Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
–Take Me Out to The Ball Game
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written in 1908 by a Vaudeville star who had never seen a baseball game. Jack Northworth, who wrote some 2,500 songs (including “Shine on Harvest Moon”) didn’t see his first ball game for another 32 years. Albert von Tizer–who wrote the music–didn’t see his first baseball game for another 20 years. Today, baseball fans know the song well.
I wonder if either Nortworth or von Tizer had ever eaten Cracker Jack, the caramel coated mix of peanuts and popcorn introduced by F. W. and Louis Rueckheim at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The secret to Cracker Jack–which is still a secret today–is what keeps the peanuts and popcorn in a box or sack of Cracker Jack from all sticking together.
Cracker Jack was a success, but the song made it famous. While the song was first sung at a baseball game in 1934, Harry Caray made it a solid tradition when he started singing it in 1971 from his Chicago White Sox broadcast booth. Across the country, fans sing “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack” during the seventh inning stretch at the ballpark no matter who is winning or losing.
Legend has it that a salesman for F. W. and Louis Rueckheim tasted a batch of the caramel coated popcorn and peanuts and exclaimed, “That’s Cracker Jack.” Suddenly a product name and a now-famous trademark were born, one that–under Borden and then Frito-Lay is lasting far longer that the term “cracker jack” is lasting in general English usage. In the late 1800s, the term was popular slang for what, today, we would call awesome!
“Cracker jack” meant high quality whether it referred to a person and event or a product. We still use the word “crack” in that way today, as in “she’s a crack shot” or “my crack staff will finish the project before lunch.” “Jack” was slang for a boy or man or a manual laborer, as in lumberjack or steeplejack, and often referred to a sailor. (The Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo trademark image still adorns Cracker Jack packages today.)
I like Cracker Jack, and the chance purchase of a couple of sacks at the grocery store this morning when I was purportedly there to purchase fresh produce, got me to thinking about the ever-changing use of slang. I haven’t heard a phrase like “He is one cracker jack salesman” for a long time. In context, I suppose most people would figure out what it meant. I know what it means, but I never use the term–except when buying a sack of Cracker Jack, because it’s not in fashion any more.
As a writer, I like tracking down how word usage has changed as well as the original meanings of slang expressions that continue to be used long after their literal meanings are forgotten. Some day–and perhaps that day is already here–most people will think the word “Cracker Jack” has always applied to the candied popcorn and nuts, and nothing else.
But for the moment, we know better, don’t we?