Harry’s Game

Which Englishman has made the greatest impact on the United States of America?  Let’s hear it for Harry M. Stevens, eldest son of James Stevens, a foreman of Midland Railway Locomotive in Derby.

The story comes back to mind thanks to Visit England’s Hall of Fame campaign, in which they have asked for “cheeky claims”.  Well, how’s this for one?  One of Derby’s best knowns sons, it was Harry who invented the hot dog  – the world’s most popular fast food boasting historical links to Presidents, the British Royal Family, Hollywood stars and most of all, the sport of baseball.

Born in Derby in 1856, Harry became a caterer in his home-town before emigrating with his family to Ohio in the 1880s.  The entrepreneurial flair which he put to such great effect later in life led him to believe that he could make money from catering at large sporting events in the United States.

His early visits to baseball grounds, however, ended in frustration at being unable to identify visiting players, or to keep up with the action.  As a result, he devised a scorecard which could be used by the fans, and he also left space on them for advertisements.  An instant success, Stevens’ scorecards have altered little to this day.

But the most popular story concerning Harry Stevens relates to a chilly April day at New York City’s Polo Ground, in 1901.  By now, Stevens had the catering concession for major league baseball games, but was losing money trying to sell ice cream and cold soda.  He sent out his salesmen to buy up all of the ‘dachshund’ sausages they could find, along with rolls to put them in, and encouraged his vendors to go round the ground shouting “They’re red hot.  Get your dachshund sausages here”.

The story continues that newspaper cartoonist Tad Dorgan, short on ideas and working to a tight deadline, drew inspiration from what he saw and drew a barking dachshund sausage nestling in a roll.  Not sure how to spell “dachshund”, he scrawled the words “hot dog” on his cartoon instead.  The drawing became famous.  So did the hot dog’s connection with baseball.  And another American icon was born.

Academic and historic research may have subsequently proven that others before Stevens – from the 1st Century AD, through to vendors outside student dorms in the 1890s – had been eating, and selling, sausages in bread and buns long before Stevens’ invention.  But none remain as deeply entrenched in American culture as the Derbeian’s dachshund.

And Derby itself – which is associated with the world’s first factory, some of the finest works of art in the world, a major role in the industrial revolution, the first Astronomer Royal, and the Rolls Royce engine – is rightfully proud of its links with the man whose hot dog business became a household name in America.

So whatever became of that humble snack?  Millions, if not billions, later, the hot dog is still going strong, and is forever linked to both the sport of baseball and American popular culture as a whole.

It’s said that Babe Ruth once downed 24 of them between back-to-back games, that movie actress Marlene Dietrich described hot dogs and champagne as her favourite meal, and that Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor thought long and hard before deciding to include hot dogs on the menu when King George VI visited New York in June 1939.

In 1996, Harry’s name was once again back in the headlines, when 166 items of his baseball memorabilia were auctioned off for $385,000 in New York City.  A photograph of Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run inscribed “To my second dad Harry M Stevens from Babe Ruth December 25th 1927”, was bought by a Cincinnati collector Steve Walter for $22,000.