This is a man-bites-dog story. Americans eat 20 billion hot dogs a year, which works out to 60 sausages per citizen. Or so says the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, a wiener advocacy group whose raw data (which also come grilled) project that 26 million franks will be consumed this season in the 28 major league baseball parks alone. Laid end to end, those dogs would stretch from Baltimore to Los Angeles, a sausage superhighway. Come follow its yellow center line: a trail of ballpark mustard dispensed from a flatulent squeeze bottle.
The road winds past Cooper Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, where the Triple A Clippers host gluttonous Dime-a-Dog nights. On April 15, 3,395 paying customers at Cooper ate 21,365 Oscar Mayer wieners, a frank-to-fan ratio of more than 6 to 1. Given that some spectators abstained, one has to wonder....
"I've had people say they ate 15 to 20 dogs," says the Clippers' general manager, whose name is Ken Schnacke. (Of course it is.) He quickly adds, "We've never had anybody get ridiculously sick and be taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped." But as baseball fans everywhere know, there's always next year!
The point is, Americans certainly ken schnacke, and in few places do they snack more heavily than at baseball parks. The reasons for this are manifold and, in the view of some experts, quite complex. "Sports are a primitive ritual of aggression and release—the id hangs out," Psychology Today editor Hara Estroff Marano once told New York Times food writer Molly O'Neill, whose brother Paul plays rightfield for the New York Yankees. "In such a situation, the primitive part of the brain, 'Me want hot dog,' overrides the restraints of the more rational part of the brain, which would say, 'Am I hungry?' or 'Would I like a hot dog?' "
Tell Boog Powell that his id hangs out, and he's apt to check his fly. The former first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles knows only that food tastes better at the ballpark and that every time the O's played in Milwaukee, his brain said, "Me want bratwurst." So between at bats, he would dispatch a clubhouse attendant to the stands to procure a pair of sausages slathered in red sauce, later to be immortalized as Secret Stadium Sauce. Standing in the tunnel behind the dugout, Boog would down those brats in a violent trice, as if feeding timber to a wood chipper. "Then I'd walk to the plate with red sauce all down the front of my uniform," he recalls. "I'd tell the manager, 'I'm bleeding like a stuck pig!' "
A giant man who bleeds condiments, Powell embodies the bond between baseball and food, an association "as strong as the movies and popcorn," according to sports sociologist Bob Brustad of the University of Northern Colorado. In fact the sports-food bond is stronger. When an ad man tried to encapsulate America for his automaker client, he wrote, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet," front-loading the jingle with the two most surefire evocations of American culture.
And you thought American culture was an oxymoron. "Of course there is American culture," says Allen Guttmann, a professor of American studies at Amherst. "It includes symphonies as well as jazz, literature as well as comic books." And at its apex are what Bob Dole calls "America's greatest diversions: sports and food."
If that description rings with American decadence—you can bet Bangladeshi leaders don't call food a diversion—it happens to be accurate. What is more diverting than eating a chocolate sundae from an inverted miniature batting helmet while watching other people work? What, for that matter, is more decadent?
Of all sports, baseball most vigorously stirs the appetite. Because of the game's unhurried pace and frequent lulls, baseball fans tend to make more trips to the concessions stands than football, basketball or hockey crowds. In those last three sports, "food sales are driven by intermissions," notes Michael F. Thompson, president of Sportservice, which supplies seven major league ballparks. "Baseball games are a constant, leisurely grazing period."
In that spirit we invite you to graze.