Column: This Super Bowl, a clash of the cultures
Last month, the Rev. Peter M. Donahue, the president of Villanova University on Philadelphia’s Main Line, insisted that the organist play “On Eagle’s Wings” at Mass before the NFL conference championship game.
This did not escape the attention of John J. Brennan, the former chairman and CEO of the Vanguard investment group, who has roots in both places competing in the Super Bowl. Vanguard’s headquarters is 25 miles west of Philadelphia, whose Eagles are underdogs in the big game. Brennan grew up eight miles north of Boston and 40 miles from Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, the oddsmakers’ choice.
“I’m living in Super Bowl Hell,” says Brennan. “I love the Eagles, but I’m a Patriots originalist.”
He’s one of the few with even a trace of ambiguity over this clash between two East Coast places with colonial heritages, powerhouse universities, sprawling medical complexes — and sports fans outsiders regard as utterly obnoxious. “My Philadelphia friends think that Boston fans are spoiled,” says Brennan, “and my Boston friends think they deserve their success.”
Says Jonathan Papelbon, the baseball closer who pitched in both cities, first for the Red Sox and then for the Phillies: “There’s real passion in both cities, but Philadelphia fans are really in the game and not so much in Boston.” That’s one curveball that won’t be received warmly in Boston, where Papelbon threw the strikeout that won the World Series for the Red Sox in 2007.
In truth, the enmity between the two cities goes back centuries. In America’s Federalist period, Boston was an Anglophile redoubt while Philadelphia was Francophilic. Boston was the source of pre-Revolutionary agitation, Philadelphia was the second capital of the United States. Benjamin Franklin had roots in both cities and left them both 1,000 pounds sterling and, knowing a bit about compound interest, instructed the cities that they could touch about half only after 100 years and the remainder in another hundred years. Boston invested its money better than Philadelphia. So much for Deflategate.
E. Digby Baltzell, the fabled historian and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote of “the hegemony of Boston and New England in the development of the American mind” and “the pulpit culture of rigid Calvinism” that prevailed in early Boston, while arguing that Philadelphia was “the city of egalitarian individualism, where all had the right to choose their own gods and their own ways to wealth without interference from pulpit or class authority.”
And he somehow found significance in the fact that Williams College, in Western Massachusetts, placed 420 alumni in the Harvard Law School between 1924 and 1934 while Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, placed only 43 — while Swarthmore far outpaced Williams (and Amherst and Bowdoin) in sending high-productivity leaders into the sciences. Perhaps it is significant that Massachusetts has contributed five presidents (I’m including Calvin Coolidge, born in Vermont, and George H.W. Bush, who was only born in Massachusetts but is more identified with Texas) to the one produced by Pennsylvania (the lowly James Buchanan).
None of this makes any difference to the Super Bowl, of course, but outside the gridiron the rivalry between Boston and Philadelphia may strike most Americans — and surely those beyond the Appalachian regions — as the narcissism of small differences. Or at least a whole lot of narcissism.
William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, gave Philadelphia its label in 1682, confecting a place name out of “the city of brotherly love.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet and essayist, gave Boston its high-flying “Hub of the Universe” label in 1858. Neither description has the slightest relation to the truth.
Philadelphia has its Main Line (western suburbs developed along the route of the old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line) while Boston had its Kraut Line (the hockey trio of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, so talented that the three partners on this line were also the top three scorers in the NHL in the 1939-40 season).
One of the cities has Philadelphia Cream Cheese (so named because in 1872 Philadelphia was considered the American city of the highest taste) while the other has the Boston cream pie (which was developed in 1856 by the Parker House Hotel in Boston). One has an Oyster House on Philadelphia’s Samson Street (founded in 1976), the other has the Union Oyster House (founded 1826 and the favorite of both Daniel Webster and John F. Kennedy). Historical footnote: John Royston Coleman, later the president of Philadelphia-area Haverford College, wrote a book in part about his days working at the Boston restaurant.
Then again, Boston has Parker House rolls (243 calories, developed 150 years ago at the Boston hotel on School Street) while there are two Philadelphia rolls: one a sushi dish made of smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber (347 calories) and the other a large wad of cash, wrapped in a $100 bill on the outside. Philadelphia has Rocky (the heroic figure at the center of more than a half-dozen films) while the Boston area has Egg Rock (an island outcropping in Nahant Bay about two miles off the coast of Swampscott, Mass., the beach town where I grew up).
One of the Bostonians for whom Philadelphia has the lowest regard is Arnold (Red) Auerbach, whose astonishing skein of nine NBA championships in 10 years came between the Philadelphia Warriors’ crown in the 1955-56 season and the Philadelphia 76ers championship in the 1966-67 season.
About a decade later, Thomas Foley, now the president of Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, Pa., met Mr. Auerbach at a fundraiser. He mumbled something about admiring how the Celtics of that era played as a team and then — “this just popped out of my mouth,” Mr. Foley, who as a young man worked in Boston, recalled — added something along the lines of “you probably don’t want to meet me because I am from Philly.”
“Yeah, you’re right, kid,” Mr. Auerbach said. Then he turned his back. Outside the gridiron, the rivalry between Boston and Philadelphia may strike most Americans — and surely those beyond the Appalachian regions — as the narcissism of small differences. Or at least a whole lot of narcissism.
But the cities have a storied rivalry. So this Super Bowl is all about: Philadelphia cream cheese versus Boston cream pie, a sushi roll from Philadelphia versus a dinner roll from Boston, the Main Line versus the Kraut Line, a cheesesteak (don’t forget the Cheez Whiz) at Pat’s King of Steaks on Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia versus a lobster roll at Legal Sea Food at Copley Place in Boston — and two East Coast cities united by their common hatred of New York.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.