Cracker Jack is a U.S. brand of snack consisting of strong molasses-flavored candy-coated popcorn and peanuts, well known for being packaged with a prize of nominal value inside. Some food historians consider it the first junk food. Cracker Jack is also famous for its connection to baseball lore.
Frederick William Rueckheim — known informally as “Fritz” — and his brother Louis mass-produced an early version of Cracker Jack and sold it at the first Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. At the time, it was a mixture of popcorn, molasses, and peanuts and was called “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts”.
Rueckheim devised a way to keep the popcorn kernels separate in 1896. As each batch was mixed in a cement-mixer-like drum, a small quantity of oil was added — a closely guarded trade secret. Before this change, the mixture had been difficult to handle, as it stuck together in chunks. In 1896, the first lot of Cracker Jack was produced. It was named by an enthusiastic sampler who remarked, “That’s crackerjack!” (a colloquialism meaning “of excellent quality”).
In 1899, Henry Gottlieb Eckstein developed the “waxed sealed package” for freshness, known then as the “Eckstein Triple Proof Package,” a dust, germ and moisture-proof paper package. In 1902, the company was re-organized as Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, the song written by lyricist Jack Norworth and set to music by Albert Von Tilzer gave Cracker Jack free publicity when it was released in 1908 with the line “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!”
Prizes were included in every box of Cracker Jack beginning in 1912. One of the first prizes was in 1914 when they produced the first of two Cracker Jack baseball card issues, which featured players from both major leagues as well as players from the short lived Federal League. The prizes attained pop-culture status with the term “came in a Cracker Jack box,” referring to an object of limited value. In recent years, the toy and trinket prizes have been replaced with paper prizes displaying riddles and jokes.
Mascots Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, were introduced in 1918 and registered as a trademark in 1919. Sailor Jack was modeled after Robert Rueckheim, nephew of Frederick and Louis Rueckheim. Robert, the son of a third and eldest Rueckheim brother Edward, died of pneumonia shortly after his image appeared at the age of 8. The sailor boy image acquired such meaning for the founder of Cracker Jack that he had it carved on his tombstone, which can still be seen in St. Henry’s Cemetery, Chicago. Sailor Jack’s dog Bingo was based on a real-life dog named Russell, a stray dog adopted by Henry Eckstein in 1917 who demanded that the dog be used on the packaging. Russell died of old age in 1930.
On June 16, 1993, the 100th anniversary of Cracker Jack was celebrated with a party at Wrigley Field that included distributing the candy-coated popcorn and peanut treat, that was introduced at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, free of charge to all of the fans attending the Cubs’ game against Florida. Sailor Jack, the company’s mascot, threw out the ceremonial first pitch .
The Cracker Jack Company was purchased by Borden in 1964 after a bidding war between Borden and Frito-Lay. Borden sold the brand to Frito-Lay in 1997.
In 2004, the New York Yankees baseball team replaced Cracker Jack with the milder, sweet butter toffee flavored Crunch ‘n Munch at home games. After a public outcry, the club immediately switched back to Cracker Jack.