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.

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