Baseball Begets America's First Junk Food

America’s pastime is forever linked with certain things, hot dogs, apple pie and Cracker Jack. Like so many things in the fabric of America’s history, this candied confection got its start in Europe.

German immigrant Frederick W. Reuckheim began selling popcorn out of a street cart in Chicago back in 1872. Sales went so well he brought his brother Louis over from Germany to help. In 1874, the Rueckheim brothers purchased candy-making equipment from a Dutch confectioner who was returning to Holland. That is when the F.W. Reuckheim & Brother Company officially started business.

They spent some time experimenting with different popcorn recipes and introduced their Spanish peanut, molasses and popcorn combination at the 1893 Worlds Fair. The prototype would later come to be known as Cracker Jack but, at the time, remained unnamed.

The Fair was a trial run for the confection and the recipe left consumers disappointed with the stickiness of the product. It was Louis who spent the next three years perfecting the recipe.

A retired Henry Eckstein, who was also German but American born, met the brothers in church and was hired to design just the right container. Patented in 1904, Eckstein invented the moisture-proof bag in 1899 that is still used today. For his achievement, the brothers added his name to the company in 1902.

It was not until 1896 that the company trademarked and branded the confection as Cracker Jack and introduced it as a new product line. The tagline for the brand was, “The More You Eat, The More You Want.” Four and a half tons of Cracker Jack were manufactured daily and shipped throughout the United States for this initial promotional campaign. The name is rumored to have come from a salesman’s exclamation that the product was “cracker jack” upon tasting. That was a common American catchphrase at the time, similar to awesome in the 1980s. However, the conversation was held in German, not English, and was between Louis Rueckheim and his manufacturing foreman. According to an article in the March 1896 Chicago Daily Tribune, Louis asked his foreman to try a new recipe. After tasting the popcorn, the man exclaimed, “Das ist ausgezeichnet! - This is excellent!” Individually packaged the Rueckheims enforced consistency in the portion sizes, ensuring a high quality product, and creating a brand identity.

Both Reuckheim brothers had served their country in Germany. Fredrick fought in the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866 for the Prussian Army. Embracing the Prussian ideal of education first, while in the army, he went to school in the evenings and studied with a private tutor. His younger brother Louis served in the German army and fought in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.

In 1869 F.W. emigrated from Japenzin, Germany to America to work on his uncle’s farm in Washington Heights, just outside of Chicago. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he left farm life behind. He helped remove the debris from the city streets. Street vendors had been selling popcorn since the middle of the century with great success so Fredrick decided to try his hand. Using his life savings, he partnered with a man named Brinkmeyer, who had lost his confectionary business in the Fire. Within the year Frederick had bought out Brinkmeyer and sent for his younger brother Louis. As the family grew, so too did the business. It went on to support two generations of Rueckheims before being sold to Borden in 1964. They, in turn, sold it to Frito Lay in 1997.

The iconic red, white and blue box with sailor Jack’s logo was introduced in 1918 in support of the troops war efforts. Promoted as the ‘idea wartime food’ that could be eaten as a breakfast cereal, the company reminded consumers to save on wheat and sugar supplies by eating more cracker jack. They also encouraged men to follow sailor Jack’s lead and enlist in the Navy. Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein also offered to send people a free vest pocket edition of Uncle Sam’s Famous National Songs. In 1922, the company decided to rebrand their name to The Cracker Jack Company. This put the focus on the brand, rather than it’s founders. These moves came on the heels of some devastating anti-sentiments targeting the elder Rueckheim who had been a naturalized citizen of the US since 1881.

Fredrick, the brother responsible for marketing, had many successful campaigns for the brand throughout the years but had absolutely nothing to do with the most iconic of their publicity campaigns, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. In 1908, a 29-year old vaudeville entertainer, Jack Norworth wrote the song while riding the old Ninth Avenue El train to midtown Manhattan. There was an ad for a ballgame at the old Polo Grounds where the New York Giants played. Norworth had never even attended a baseball game when he wrote the ditty and there was no sponsorship deal with the company. Sales sored all the same, linking the brand with baseball forever.

The company did begin to incorporate the game into their branding however. Their first logo, before sailor Jack, was a pair of cartoon dancing bears from the circus. Introduced in 1907, the bears went on all sorts of adventures, doing things children might like to try as well. One such adventure included, of course, playing the nation’s pastime.

Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo replaced the bears in 1916. It was Fredrick’s 8-year old grandson who posed for the original Sailor Jack logo.

Beginning in the 1890s prizes were included in ever box of Cracker Jack. They started with coupons that could be collected and redeemed for small trinkets including watches and spoons. In 1912, the boxes were branded, “A prize in every box” and toys replaced the trinkets for kid appeal. In 2016, Frito Lay, who now owns the brand, returned to the company’s roots. Now in every box, customers receive coupon codes that can be used online to redeem prizes through their app.

It is perhaps the 1914–1915 prize campaign that is most popular among baseball fans however. In those two seasons, the brand decided to give away baseball cards.

The 144-card 1914 set was included, card by card, in the boxes as the prize. The cards were larger than average for the time and printed on thick paper rather than cardboard. Those cards, as a result, have food stains. The set included Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and Honus Wagner as well as front office executives, club owners and team managers.

In 1915, the cards were offered, instead, by coupon process, reverting back to their roots in terms of prizes. That set included 176 cards that could be received, by mail, as a complete set. A few more coupons would get you a book to hold them as well. This set was also printed with the backs upside down for easier viewing.

The start of the war changed the company’s marketing focus and the cards were never brought back. In 1993, there was a reissue of the classic cards but that was also a short-lived throwback effort.

The original cards remain incredibly valuable because of their rareness. In 2015, a Ty Cobb sold for $52,580 and earlier this year Shoeless Joe Jackson went for $107,550.

The most successful marketing campaign for Cracker Jack, in its time, was the 1932 Cracker Jack Mystery Club. From 1933-1936, more than 200,000 children became members.

During the Second World War, Cracker Jack once again showed their allegiance to the flag. They produced non-perishable, ready-to-eat meals, k-rations, for the troops. These high-calorie foods were crammed into those same boxes that kept their tastier treats fresh until opening.

Following the war, baseball was back! In 1946, the brand included a baseball spinner game as the prize. It was a variation of the All Star Baseball board game, designed by former major leaguer Ethan Allen. The game is still sold today.

The Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic was held in Washington D.C. from 1982-1987. The brainchild of Atlanta Braves VP Dick Cecil, the idea was simple, put an exhibition game featuring retired MLB players together to play one game in Washington on the old Senators field. The team had departed the city 11 years earlier and the fans still longed for the game. He approached Borden, by then owners of the brand, with the idea of sponsorship. They were onboard immediately. Every player received $1,000 plus travel for their appearance in the game. The games lasted through a move and continued for nine years but the Cracker Jack brand did not move with the games. Joe DiMaggio, however, did. He played in every one of the old-timer games. Cecil said, “He loved the event, was at his friendliest with the old timers and the media, and really had a great time. The 1990 game was believed to be the last time he wore a uniform.”

The rosters were filled with Hall of Famers including Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. Though not in the Hall of Fame, Frank Howard was an enormously popular invitee because the Washington fans still loved him. He had, after all, spent seven seasons with the club.

It was a 75-year old Luke Appling who affected the Cracker Jack Classic’s success probably more than most however. On July 19, 1982, in the first inning of the very first game ever played, Appling homered into the left-field stands. The call tells you just how unexpected, and exciting, the moment had been.

The 100th anniversary of Cracker Jack was celebrated at Wrigley Field on June 16, 1993. Ceremonies included Sailor Jack throwing out the first pitch.

Today Cracker Jack remains popular with ballpark loyalist. In 2004, a packaging change prompted Yankee Stadium to try changing out Cracker Jack for another popular popcorn snack, Crunch ‘N Munch. They claimed the packaging had compromised the taste. It took less than a month of fan uproar for the legendary snack to return. Baseball fans are traditionalists and some traditions just will not be broken. According to a 2009 NY Times article on the subject, the snack sells more at baseball games than any other sporting event, and the song is to blame. Available in 30 ballparks nationwide, the snack is responsible for approximately 10% of concession sales. At Fenway that year, they were averaging 1,000 bags/game.

Here are some Cracker Jack trivia points to bring out next July 5th, which is national Cracker Jack Day in the USA. Cracker Jack was the only nationally advertised popcorn confection. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein manufactured over seven hundred and fifty confectionary products, producing forty tons of candy per day. By 1912, 250 men and 450 girls/women worked at the factory producing 40-60 tons of confections/day. The company founded a plant at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn, New York in 1914 to serve its East Coast and overseas customers. In 1927, the company sold 138 million boxes of Cracker Jack. By 1930, Cracker Jack products were also sold on six continents, including Europe. They were the largest consumer of popcorn purchasing 25% of the world’s supply. The company began growing their own corn and peanuts to keep up with the demand while keeping their costs, and product quality, in check. Fredrick’s first wife was the well-known German poet, Matilda Mell.