Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.
I don’t care if I never get back.
And it’s pretty much the same way for Ken Carpenter of Chandler who has carried numerous boxes or bags of the caramel corn confectionery on his back or belly for 14 baseball seasons — a vending tradition he started on March 31, 1998 — when Chase Field opened as Bank One Ballpark for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Most home games, Ken, 65, goes up and down concrete stairs, along aisles, between sections throughout the ballpark, toting his wares for Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, which sells treats at Chase and six other ballparks across the nation, including Cracker Jack, which is marking its 100th anniversary of providing a “prize” in every box or bag.
But little did Ken know that when the 2012 baseball season started, Cracker Jack would be marking the milestone of providing a prize in every box or bag that he sells to the fans — $5 for a seven-ounce bag that he describes as “sweet popcorn.”
In all, Cracker Jack has given away more than 23 billion prizes in a century, all manufactured in America, and produces 16 million pounds of the molasses-coated popcorn annually which it mostly supplies to baseball stadiums and convenience stores throughout the United States, according to Alexia Allina, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division, the famed potato chip company based in Plano, Tex.
As Ken was putting on his vendor’s strap and loading it with six bags of Cracker Jack just for starters at the D-Backs game on Monday, he confessed: “I eat Cracker Jack. I remember it from my childhood. My grandfather used to bring it home from Mayfair, a grocery store where he worked as a cashier. I remember getting a race car one time, and of course, the rings. After I sell someone a bag of Cracker Jack, I sometimes walk back past the person and ask them, ‘Hey, did ya get a good prize?’ And they say, ‘Hey, I got the diamond ring’.”
Ken, who grew up in San Jose, Calif., as a San Francisco Giants fan rooting for players such as Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, also confessed that the Diamondbacks are his “second favorite” team and being a vendor is all for the love of the game.
“It’s a nice part-time job, and it’s good money,” added Ken, who said he sells anywhere from between three to 18 bags of Cracker Jack each game in addition to other treats he promotes throughout the park. “And I love baseball. I get to see all the games. I’ve also seen a World Series, an All-Star Game and numerous playoff games. It’s fun interacting with people. Being a vendor is good cardio exercise, too.”
Ken, whose daughter also has worked as a vendor at Chase for the last two years enroute to starting her career as a schoolteacher this upcoming school year, said of Cracker Jack, “It’s something for the kids. They get excited knowing they’re going to get a prize in the bag.”
And despite me being a baseball fan and knowing that songwriter Jack Norworth’s ballad, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” promotes the treat in the third line, little did I know how old Cracker Jack was until I went “back home” to Ohio last month for a vacation that included a trip to the COSI (the Columbus, Ohio Science Institute) with my family.
It was there that I saw Frito-Lay’s impressive and enormous exhibit of Cracker Jack history — and thousands of toys and prizes that have been included in boxes of the snack since 1912. The early prizes were metal toys and baseball cards of the greats during the early 1900s such as Ty Cobb and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, which are worth thousands of dollars today. Later on, prizes included metal whistles with the logo of Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, that first was introduced on boxes of the Cracker Jack in 1918. The whistles and other prizes such as de-coder rings, magnifying glasses and animals with moving parts later were made of plastic.
Cracker Jack was introduced in 1893 by Frederick William Rueckheim at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s first world’s fair. He and his brother, Louis, later concocted a secret recipe so the pieces of popcorn wouldn’t stick together, and the rest is history.
Now, the prizes such as educational or fun-fact puzzles and pencil toppers, are made of paper, leaving some to wonder as to whether the good old toys have gone to the wayside.
Spokeswoman Allina said she currently has not received any details on whether Frito-Lay will do anything special to mark the 100th anniversary of prizes in Cracker Jack or if anything special is in the works for Cracker Jack’s 120th anniversary year in 2013.
Cracker Jack has been owned and made by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division since 1997, the year it purchased it from the Columbus, Ohio-based Borden Co., which had purchased the Cracker Jack Co. from the Rueckheim family in 1964. Frito-Lay now manufactures Cracker Jack at a facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., Allina said.
Kelly Dugan, the vending manager for Levy Restaurants at Chase Field, is at least a generation removed from vendor Ken — but said he remembers getting rub-on tattoos in boxes of Cracker Jack.
However, Dugan said that Cracker Jack is not the big seller it once was, as just 10,000 bags of it are sold at Chase each season and bags of peanuts remain the ballpark’s top selling snack.
“It’s more of a novelty item and sold because of tradition,” Dugan said. “But hey, as long as it moves, we’ll sell it. After all, it’s fat free.”
Vendor Ken said, “You’d be amazed at how many adults buy it. I don’t see too many kids eating it. I guess it’s more of a nostalgic thing.”
However, in a matter of seconds during the D-Backs game on Monday, Ken sold the first bag of Cracker Jack of the night to Antonio Bello of Phoenix, who was at the game with his mother, Cristina, celebrating his 4th birthday.
And as Antonio began munching on his Cracker Jack, it looked as though he, too, didn’t care if he never got back.
Ahhh. There is hope for the future.
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