Why the American classic hotdog would be nothing without Detroit

Ball Park Brand hot dogs. (Unsplash)

I love a hotdog. I love a hotdog almost any way they come. Chicago dog? With extra peppers, please. Seattle dog? Slather on that cream cheese. Dodger dog? Classics never go out of style.

But there may be no better way to get emulsified, cased beef or pork than the Ball Park Frank. There’s just something about sitting down at a ballpark and hearing the call from the man with a box slung around his body.

“Get you hotdogs here!” It may as well be a siren’s song.

There is nothing like stepping back from a concession stand to a waiting condiment station. You press the pump, and a perfect squiggle of ketchup flows onto the sausage. The ratio of dog-to-condiment leaves just enough room for mustard, relish, and maybe if you’re feeling adventurous a sporkful of chopped onion. Perfection on a summer’s day.

Before you go any further: This isn’t a place for the “is a hotdog a sandwich” debate. You can take that fight to Jason Carr. He’s got thoughts.

This is strictly a celebration of the hotdog and the fact that this American classic would be nothing without Detroit.

Hotdogs and baseball have been an iconic duo since the 1860s when they were introduced by German immigrant and owner of the St, Louis Browns baseball team, Chris Von de Ahe. They were first served bunless, instead, vendors who sold them from carts would hand out white gloves. As the legend goes, according to food company Sigma-Alimentos, vendors became upset when their gloves weren’t returned forcing them to lose out on revenue. Somewhere down the line the long-split bun was introduced, and it fit like a glove.

It wouldn’t be until nearly 100 years later the “plump when you cook ‘em” sausage came to grills and rollers everywhere. 1957 the owner of Detroit-based Hygrade Food Products, Hugo Slotkin got the contract to sell the first hotdogs at Tigers Stadium, according to his granddaughter Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-MI). You can see her appreciation tweet about it here.

Sam Slotkin, Rep. Slotkin’s great-grandfather, supplied Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in New York for 50 years after immigrating to the US from Belarus, according to the congresswoman. He took his talents for processing meat to Detroit and started Hygrade. When the Tigers agreed to let his company be the sole sellers of hotdogs in the park he turned to his Chief Sausage Maker, Gus Hauff to create a new recipe to be sold just for baseball fans in Detroit, according to a review of the biography of the Ball Park Frank.

Hauff eventually added veal and made the emulsion finer. The company also made them larger. 8 hotdogs to a pound instead of 10. Fans couldn’t get enough.

Two years later, in 1959, Hygrade brought their franks to grocery stores in Detroit with the new name Ball Park Franks. The soon-to-be iconic name that would be seared into the American lexicon was cooked up over a weekend-long brainstorming session, the company proudly boasts on its home page. Differing accounts have been made about who came up with the name. Some accounts say it was a saleswoman Mary Ann Kurk who came up with the name in a company contest. Others say it was salesman Bill Willtsie who coined it during that weekend-long brainstorm.

With a new name “Ball Park Frank” and its famous tagline Hygrade began selling their dogs with Detroit roots nationwide.

Hygrade would eventually be bought and dismantled by the Sara Lee company and the brand would be sold again in 2014 to the Hillshire Farms food conglomerate. But even as the brand changed hands and tastes changed (the BPF is now sold in three varieties of beef franks, classic, and turkey) the feeling that comes with it doesn’t.

There’s something timeless about a Ball Park Frank. It’s a staple of Americana but more than that it’s a constant. In a world that can feel as if it’s hurtling out of control like a wild pitch in the dirt, the Ball Park Frank is a steady hand. It’s a food out of time that can be a transporting vessel of nostalgia on a summer’s day taking you back to a ballgame with your family and a glove you’ll have to grow into. A long shift at the summer job at the local pool not wanting the school year to start. (I did that job for 4 summers) A late-night snack, microwaved in a piece of bread because you miss the taste of home.

So the next time you have a hotdog, tip your cap to the city of Detroit and pass the mustard.

A Ball Park Franks promotional graphic from the 1976 Detroit Tigers Scorebook:

A Ball Park Franks promotional graphic from the 1976 Detroit Tigers Scorebook (Wikipedia Commons)

About the Author:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.