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THEIR BUSINESS IS PEANUTS
Joe Jares
January 17, 1966
Feeding spectators at sports events, a multimillion-dollar industry, entails remarkable logistics and fascinating hazards. Naturally, it has developed a number of oddball characters
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January 17, 1966

Their Business Is Peanuts

Feeding spectators at sports events, a multimillion-dollar industry, entails remarkable logistics and fascinating hazards. Naturally, it has developed a number of oddball characters

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The business started with Marvin selling candy at a Buffalo theater in the early 1900s. He was soon joined by his two younger brothers, and Lou turned out to be the dynamo of the trio. He once told a friend he realized the potential of the concession game when he sold candy in a theater and made more money that year than the president of the University of Buffalo. The brothers also rented out canoes in Delaware Park and hawked peanuts in the old wooden Buffalo ball park. They were alert, upper-berth-riding penny pinchers, and they made economy pay off. When they took over the concessions for the Detroit Tigers they raised gross income in their first year to 10 times the previous year's total. They have been firmly entrenched in Michigan since the 1920s.

Detroit was the scene of one of the notable incidents in the profession's folklore—the Ducky Medwick affair in the seventh game of the 1934 World Series. Medwick, left fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, had slid into third base too hard to suit Tiger fans, and when he went out to his position he found it was raining Jacobs fruit, vegetables and pies, which suddenly had gone from 10� to 25�. When the field was cleared and play was about ready to resume, the barrage from the left-field stands started again—worse than before. The Commissioner of Baseball ordered Ducky out of the game for his own safety and ordered the vendors to stop selling missiles.

Sportservice has had various interests in teams and arenas, but Lou never became a fan for fear he would get so interested in the games he would waste time that should be devoted to business. After undergoing a major operation a few years ago, he was told by doctors to spend at least six months in bed. Four days later he was propped up by a couple of pillows, juggling telephones and dictating to his secretary. A week later he was pacing the floor while dictating. Before a month had gone by he was back at his desk demanding, "How can a guy sell peanuts in bed?"

The brothers are as tenacious as they are hardworking. When George Storer bought the Miami baseball franchise in 1956 he thought the club had only a three-year contract with Sportservice, but there suddenly appeared a five-year contract with three renewal options. Storer claimed no knowledge of this deal, took his case to court and lost (some think because his chief witness died before testifying). Bill MacDonald bought the team in 1959 and he, too, vainly tried to shake Sportservice. He even offered to buy the remainder of the contract for $70,000 but was refused. Since then the club has been shifted to San Juan, P.R., Charleston, W.Va. and Atlanta, and the Jacobs brothers have followed. Now that the Milwaukee Braves are moving to Atlanta, the team must pack up again. Wherever it wanders until 1975, Sportservice will be there.

The Jacobs ambassador to Pittsburgh, Myron O'Brisky, is one of the patriarchs of peanut peddling. He was sent to Forbes Field on a temporary assignment in 1928, has been there ever since and is a hot dog psychologist of the first rank. Forbes Field once was host to an opera, and O'Brisky was worried about what kind of cuisine to offer his supposedly upper-crust audience. Finally he decided to stick with his ball-park staples. "They ate hot dogs like never before," he says. "We had a helluva night." When Roy Harney became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, O'Brisky wanted to demonstrate the tastiness of his hot dogs, so he wolfed down eight or 10 in front of the boss. "I got sick," he said. "I mean deathly sick."

O'Brisky's chief worry is often the whimsical weather. One cold morning before a Pitt home game he ordered 800 gallons of coffee, but the sun came out at 9:30 and by 10 a.m. he was on the phone ordering ice cream by the truck-load. "It turned out to be the biggest day I ever had in ice cream at Pitt Stadium," he said.

Today, many of the ingenious old-timers of the concessions business like O'Brisky and the Jacobs brothers are beginning to give way to their computer-age sons, armed with devices that can do things like fill whole trays of soft-drink cups at once. In addition, two giant vending-machine corporations are beating on the commissary door for a share of the enormous profits. Automatic Canteen Co. of America, the epitome of big business, recently displaced Stevens at Yankee Stadium. Some said the change was made because Yankee owners at that time were also Canteen stockholders. But Patrick O'Malley, the ex- Coca-Cola executive who runs Automatic Canteen, insists it was because his firm was willing to install $1 million worth of new equipment. He failed in an attempt to acquire the Stevens corporation but succeeded in winning the contract to service the new Anaheim Stadium in California also.

ABC Consolidated Corp. (mass feeding at airports and on toll roads) is doing even better. It serviced the winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and has such lucrative contracts as the Los Angeles Coliseum, Los Angeles Sports Arena, Franklin Field, Michigan Stadium, Miami Marine Stadium and that Shangri-la of sport, the Astrodome.

One could spend a week eating and drinking in Houston's domed stadium and, though it somehow seems un-American, never sink his teeth into a hot dog. The most popular eating place there is the handsome Astrodome Club, all velvet and deep carpeting and lovely girls pushing dessert carts loaded with �clairs. Plate-glass windows provide a clear view of the field below. Last season 25 debutantes from nearby Louisiana had their coming-out party there, then adjourned to the grandstand to watch the Astros play. The menu offers a "king-size cut of succulent Roast Prime Eye of Beef" ($5.50), 14-ounce "New York Sirloin" ($7.50), and such fancies as Braised Wild Game Veronique and Lobster � la Marini�re. The food and the service are excellent, more often than not far superior to the baseball.

There are also the Domeskeller (beer, knackwurst and barbecued chicken), the Trailblazer Room ( Texas-style stews) and the Countdown Cafeteria. But nothing beats the 80-seat Sky-dome Club, exclusively for the wealthy owners of Sky-dome boxes. On one side of the club is American food and on the other Oriental—pea pods, bamboo shoots and "Ringed Pheasant Breast Imperial." The food is prepared with chopsticks on a grill in front of the customer, and what is not placed on his plate is left on the grill so he may help himself to seconds with a silver spatula. Sitting on a combination stool-easy chair, the fragrance of jasmine tea enveloping him, a nostalgic weenie-lover might wonder what Score-card Harry would think of all this.

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