SI Vault
Spring Has Sprung
Frank Deford
April 10, 1978
It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?
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April 10, 1978

Spring Has Sprung

It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?

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Yeah, the prizes.

There is a very pretty woman at Cracker Jack, a former art teacher named Susan Reedquist. She is known around the plant as the "prize girl" or the "prize lady," depending on how up-to-date you are. She is in charge of selecting the 1,000 or so prizes that go into 420 million boxes of Cracker Jack each year. No fewer than 400 different prizes are packaged every day, and these are deposited manually—14 prize sorters dropping 128 prizes a minute. It is the only unautomated part of the process, but there are also three mechanized checks to ensure that a prize gets into each package.

Of course, just like you and me and batting averages, the prizes are not what they used to be. The prize lady has a vault that contains virtually every Cracker Jack prize ever produced, back to 1912, when prizes were introduced. Their heyday seems to have been in the 1930s, when the prizes included intricate metal and wooden toys. Once, during these halcyon days, there was an episode of Amos 'n' Andy in which de Kingfish went to a ball game and dropped a diamond ring he had bought for Sapphire. It fell into the Cracker Jack box out of which a fellow in the next row was munching. Of course the stranger thought the diamond ring was his prize. Ohhhh me, Andy! Imagine anybody today thinking that even a zircon ring could be included in a Cracker Jack box. Down in front!

But for goodness' sake, let's understand what the prize lady has to put up with. The Food and Drug Administration, for example. Nitpickers, all of them. You can't use sharp metal; you can't have any rough edges; you can't have toys that break into pieces. If it's not one thing, it's another. You could never in your wildest dreams imagine what is sitting prominently on the prize lady's desk. A simulated child's esophagus, that's what. If a toy can fit into the simulated esophagus, the prize lady has got to scratch it.

Worse, the prize lady has to accommodate today's TV generation. "The toys have to provide instant gratification," she says. "That's the effect of television."

The prize lady selects the prizes that will be tried out on whole children, as well as on their esophagi, and only the items that score high on the "smile scale" qualify for Cracker Jack. "You've got to remember that these kids have grown up in a paper and plastic world," the prize lady says. What the little shavers don't know won't hurt them.

Cracker Jack is one of the four or five most recognized brand names in the country. Ninety-nine percent of Americans are aware of it. And yet Cracker Jack is hardly in the mainstream in the way Coke and Ford, two other of the most familiar brand names, are. Undoubtedly, Cracker Jack owes much of its fame to its felicitous inclusion in the one sports anthem in the country.

But as you careful readers of The Wall Street Journal have learned, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Cracker Jack has been terrific for baseball, too. Why, Cracker Jack is still made with all natural ingredients: popcorn, peanuts, molasses, corn syrup, salt and sugar. There are still the same number of peanuts—nine to 14—in every box. And they use the exact same formula they've always used; connoisseurs can tell that the goo covering the peanuts is different from the goo covering the popcorn. You still get "A Surprise in Every Package." Take a hike, Mom's apple pie.

Think about this: suppose Norworth had not used Cracker Jack in his song. Has baseball ever thought about that? Suppose Norworth had used Moxie: "Give me some peanuts and cold Moxie!" Or Sen-Sen. Or JuJuBes. Wouldn't that be a fine how-do-you-do? Every time baseball played its theme song, it would be connecting itself with things that hardly exist anymore. That's all Bowie Kuhn needs, to be defunct-linked. And football. What a time it would have rubbing it in. Ha, ha, ha, baseball and Sen-Sen! Ha, ha, ha! Football would not let baseball hear the end of it.

So it has been a fair trade-off between Cracker Jack and baseball. And if Cracker Jack was struck by dumb luck in getting featured billing in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, it has looked out for No. 1 very well indeed. The name itself is a dandy, the prize idea a gem. It has two famous slogans: "A Surprise in Every Package" and "The More You Eat The More You Want." And everybody instantly recognizes the symbol of the little boy and his dog that has graced billions of Cracker Jack packs since 1919.

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