Book Review: The Cracker Jack Collection

The Cracker Jack Collection: Baseball’s Prized Players
By Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala
Peter E. Randall, 2013
List Price: $30

Fans of sweets have been devouring Cracker Jacks for more than a century—and digging through the caramel-coated popcorn for the prize at the bottom of the box for nearly as long. That marketing touch came about in the early 1900s. The confection, immortalized in baseball’s seventh-inning singalong around that time, etched a further place in the sport’s history when it expanded its prize line to include a set of 144 baseball player cards in 1914. The effort was such a hit it was expanded to 176 cards the following year.

CrackerJackWhile hobbyists typically regard baseball’s big three collections as the 1909-11 T206 tobacco set, 1933 Goudey, and 1952 Topps, the 1914-15 Cracker Jack set belongs in the discussion of cardboard royalty. The bold red backgrounds and beautiful artwork give the cards a distinct and striking look. And then there are the players, including dozens of the game’s all-time greats, such as Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Joe Jackson, and Walter Johnson. With so many legends it’s easy to understand the set’s appeal to collectors.

One notable omission from the series: Babe Ruth, who broke in as a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1914. Had Cracker Jack found a place for him in its second run this set would undoubtedly be an even costlier one to complete. As it stands, his first appearance on cardboard as a big leaguer came in a release put out by the Sporting News in 1916.

Tom and Ellen Zappala, who previously brought the T206 collection to life in coffee table book format, have turned their attention now to the Cracker Jack offering. The cards—all originals, no reproductions were photographed for the book—pop off the pages in chapters organized by position. The best of the best, however, were assembled into an all-star team selected by the authors.

Their squad of Cracker Jack All-Stars: 1B Jake Daubert; 2B Eddie Collins; 3B Home Run Baker; SS Honus Wagner; OF Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson; C Roger Bresnahan; P Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Pete Alexander, and Eddie Plank. That lineup would win you a few games.

As with the rest of the players, each honoree is accompanied by a short biography, discussing his contributions to the game as well as what he did after retirement, if known. Most of the writeups are mildly simplistic and have a habit of repeating nicknames multiple times, i.e., “Gettysburg Eddie” appearing three times within the Plank bio. Some of them are a bit over the top. For example, “Chick Gandil, like Hal Chase, almost ruined the game.” And “In our opinion, John “Stuffy” McInnis should be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown should take a hard look at this guy.”

Even those whose credentials couldn’t be sold quite as enthusiastically get some love here. “All in all, Doc Johnston had a career that he could be proud of, and was a solid contributor to our National Pastime. He is what we refer to as a gamer, and a credit to any team.” It makes it sound as though his mother could be truly proud of his accomplishments, despite him being a replacement-level player for most of his career.

Certainly most readers will be more drawn to the cards than the player stories, but one can only imagine how this project might have come together had the biographies been penned by the excellent team that wrote Nebraska Press’ two-volume Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900. It would be an absolute Cracker Jack. As it is, it’s still a beautiful book and a fantastic leaping off point for a journey back 100 years to the deadball era and the early days of card collecting.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

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