Detroit’s Ballpark Franks are deliciously legendary

Vendors continue to hawk Ballpark Franks at Comerica Park, a tradition in Detroit for decades.

As any baseball fan can attest, a hot dog is more than a blend of meats stuffed inside a casing. It’s a gastrointestinal institution, a staple of ballparks in Detroit and other cities since being introduced at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1901.

The Tigers first started selling hot dogs at Bennett Park more than a century ago. The club used a number of food suppliers through the years, but by 1958 had become dissatisfied with its vendor. That year Gus Hauf, a sausage superintendent at Hygrade Food Corp., a Detroit-based meatpacking company, invented the company’s famous Ballpark Franks. His special formula remains a secret.

In 1959, Ballpark Franks became the official Briggs Stadium hot dog. (A Hygrade employee named Mary Ann Kurk won $25 and a leather living room chair for coming up with the new product’s winning name.) Later they went on sale commercially, rising to become the country’s second-best-selling red hot. As Tigers general manger Jim Campbell once claimed, “They’re not eating hot dogs; they’re eating tube steaks.”

It didn’t take long for the humble Ballpark Franks to become a part of Tigers lore. One day in the 1960s, Gates Brown was on the bench, surreptitiously munching on a red hot, when he suddenly was called upon to pinch hit. He stuffed his hot dog under his shirt, hustled to the plate, and promptly slapped the ball to the outfield. As fate would have it, the Gator had to belly-slide into second base. He emerged from the swirling dust with a yellow mustard stain across his uniform shirt.

(By the way, the reason vendors slather only mustard on the dogs is because ketchup, which contains sugar, spoils quickly in the heat and attracts flies.)

In 1985, Cincinnati schoolteacher Bob Wood visited every major league park, grading each on, among other things, the quality of its hot dogs. He rated Tiger Stadium’s dogs number one. “A Ballpark Frank with a little mustard on the side is a dream fulfilled,” Wood wrote in his book, Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks. “And proof that worthy experiences never die in the tradition of a fine baseball park.”

Yummy, indeed.

Much to the dismay of fans who grew up on the flavorful franks, they were replaced in 1992 by Thorn Apple Valley’s “sausage in a bun.” A public backlash, however, forced the Mike Ilitch regime to reconsider its hasty dismissal of the famous dog. It was brought back a couple of years later.

Today, Tigers fans at Comerica Park enjoy a wide selection of tasty tubular products, including Chicago-style and coney dogs, brats, and kielbasa. They continue to consume a million or so Ballpark Franks each season, with obvious relish – or not.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.