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David Shribman: Understand the clash of cultures this Super Bowl Sunday

Writer

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Last month, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, the president of Villanova University on Philadelphia’s Main Line, insisted that the organist play “On Eagle’s Wings” at Mass before the NFC 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 cities with Colonial heritages, powerhouse universities, sprawling medical complexes — and sports fans regarded by outsiders 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.

Historic enmity

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. He 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 100 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.”

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 born in Massachusetts but is more identified with Texas) to the one produced by Pennsylvania (the lowly James Buchanan).

Small differences

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).

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 (developed in 1856 by the Parker House Hotel in Boston).

Then again, Boston has Parker House rolls (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 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).

Red Auerbach

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, Pennsylvania, met Auerbach at a fundraiser. He mumbled something about admiring how the Celtics of that era played and then — “this just popped out of my mouth,” recalled Foley — added something along the lines of “you probably don’t want to meet me because I am from Philly.”

“Yeah, you’re right, kid,” Auerbach said. Then he turned his back.

Now you understand what the 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 in Philadelphia versus a lobster roll at Legal Sea Foods at Copley Place in Boston — and two East Coast cities united by their common hatred of New York.

Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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