NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – It’s believed the first hot dog eating competition was held between four immigrants who wanted to prove who was more patriotic.
One hundred and two years later, it has evolved into a New York tradition – thanks to one man: George Shea.
The orator extraordinaire is the master of ceremonies for the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. In every right, he’s a showman, a hype man and a wordsmith.
“When I talk, I go very grand, very epic,” he told CBS2’s Steve Overmyer. “It’s absurd and ridiculous, but it’s true… I know you’re joking, but I’ve got goosebumps. I know Joey (Chestnut) is not as big a hero as LeBron, but somehow I like him better than LeBron.”
The official weigh-in for the contestants could have been held anywhere, but why not the Empire State Building?
“People have a very proprietary feeling about certain things in New York, right? The contest and the hot dog became part of New York, so there’s a feeling of ‘that’s my thing,'” Shea said.
On the corner of Surf and Stillwell, he strides toward his stage, along with him is his recognizable straw hat.
“When you put on the hat, you’re harkening back to Coney Island and it’s a bit of a mask,” he said. “Now you’re like the guy in the hat, do whatever you want.”
Before the event, the chairman of Major League Eating is involved in every aspect of the production. He makes his final script adjustments on the fly.
The hot dog eating contest pits legendary athletes racing the clock and chowing down.
“Some find it disquieting, I find it beautiful. Just like watching Picasso paint,” said Shea. “When I see Joey with food all over his mouth — I’m going to my emotional place now.”
Over the past 20 years, the event has grown, with Shea as its shepherd. More than 2.5 million viewers watch the live broadcast, and the highest ratings are in the first 15 minutes, during his introductions.
Shea attended Columbia University where he studied literature. You can hear that in his intros, which range from ironic to spine-tingling.
“My voice is my instrument and my song is my gift to you,” he said.
He was born in Brooklyn and has more than just a hop in his step – there’s a little hip-hop.
“At the end of the day, I want them to feel like human passion. I want them to feel the triumph of human spirit when they see Joey or whoever it is win. I want them to feel that energy and those goose bumps. That’s what I really want,” he said.
Shea and his brother Rich started the organization that became Major League Eating 20 years ago. They say the over-the-top introductions and promotions first started as a way to make each other laugh.