Baseball's Biggest Brand-Name Snack
There is one well-known sweet snack food whose name is indelibly associated with the great game of baseball, though almost everybody gets that name slightly wrong. Both the baseball association and the error are due to a line in the 1908-vintage pop song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (recorded in more recent times by everyone from Jimmy Buffett and Billy Joel to Dr. John and Bruce Springsteen) — which contains the line "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks." At least, that's the way it's always sung these days. The name of the venerable elaboration of caramel corn in question is actually Cracker Jack, singular. It is said to have gotten that name when the Rueckheim brothers, Frederick and Louis, the confectioners who invented it, gave a sample to a friend back in 1896, and he exclaimed "That's crackerjack" — period slang meaning top-notch.
The original version of Cracker Jack, called simply Candied Popcorn and Peanuts, had been introduced three years earlier by the Rueckheims at the World's Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World's Fair. Frederick kept refining the recipe, until he developed a way to keep the peanuts and popcorn separate in their bath of caramelized sugar and molasses. An associate named Henry Gottlieb Eckstein developed the waxed bag Cracker Jack was to be packaged in (inside its box) in 1899. In 1912, Rueckheim added a tiny toy to every package (I remember getting a crackerjack little whistle once). The familiar sailor boy and dog on the package made their debut in 1912, the former supposedly modeled after the Rueckheims' nephew Robert. After Robert died of pneumonia at the age of 8, the Cracker Jack image was engraved on his tombstone.
Thanks to the convenience of its packaging and then to that famous song, Cracker Jack became a popular — almost indispensible — part of the ballpark experience. There was even briefly a baseball venue called Cracker Jack Stadium — a 9,500-seat ballpark at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista (Orlando), Fla., which opened in 1997. (It is now Champion Stadium and is spring training site for the Atlanta Braves and home to the Gulf Coast League Braves.)
The company making Cracker Jack, which had become known as Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein, was bought by Borden, the condensed milk people, in 1964, and they in turn sold it to Frito-Lay in 1997. I used to love buying Cracker Jack at the movie theater or at Gilmore Field, where my dad used to take me to see the Los Angeles Angels when they were still a Pacific Coast League team, and I have a pretty good memory of the way it tasted. I sampled some recently and it still had that dark, deep, caramelized sugar flavor with an overtone of something almost smoky that I remember from back in the days when Steve Bilko was still knocking them over the fence.
Though stadium food has grown varied and sometimes exotic over the years, Cracker Jack is still available at all 30 Major League parks. It may not be the average baseball fan's first choice these days, but on the other hand, you're not likely to be hearing anybody singing "Buy me some sushi and Dodger Dogs" anytime soon.