Before Joey Chestnut, “Fat Men’s Clubs” Dominated the World of Competitive Eating

·13 min read
Members of the Fat Man's Baseball Association, circa 1910
Members of the Fat Man's Baseball Association, circa 1910

On a balmy October afternoon in 1885, two New York baseball teams met for a fall classic. The national media was on hand to cover the highly anticipated matchup. It wasn’t the Yankees versus the Mets. No, it was a much larger affair. Literally.

The Brooklyn Fat Men’s baseball team traveled to Long Island to take on the Fat Men’s Club of Flushing. Upon arriving, Brooklyn’s starting nine crammed onto a hay scale. They weighed in at 2,211 lbs., or 245 per person. The New York Times described the team in a colorful article that ran on October 9, 1885.

“They were all [formerly professional] baseball men … since grown obese on beer and politics, but they were a lusty set of athletes and they declared that they could run their own bases and only wanted two small boys to assist the catcher.”

After the weigh-in, the Brooklyn players positioned “resuscitating beer kegs … at convenient intervals” while their captain addressed the media. Identified only as “Supervisor Jones,” he did not hide his discriminatory approach to roster building.

“I say with pride,” Jones bellowed, “that no man is allowed in this organization who weighs less than 212 pounds.” Leading by example, he tipped the scale at an impressive 325. “His general appearance,” the reporter from The Times noted, “was that of the man in the moon in the gibbous state.”

Jones was looking forward to the game, but dressing for it had proved challenging. He paid a boy 25 cents to help stuff him into his uniform. As the Brooklyn players finished their warmup, they noticed something was missing. Their opponents were nowhere to be seen.

“The Flushing men,” The Times reported, “had mysteriously disappeared, all save the captain, who was discovered peering over the fence in unspeakable awe. Upon the arrival of the massy Brooklynites, they had become stricken with remorse at their own puny showing, which would not average more than 225 pounds to the player.”

“The Brooklynites were highly indignant and so were the spectators, and their rage was with difficulty modified by frequent potations of the amber flood.” In other words, the big boys got their drink on.

Despite this story’s anticlimactic ending, the day was not without drama. The wagon that had carted the “individual masses of rotund corpulency” from the train station to the ballpark nearly collapsed.

If you start researching the Fat Men’s Clubs that enjoyed prominent social status across America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the first motifs you notice is that transportation was often perilous — but not for the clubs’ members. Consider this short article from the April 6, 1909, issue of the Brownsville Daily Herald, a local Texas paper.

“A report was brought in this afternoon that one of the horses that were hauling the Fat Men’s team to the baseball park dropped dead on the way. How the team finally got to the park is not learned. The price of the horse will be charged to the Fat Men.” Surely they had no trouble footing the bill. Fat Men’s Clubs (henceforth referred to as FMCs), had coffers that surpassed their significant waistbands.

The first FMC was founded in New York City in 1869, according to Kerry Segrave’s Obesity in America. Before long, local chapters formed across the country. The unifying mission of all FMCs, articulated by W.A. Disborough, the president of the Fat Men’s Association of Texas, was “to draw the fat men into closer fraternal relations.”

Like many of the social clubs born in the wake of the Civil War, FMCs were ultimately about networking. As the country stumbled out of Reconstruction, different in-groups banded together to advance common interests and capitalize on political and financial opportunities. Like many of these clubs, FMCs had strict and discriminating membership policies. No man would be considered unless he weighed at least 200 pounds. He would also need to pay annual dues to fund the club’s rigorous social calendar.

Considering the popularity of these organizations (the New England FMC, for instance, had more than 10,000 members in its heyday), proud fat men were clearly happy to pay the price of admission. Through their banquets, dances, lectures and various athletic teams, FMCs gave members exclusive access to prominent business leaders and politicians. They hosted senators and presidents, many of whom — if you think about the presidents around the turn of the century — would easily qualify for membership. William Howard Taft actually received a formal invitation to join. Standing six feet tall and weighing 340 pounds, Taft was America’s largest president and may or may not have gotten stuck in a White House bathtub while in office. He politely declined the membership offer, but happily attended an FMC meeting in Wells River, VT.

Although FMCs sponsored a range of activities, their primary pursuit was celebrating and cultivating mass. Meetings began with customary weigh-ins, where the heaviest members were awarded prizes like whole pigs. Many clubs deferred to the scale as an objective tool for selecting officers.

<div class="cell medium-auto caption"> Tug of war at the summer outing of a Massachusetts Fat Men’s Club in 1951</div> <div class="cell medium-shrink medium-text-right credit">Harry Bagan Photographs, Cambridge Historical Commission</div>
Tug of war at the summer outing of a Massachusetts Fat Men’s Club in 1951
Harry Bagan Photographs, Cambridge Historical Commission

An 1884 New York Times article entitled “The Glory of Adipose” paints a vivid picture of the typical minutes at these summits. On August 27, the president of the Connecticut FMC arrived at the annual clambake with great expectations for his weigh-in. Philetus Dorlon was an imposing figure. “His obesity borders on the infinite,” The Times observed. “The most hardened lean man cannot gaze upon his magnificent proportions without being unconsciously made purer and holier.”

As the members proceeded to “compare circumferences,” hopes were high for Dorlon’s number. He clambered onto the scale, his portly comrades holding their breath as the ballasts were adjusted. “Three-hundred and forty pounds,” the master of ceremonies declared. Dorlon stoically stepped off the scale. He took one look at the golden scepter that was inscribed with the names and weights of his predecessors. And then he burst into tears.

“Mr. Dorlon wept as he apologized to the club for his comparative leanness after the immortal records of the presidents who had officiated before him.” The Times noted that the previous three leaders weighed 415, 458 and 549 pounds. “There were other men in the club, Mr. Dorlon said, who were worthier than he to adorn the president’s chair because they were fatter; he would not selfishly stand between the club and glory with his insignificant 340 pounds.” He was unanimously re-elected.

The average FMC spent nearly all of its annual budget on food. Their feasts were Trimalchian altars to gluttony; the menu at one New England FMC meeting, for example, included oysters, cream of chicken soup, boiled snapper, roasted chicken, roasted suckling pig, shrimp salad, steamed fruit pudding, cheese, cake and ice cream. The meeting’s sole agenda item, to be clear, was to consume as much as humanly possible. “The only men leaving the table,” The Boston Globe reported, were “those who feared apoplexy.”

FMCs did not invent eating contests — like most modern social phenomena, the history of competitive eating reaches into mythology — but they certainly popularized them in American culture. When the Manhattan FMC held an all-you-can-eat contest at their East Third Street clubhouse in 1909, several reporters were present to watch Frank Dotzler, a 380-pound alderman, devour 275 oysters, 8 pounds of steak, 12 rolls, 11 cups of coffee and 3 pies. He won $50 and eternal glory.

The considerable media attention enjoyed by these clubs says a lot about the era in which they prospered. “In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Laura Doan wrote in an engrossing article about Texas FMCs, “attitudes about fat bodies were remarkably different than they are now … As fat men’s clubs were at their peak, people positively associated men of a larger size with wealth and affability.”

The jolly fat man, with his distinguished paunch and hearty laugh, was a revered archetype. His corporal existence radiated power and leisure, evidence of his superhuman capacity for consumption and his ability to feed such a lavish lifestyle. Any woman, the cultural logic followed, would be lucky to have him.

Nobody championed the fat man’s status as a desirable mate more than other fat men, as demonstrated by a Mineola Monitor op-ed from 1899:

“It may be observed, without intentional offence [sic] to any young lady who might be enamored of some skeleton-like young man that, as a rule, fat men, besides being the most jolly and convivial of the male species, are also apt to be the most considerate of and charitable to others.” The writer concluded with a compelling statistic. “The fact still remains that seven out of ten fat men make excellent husbands.”

Women, as is often the case, faced a double standard. Although a handful of Fat Women’s Clubs existed, their membership was low and they were frequently lampooned by the male-dominated press. “Fat men may be popular,” declared a 1923 column in The Brownwood Bulletin, “but the fat lady is always awkward.”

Eventually society turned on the fat man, too. In the 1920s, doctors and insurance companies started raising awareness about the longterm health effects of obesity. Diet and exercise became part of the public discourse, and the arrival of the home scale made an individual’s weight a much more private subject. As medical and cultural attitudes shifted, FMC membership plummeted. By 1924, the New England FMC, once 10,000 strong, had just 38 members.

FMCs disappeared almost overnight, and their dinosaur-like extinction ushered in the dark ages of competitive eating. It’s not that Americans suddenly lost interest in watching others inhale ungodly amounts of food, but the spectacle of the eating contest undermined the prevailing health movement. Competitions were relegated to backwater stages like county fairs and shopping malls. Every now and then, a trencherman was hailed as a folk hero, like Eddie “Bozo” Miller, who consumed 25,000 calories a day and once ate 30 pounds of elk and moose meatloaf in a single sitting. But for the most part, digestive feats received little media attention until the end of the 20th century.

And then the pendulum swung back with a hangry vengeance. In the early ’90s, a young publicity agent named George Shea started working on the account for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. Their annual July 4th contest on Coney Island, he thought, was an incredible marketing opportunity. He threw himself into promoting the event. Elbow grease and savvy world-building generated impressive growth. George’s brother Rich came onboard a few years later, and they quickly discovered that the cultural appetite for competitive eating was immense and unsated. In 1997, they founded Major League Eating, and have spent the last two-and-a-half decades turning eating into a professional sport.

“Obviously people can have a parochial attitude towards what is and isn’t sport,” Rich tells InsideHook, “but this is a physical discipline. There’s a set of rules. There’s strategy. These guys speak just like golfers speak. You know how golfers have different approaches for different holes? These guys have different approaches for different foods. They train. They literally study film of Joey [Chestnut] and other greats.”

And, just like other professional athletes, their talents are televised. ESPN started airing the Nathan’s contest in 2003. “That made believers out of a lot of people,” Rich says. They draw well over a million viewers every Fourth of July, and a new partnership with DraftKings gives the growing fanbase a chance to bet on results.

A large part of Major League Eating’s success, and the hot dog contest in particular, stems from the Shea brothers’ rhetorical prowess. If you’ve ever watched one of the Nathan’s broadcasts, you’ve seen them in action. Rich provides commentary on ESPN while George, clad in the iconic straw hat of a Coney Island carnival barker, emcees from the stage. Their styles are different but equally potent.

“George is a bit more hellfire and brimstone,” Rich says. “I go for more pop culture and sports allusions.”

George spends months writing and rewriting his introductions for each contestant. Draped in faux-epic language, they provoke laughter and awe. His 2014 introduction for Joey Chestnut, with The Who’s Baba O’Riley simmering underneath, is magisterial:

“Only moments from her womb, and before she even placed him to her breast, his mother held him close and whispered in his ear. She said, ‘You are of my flesh, but you are not mine own. Fate is your father and you belong to the people, for you shall lead the army of the free.’ And she held him high, and the finger of power that destroys the unworthy descended, and it touched him on the forehead, and it anointed him the champion of the world!”

There’s something reminiscent of the old FMC newspaper clippings when the Sheas crank up the hype mode. It’s an ironic self-awareness that also conveys genuine admiration for the obscure sport they’re representing, like the commentators from Dodgeball if they were more literary and less stoned.

Rich laughs when I tell him about the history of FMCs and says he’s never heard of them. He’s amused, but he’s quick to point out that the majority of competitive eaters are in good shape.

“These guys tend to be more traditional athletes,” he says. “We have triathletes. We have two professional trainers that are competing this year, a husband and wife who met on the Major League Eating circuit. They’re ridiculously cut. Most of the eaters are more cut than not.”

Like other sports, Major League Eating has inspired scientific research. With academic reverence, Rich tells me about the “belt of fat theory,” a theory developed by former Nathan’s champion Ed Krachie, which posits that the more fat you have around your stomach, the less room your stomach has to expand.

Recent history has supported Krachie’s theory. In 2001, 131-pound Takeru Kobayashi shocked the world by eating 50 hot dogs and buns (HDBs) in 12 minutes. The previous record was 25 HDBs. Even Joey Chestnut, the undisputed G.O.A.T. of competitive eating, is relatively svelte at 6’1” and 230 pounds. During last year’s competition, with the buzz dampened by COVID, Chestnut broke his own record when he downed 75 HDBs in 10 minutes.

This year’s July 4th contest promises a return to normalcy. “It’s going to be much more buoyant,” Rich says. Festivities kick off at 11 a.m. at Maimonides Park, the Coney Island baseball stadium, and a select number of tickets can be procured for free when you use the coupon code on Major League Eating’s website.

A friend of mine with whom I was discussing this story asked me if competitive eating is the most American sport ever invented. “Without a doubt,” I answered. He thought I was joking. I assured him I wasn’t and relayed the origin story of the first Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest in 1916. According to the legend, four immigrants competed against each other with the winner earning the title of “most patriotic.”

“What’s more American than that?” I asked my friend.

“Apple pie,” he quipped.

“But you know what’s more American than apple pie,” I said. “An apple pie-eating contest.”

“Not nearly as American as a hot dog eating contest,” he said.

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The post Before Joey Chestnut, “Fat Men’s Clubs” Dominated the World of Competitive Eating appeared first on InsideHook.

The article Before Joey Chestnut, “Fat Men’s Clubs” Dominated the World of Competitive Eating by Eliott Grover was originally published on InsideHook.