
Kraig is in the middle of one of his laughing fits on the
couch. He doesnt mean to be a hot-dog snob, but he cant
help it. He thinks America is losing its hot-dog culture because
adults are eating kid dogs from brands like Oscar
People who make sausages are craftsmen, Kraig
says. They have to know what theyre 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 Americas 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 its awful, Kraig says. Ballpark
franks are Armour dogs kids love to bite. Since the late 1940s,
Ive been to a lot of ballparks, and I cant even
remember eating a good hot dog. I can taste the hot dogs from
Old Shibe Park in Philadelphia right now. Theyre like
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 whats in their
food. With the hot dog, its dont ask, dont
You should skip the next two paragraphs if youd 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 Kraigs protest and
the dogs 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
its 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. Ive
heard stories of pregnant women who come to a Dodger game just
because theyre 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 weve ever had.
Most fans arent so lucky, but they eat the dogs anyway.
They eat them because its 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 dont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org