"... Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack... " Baseball's cooperative relationship with the molasses-covered popcorn snack has been a long and comfortable one, predating the 1908 composition of the familiar song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Culturally, consumption of the two national favorites is seen as an ideal pairing of indulgences – one for the spirit, one for the palate.
In 1914, Cracker Jack took the natural mutualism one step further. During that season – two years after Cracker Jack first introduced the gimmick of placing "a surprise" in each of its packages – the company inserted a brand new type of baseball card in its boxes. In comparison to the physically smaller, artistically restrained tobacco and candy cards already circulating during that era, the 1914 Cracker Jack cards were "dazzlers" in every sense of the word. They were creatively inspired, "delicious" collectibles, and a departure in style. The cards' visual demeanor was reflective of their association with a different sort of product – one that had a palpable "ballpark" orientation.
The Cracker Jack cards came out of their boxes boasting generous 2 1/4" by 3" proportions – substantially larger than a typical tobacco card. Putting the expanded dimensions to good use, the cards featured beautifully detailed, color-tint photo likenesses of the 144 individual players and employed a brilliant red background hue for the finest, eye-catching effect. Cardbacks performed two roles, with approximately one half devoted to a short player biography and the other to text advertising both the set and the product. The items were printed on thinner-than-usual card stock, which revealed a textured surface that favorably showcased the cards' brightly inked attributes.
Baseball cards and Cracker Jack – the perfect match! That is with the exception of one aspect. The Cracker Jack snack had been formulated so that each bit of coated popcorn would resist adhering to its neighbors in the box. This worked fine, in the sense that people could enjoy the confection piece-by-piece, without risk of the product clumping. Less successful, by far as it turned out, was the premise of placing a delicate trading card into close proximity with syrupy Cracker Jack, and expecting it to emerge in credible shape. Almost all of 1914's Cracker Jack cards, as a result of this lapse in judgment on the part of its maker, display stains and darkening associated with sweet-tasting "goo," as well as dents, dings and creases incurred while the piece bounced around "raw" and unprotected within the container. The hobby loves its 1914 Cracker Jacks, but enthusiasts are generally required to compromise exacting condition standards in the effort to collect them.
It's gratifying to a commodity's buyers of any era when a manufacturer listens to their concerns and subsequently addresses them. Cracker Jack improved its product in its subsequent 1915 issue, in highly meaningful ways. Most importantly, a buyer could have his Cracker Jack and his high-grade cards, too! In 1915, a customer found a card inside when he purchased a box of Cracker Jack … and it was stained, just like the 1914s had been. But now, the company offered the option to obtain the whole set pristine and unsullied throughout, by mail in exchange for coupons. (A specially made album to house the cards was also furnished upon request and for additional coupons.) A collector's dream, these early "factory sets" – likely the first of their kind seen in the industry – held a full span of the series' cards that were not only unblemished, but which had been spared the rigors of packing, too.
For 1915, Cracker Jack expanded its offering to a grand total of 176 subjects. The issue (designated E145-2 in The American Card Catalog) was identical in appearance and theme to its 1914 counterpart. In other words, it kept intact all of the facets that had made its predecessor so appealing, and it shed all of the earlier version's liabilities. Cracker Jack is a phenomenal set, particularly in the second 1915 incarnation that allowed fans to view their favorite American, National and Federal League heroes in glorious, uninterrupted splendor!
The 1915 Cracker Jack set of 176 cards constitute a gallery that many enthusiasts of the Dead Ball Era regard as fundamentally unimprovable. The expected Hall of Famers (Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson and others of that caliber) are present, as well as Miller Huggins, Max Carey, Branch Rickey, Zach Wheat and more. Unlike the foregoing stars who were among 1914's collection of 144 pieces, Edd Roush and Clark Griffith are found only in Cracker Jack's 1915 edition.
Three players are featured who would, just a few years later, make history as highly visible members of Chicago's 1919 "Black Sox" squad. Most prominent among this trio (which also included Chick Gandil and Ed Cicotte) is the card of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. The latter piece is easily one of the most vigorously sought after and proudly held relics in the modern collecting hobby.
The majority of Cracker Jack's 1915 cards reused the enticing illustrations that had originally graced those players' 1914 entries. The most conspicuous exception is the depiction of Christy Mathewson. Shown for 1914 in a pitching pose on a horizontally oriented cardfront, Matty's 1915 card reverts to a dignified portrait likeness. Needless to say, both Mathewson portrayals are highly prized on the basis of their own, respective levels of grandeur.
Collectors of today are certainly thankful; there are no actual rarities in 1915 Cracker Jack. (It should be kept in mind that the manufacturer's willingness to dispense complete factory sets ensured some degree of evenness in production numbers.)
The predictable effects of demand scarcity and condition scarcity apply, however, and this is fully understandable given the impressive nature of the Cracker Jack cards, and their elevated properties of aesthetic allure when seen in the highest grades.
As mentioned, the 1915 issue's final group of cards – those numbered from 145 through 176, inclusive – have no direct counterparts in prior year's abbreviated production. For this reason, they're in somewhat stronger demand than many of the first group, as all of the collectors who seek to obtain a Cracker Jack card of each player and who are willing to settle for a suitable example from either year are compelled to compete with conventional set-builders for those final 32 pieces.
Just like the snack they accompanied, 1915's Cracker Jack cards left consumers hungry for more. Regrettably, the onset of World War I, perhaps combined with a shift in Cracker Jack's marketing strategies, brought a close to the company's two-year-old baseball card venture. While they lasted, the productions revealed a cardmaker's art at its finest, and the second, most-refined of Cracker Jack's vaunted pair – the 1915 edition – has been revered ever since as a classic release holding undisputed "all-time" status.