This Long Grove History article by Aaron Underwood appeared in the June, 2014 issue of Long Grove Living magazine.
In this crackerjack of an article, I’ll explore a popular turn of the century pastime known as “town ball”. It was baseball, and pitted one town against a neighboring town. There were specific rules that governed residency so as to keep towns from hiring “out of town” professionals to bolster their squad and to make sure the players were truly “town folk”. Like many small towns at the time, Long Grove fielded a team – known as the Long Grove Crackerjacks. Newspapers of the day report results of games against Palatine and Lake Zurich. They seemed to have been competitive – I find reports of about as many wins as losses.
The photo is from circa 1908. By the looks of it, they certainly were attempting some level of professionalism, though clearly a few of them didn’t see the email about bringing your hat for team photo day.
It’s not really known why they called themselves the Crackerjacks, though I’ll explore a couple of ideas. What’s a Crackerjack or a cracker jack thing? Ignoring the popcorn based candy you’re probably all familiar with for a minute, the phrase was a colloquialism meaning “excellent” or “of high quality”. For example, an accomplished pianist, might be referred to as “a real cracker jack piano player”. In name the team, The Crackerjacks, they could have been simply referring to their high level of baseball skill. But the candy was enjoying great popularity at that time, so the name probably had a bit of a double meaning.
Up until 1893, popcorn was cooked in a wire basket over an open flame. While the result was healthy, it was unevenly cooked and pretty dry. A Chicago entrepreneur, Charles Cretor, solved these two issues, albeit with a likely health downgrade, when he came up with a machine that would cook the popcorn in clarified butter, lard, and salt. Another Chicago entrepreneur, German immigrant F.W. Rueckheim, did him one better, when he took Cretor’s popcorn and mixed it with Molasses and peanuts. He christened his concoction with the snappy name “Candy Coated Popcorn”. Both entrepreneur’s pushed their creations at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and popcorn went mainstream.
But the “Candy Coated Popcorn” wasn’t perfect – it was sticky and tended to clump together. Rueckheim’s brother Louis, fixed this by adding an oil to the molasses. It seems that the food inventor’s motto of the day seemed to be when in doubt add more oil or sugar. It worked – when the new formula was tested, an excited salesman is purported to have exclaimed, “Why that’s Cracker Jack”. While he simply meant that the new formula was excellent, the old colloquialism had just become a product name.
The popular candy was frequently sold at large gatherings, such as baseball games. The connection with baseball was immortalized in 1908, with a line from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” – “By me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…”.
By the 1920’s Long Grove’s Baseball team had a new name – the Long Grove Lancers – that’s a story for another day…