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Ode to the hot dog
08/31/2004 6:16 AM ET
"A hot dog at the ballpark is better than steak at the Ritz." -- Humphrey Bogart

It is the one sure thing at a Major League game. Hot dogs are for sale at the concession stand whether the home team is in first or last place, whatever the inning, whatever the score, whatever the weather.

But is eating a stadium dog about the dining experience with baseball as glorified entertainment, or a side habit of attending important baseball games, where it is estimated that 26 million dogs will be wolfed down during the regular season in 2004?

Yes, 26 million is the estimated number of hot dogs that will be consumed at Major League stadiums, according to a poll of concessionaires by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. If you stretched them, end-to-end, as a tightrope of links, they would stretch from Camden Yards to Dodger Stadium. Leading the way in consumption are the faithful at Chavez Ravine; Dodger fans are eating an estimated 1.61 million Dodger Dogs this season, and those consumption levels are immediately followed by those at the Rockies' Coors Field (1.5 million) and Wrigley Field (1.47 million).

The fact that the Dodgers lead the pack is not surprising, because if there were a Major League Hot Dog Hall of Fame, the Dodger Dog -- a delectable foot-long in a steamed bun inhaled by followers of Koufax and Gagne -- probably would be the first inductee. Just ask Jeffrey Block, a lifelong Dodgers fan who lives in Chatsworth, Calif. "Dodger Dogs," he said, "are better than every other team's hot dog for this reason: What other ballpark snack has been granted its own stuffed toy and bobblehead?"

Block got married this summer, and his bride, Michele, just moved from Massachusetts to California. Naturally, she takes her passion for all things Red Sox, including the cuisine, with her. "Fenway Franks are better than Dodger Dogs," she said, "because they deliver them to your seat and don't make me burp like Dodger Dogs do."

Hot dogs stir impassioned feelings. Naturally, there are Yankee fans who will counter that their dogs are better than Boston's. Shaun Keneston recently boasted on an message board, "Anybody know the difference between Yankee Dogs and Fenway Franks? They serve Yankee Dogs in October."

But despite the trash-talking, a Yankee fan braving a game in Boston will enjoy a Fenway Frank. And a Red Sox fan braving a game in the Bronx will enjoy a Yankee Dog. That is all anyone really needs to know about why the hot dog is still around.

Whether it is a Wisconsin Brat at Miller Park, a spicy Atomic Dog in Oakland or a foot-long slathered in Bertman's Ballpark Mustard at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, the hot dog is a big part of being a baseball fan.

Dog Days of Summer

The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council (NHDSC) polled concessionaires at Major League ballparks before this season and projected that 24.2 million hot dogs would be enjoyed by fans throughout the 2004 season. The survey did not include the two Canadian clubs, so rounded off the estimate at 26 million.

"Year after year, hot dogs are a coast to coast favorite among baseball fans," said Janet Riley, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Meat Institute, of which NHDSC is a project. "Time and fashions may change, but hot dogs are a consistent winner -- or 'wiener' as we hot dog fans like to call them."

An average of 862,702 hot dogs are eaten per ballpark in the U.S. this season. Kosher hot dogs continue to be a hit according to the NHDSC, scoring between 15 to 20 percent of concessionaires' sales this season. Here is their list of the projected top 10 hot dog-munching ballparks this season, with number of dogs eaten:

Stadium*Hot dogs
1. Dodger Stadium1.61 million
2. Coors Field1.5 million
3. Wrigley Field1.47 million
4. Yankee Stadium1.3 million
5. Minute Maid Park1.2 million
6. Angel Stadium1.1 million
7. Ameriquest Field996,000
8. Metrodome883,500
9. Jacobs Field595,000
10. Camden Yards400,000

* NHDSC survey did not include Toronto and Montreal.

But why make a big fuss about the subject of hot dogs here? After all, they need no promotion. Any readers who are headed to a game are almost certainly headed for the hot dog stand.

Well, for one thing, it just seems unconscionable for to devote so much attention to the players we watch and none at all to such an important ingredient of the game. In addition, there is an important 100th anniversary at hand, significant enough to take note of how two national pastimes converged.

'They're red hot!'
In 1904, St. Louis drew people from all over for the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition -- also known as the World's Fair. The story goes that sausage concessionaire Anton Feuchtwanger ran short of the protective gloves he handed out there to keep his customers from burning their fingers when eating his product. In response, he supposedly approached his brother-in-law, a baker, and challenged him to create some kind of bread sturdy enough to hold a sausage, and for years after that, a legend was handed down that the hot dog was invented at St. Louis World's Fair.

There is no question that the World's Fair started the hot dog on its road to American immortality, as people took word of this cuisine back to their respective regions and French's Mustard soon entered the picture.

But there is also no question that the hot dog goes much farther back than 100 years. In 850 B.C., the precursor to the modern Dodger Dog and Fenway Frank was mentioned in no less than Homer's Odyssey. Homer may not have been the catalyst for the four-base hit, but he did write, "As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted... "

Constantine the Great (274-337), the first Christian emperor of Rome, is remembered by historians to have banned sausage consumption. The prohibition remained in force through many emperors' reigns, but Julius Caesar ended it when he celebrated and popularized the consolidation of meat trimmings into a fantastical feast. The frankfurter is believed to have been developed in Frankfurt, Germany, five years before Columbus set sail for the New World, and by 1867, German immigrant butcher Charles Feltman was reported to have opened up the first Coney Island hot dog stand in Brooklyn.

As baseball became an American tradition, the hot dog grew into commonality as well. In 1893, sausages became standard fare at baseball parks. The tradition may have begun with German immigrant Chris von de Ahe, who owned the first St. Louis Browns -- now the Cardinals -- and a local bar. Von de Ahe introduced sausages to go with his already-popular beer. The team owner would sit in his special box behind third base with a whistle and binoculars, whistling not only to get the attention of players, but also for someone to grab him a beer and sausage. The first "weenie whistle," perhaps?

Legend also has it that the term "hot dog" was coined in 1902, during a New York Giants baseball game on a cold April day at the Polo Grounds. Concessionaire Harry Stevens was supposedly losing money while trying to sell cold items, and sent his salesmen out to buy up all the "dachshund sausages" they could find, along with an equal number of rolls. Vendors hawked these from portable hot-water tanks while yelling, "They're red hot! Get your dachshund sausages while they're red hot!"

Tad Dorgan, a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal, is said to have heard those yells. On deadline and unsure of how to spell "dachshund," he simply wrote "hot dog" in the image he created that day for readers. The 1996 Maine Antique Digest wrote that Dorgan coined this term "when Stevens put the first ballgame frank into a roll and rolled out a new tradition." The cartoon was a sensation; the hot dog was as well.

Babe Ruth once downed 24 of them between games of a doubleheader. Actress Marlene Dietrich said that hot dogs and champagne was her favorite meal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to introduce something truly American to England's visiting king and queen in 1939, so they enjoyed hot dogs -- and King George VI asked for a second one. Baseball fans order seconds all the time now.

Gobbling up the game
"The last time I saw my dad alive, we went to a ballgame at Coors Field in 2001," said Terry Brejla, who now lives in the San Francisco area. "He was legally blind by that time. I bought him a Colorado Rockies hat, which he proudly wore. I told him I wanted to take him out for dinner on the way back to my house. He said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

"He would just as soon have a couple of hot dogs at the ballpark and a beer, because that was the kind of meal men had together when they were enjoying each other's company at a ball game."

An average of 862,702 hot dogs are to be eaten in each ballpark this year. That translates to an average of 10,651 per game over 81 home dates in the regular season. If a typical game draws at least 30,000 fans, that means that, on the average, one out of every three fans is stuffing down a dog during the action on the field.

Each ballpark has its own personality when it comes to the delivery of the dog. At Turner Field in Atlanta, there are some 20 continent-spanning varieties, including Southwest Dogs and Chicago-style franks, from which to choose. The Chicago-style dog, smothered in onions, tomatoes, banana peppers, dill pickle spears, celery salt and mustard on a poppy seed bun, remains the most popular version at Wrigley. Safeco Field has the Aqua Sox Dog for its young Mariner fans. Many clubs continue the popular dollar-dog promotion on a scheduled night each month.

Bryce Herman is an A's fan, and before heading off to a game in Oakland, he said, "The hot dog taste is one to be savored and it sums up the passion of the game. In Oakland, our Dollar Dog on Wednesday is cheap, but its essences are not. Its taste is world-class, and it harkens back to an earlier time when it wasn't about the money, and families went to the park for peanuts.

"The hot dog brings us encouragement when the team has fallen from grace. When the local nine is fighting for a pennant, the dog brings a feeling of power! The hot dog is the symbol for the sounds and smells of summer. It tastes as good and as savory as when the team for which you root for heats up like the dog upon the grill."

There is a certain science to enjoying a good ballpark hot dog the right way, according to the NHDSC. Consider:

  • Always put toppings between the hot dog and the bun. The group advises, "Always dress the dog, not the bun." It is just good ballpark-dog etiquette, in the same way that players don their uniforms with sliding pants underneath.

  • Condiments always should be applied in the following order: Wet condiments like mustard and chili are applied first, followed by chunky condiments like relish, onions and sauerkraut, followed by shredded cheese, followed by spices, like celery salt or pepper. Hey, you wouldn't start a salad by pouring on the dressing and the croutons before the lettuce, right?

  • Never take more than five bites to finish a standard hot dog. For a foot-long wiener, seven bites are acceptable.

  • Don't use ketchup on your dogs after the age of 18. Fortunately, this maxim is not in the Major League Baseball Official Rules, because there would be protests throughout the season. In an informal survey of various big league stadiums, many adults -- especially those in the Deep South -- continue to bathe their dogs in ketchup. Perhaps that is why baseball fans will always be young at heart.

    There may be another reason that the Dodger Dog is so widely regarded as the ultimate baseball dog. The NHDSC listed the cities that sold the most dogs at its supermarkets in 2003, and Los Angeles, America's second-largest city behind New York, is far and away the leader. There were nearly 45 million units sold, compared to merely 35.2 million for New York, where the hot dog washed ashore so many years ago.

    What's in a Dodger Dog, anyway? Is it any different than the mysterious contents inside the Fenway Frank or that SkyDome special?

    Well, that's all beside the point. You don't really want to know. Renowned journalist H.L. Mencken wrote that he had his first hot dogs in 1886, and he said they were better than "the soggy rolls prevailing today, of ground acorns, plaster-of-Paris, flecks of bath-sponge and atmospheric air all compact."

    Despite Mencken's warning, the average baseball fan can take heart in knowing that the USDA signs off on all of this stuff, so it's safe to gobble them up while they watch their favorite shortstop gobble up a hot grounder.

    A little over a century ago, the Yale Record published a poem about "The Kennel Club," a popular campus lunch wagon that sold sausages in buns. It read:

    'Tis dogs' delight to bark and bite,
    Thus does the adage run.
    But I delight to bite the dog
    When placed inside a bun.

    This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.