By Tim Bean
Since 2016, Cracker Jack has not included a prize, breaking a tradition that began in 1912. That’s right. The striped package with a saluting Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo now ONLY contains the caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts.
For those that didn’t this know yet, let’s take a moment to mourn your lost childhood.
For Americans of a certain age, Cracker Jack is a snack treat of monumental importance. Everything about it was unique. The Sailor Jack and Bingo mascots. The barber pole stripes. The cardboard box, which kept Cracker Jack dry, fresh, and delicious.
In 1907, America’s favorite junk food and America’s favorite pastime became forever united in the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a song still belted out in the 7th inning stretch and including the line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…“
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For most kids, the snack and box meant next to nothing compared to Toy Surprise Inside! Prize Inside! or New Prize Inside! (it changed several times). Children marked a rite of passage by ripping open the box, peering inside, shaking it from side to side, and finally spotting that paper envelope.
Cracker Jack contained thousands of different toy prizes in its 124-year history. Prior to World War II, the Chicago-based Cracker Jack Company included small metal toys as prizes, made by the same company that produced Monopoly pieces. In 1946, the invention of injection molding displaced metal toys, but kids didn’t complain.
Although small and inexpensive, the toy prizes were still toy prizes, and they remained unchanged until 1997, when Frito-Lay purchased the brand from Borden (which had purchased the original Cracker Jack Company in 1964). Frito-Lay inserted mostly mini-pamphlets with riddles and jokes, a temporary tattoo, or, after 2013, a QR code for a mobile phone game.
A QR code? That one really hurts. In 70 years, the company went from colorful plastic bombers and whistles to a code printed on the box’s interior.
Cracker Jack didn’t offer a clear answer for this dramatic change, much like the cereal companies that pulled their toy prizes around the same time. Press releases presented only the same upbeat PR chatter. Some statements hinted that “in-depth research” prompted the change, but not one brand, Cracker Jack included, offered up this research
“The Cracker Jack Prize Inside has been as much a part of the nostalgia and love for the brand as the unforgettable combination of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts,” said Haston Lewis, senior director of marketing, Frito-Lay. “The new Prize Inside allows families to enjoy their favorite baseball moments through a new one-of-a-kind mobile experience, leveraging digital technology to bring the iconic Prize Inside to life.”
The Cracker Jack Prize Inside Arcade is an ambitious (and a little underhanded) way to both milk consumer nostalgia and distract us from the missing toy by offering visitors four online games for free. Maybe Cracker Jack deserves a little sympathy, since the brand is trying to appeal to literally every generation.
Since companies have kept quiet, the American public can only rely on educated guesses for the missing toys. One theory: In 1988 several companies decided the some included toys could pose a choking hazard for inattentive kids. These companies either placed the toys between the box and bag (not an option for Cracker Jack), or removed the toy all together.
Another theory has some hard evidence to back it up. In a 2014 study, a media research firm discovered that among children 12 years and younger, the touchscreen was the most preferred “toy.” Preferred over dolls, action figures, Legos, crayons, and even video game consoles. Based on that information, making the switch from physical to online toys seems logical. Heartbreakingly logical.
Today, our Cracker Jack nostalgia is big business. Collections of these prizes from the brand’s different eras can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. A collection of Cracker Jack necklace charms from the 1980s can net a seller over $200. A mint 1915 Ty Cobb card, a prize included in the early years of the snack, sells today for $350,000.
Luckily, the snack itself hasn’t changed much in the last century, and Cracker Jack will always be associated with our national sport, thanks to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It seems no mobile game can rival the excitement of searching for that toy prize, no matter how trivial.